- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

Not since Bob Fosse's "Dancin'" have we seen such an exuberant, stirring and razzle-dazzle evening of pure dance as "Contact," directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman and written by John Weidman.
The show does what good dance ought to do: It tells a story, awakens the most surprising emotions and rebaptizes us in the wonder of the capabilities of the human body.
Now that we have just experienced the 2002 Winter Olympics, our eyes have been focused on extraordinary feats performed by exquisitely trained athletes. "Contact" takes this one step further with its combination of athletic skill and balletic emotion.
"Contact" also contains a great deal of sensuality, which gradually builds until a few cathartic "woooo-hoooos" are heard during the climactic second act.
The show consists of three dance pieces, which are actually short stories told in movement. The first is titled "Swinging" and is based on a 1768 painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard of a fancily dressed damsel being pushed on a swing by a male servant while her dandy lover looks delightedly up at her from the ground. The number is set to the music of violinist Stephane Grappelli's version of Rodgers and Hart's "My Heart Stood Still."
Miss Stroman and Mr. Weidman delve into the painting's not-so-pastel subtext. The Lady (Mindy Franzese Wild), bedecked in ribbons, frills and a pretty bonnet, looks the picture of girlish exuberance as she kicks her white-stockinged legs into the air when she is pushed skyward. The aristocrat (Dan Sutcliffe) is, to say the least, admiring the view.
It is all light, bucolic and flirty until the Lady sends her swain away for another bottle of wine. With the fop out of the way, the Lady and the servant (Keith Kuhl) perform cheerfully erotic acrobatics on the swing that would give the Wallendas pause. Miss Stoman's mischievous side surfaces when the aristocrat returns and a cunning bit of role reversal takes place. The three dancers give "swinging" a more subtle and rococo meaning with the sly perfection and knowing quality of their movements.
Next up is "Did You Move?" It's a heartbreaking variation on the Walter Mitty escapist fantasy set in an Italian restaurant in Queens in the 1950s.
The Wife (Meg Howrey), spiffy in her blue chiffon dress, is eager and edgy that this dinner happen without incident. The Husband (Adam Dannheisser), a Mafia man with a short fuse, makes that impossible. Husband is an abusive beast, as he bullies, bellows and makes his wife cower into her plate.
It is a relief when he visits the buffet table. The Wife, stiffly smiling an "all is well" expression to other happy diners and the aghast wait staff, revels in these stolen moments alone. During his absence, she literally plunges into dream ballets set to the dizzying music of Georges Bizet, Edvard Grieg and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. In these feverish, "The Red Shoes"-style ballets, the Wife is carried away by high-colored revenge and romance fantasies. The wait staff, including the gallant Headwaiter (Gary Franco), become her "danseur nobles," supporting her through liberating lifts and arabesques.
Mr. Dannheisser makes a violent impression in the brief moments he is onstage, yet the dance belongs to Miss Howrey, who evokes a young Shirley MacLaine in her combination of wrenching vulnerability, comedic quirkiness and lithe physicality. When the husband comes back for one final terrorizing act, we see her shoulders crumple as she breaks into sobs, almost seeming like "Petrouska" in her aching, tears-of-a-clown sadness.
The third piece is the most notorious, "The Girl in the Yellow Dress," featuring the most staggering entrance since Cyd Charisse in her green costume in "Singin' in the Rain." The Girl (Holly Cruikshank) is a long-limbed, classy beauty who makes sauntering an art form.
She strides into an after-hours swing dance club and gives a suicidal, successful advertising executive, Michael Wiley (Lee Mark Nelson), a reason to live. First, a little back story: Michael has just won his fifth Clio award and instead of joining in the celebration with his office, he just feels empty.
The staccato blurps of his voice mail just increase his desolation. In feats of gently comedic acting-dancing, he stomps around his minimalist apartment and tries to kill himself with pills, by jumping out the window and, finally, by hanging himself with the curtain cord.
Michael finds himself plunged into the nervy, sexy underground world of the hidden dance club, where, as the Bartender (Mr. Dannheisser again, in a performance that shows his acting strengths) explains that "people don't talk about themselves much. They just dance."
Boy, do they. Swirling and sidling to the music of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bobby Darin, the Beach Boys and Robert Palmer, the dancers lose whatever demons are chasing them in the rhythm the joyous forgetting that movement can allow.
The Girl in the Yellow Dress is more than just a siren. Sure, she is the best dancer in the place, but she also has the ability to transform someone's life, just this once, if she chooses you as her dance partner. She picks Michael, but there is just one problem: He can't dance.
Mr. Nelson's attempts to acquire grace in a jiffy will captivate anyone who has tried to impress someone on the dance floor but winds up performing some variation on the white-man suburban shuffle. He and Miss Chuikshank are ideal partners opposites in every way, but somehow they bring out the best in each other.
"Contact" is an unusual night of dance. It does not offer gossamer escape, but it does reiterate how glorious and river-deep dance can be.

*** 1/2
WHAT: "Contact"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 16
WHERE: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
TICKETS: $35 to $75
PHONE: 800/447-7400 or www.telecharge.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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