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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Dance Works 2014: Hot Buttons

Or: There, but for the grace of grace, goes my chair

Passé by Sarah Edgar

We begin in stately fashion: a harpsechord player and a violinist (Sun Chang and Danika Pskvna) in sumptuous 18th century costume pluck out the strains of “Les Folies d’Espangne” by Marin Marals, while six ladies in sheer skirts and paniers (those basket-like hip extensions) promenade, practicing their footwork, kissing their hands, making small obedience's and generally behaving like ladies. A reciter (Amelia Bell) frequently steps forward to smilingly quote choicer passages from dancing books of the day, noting the precise quality of actions and the social reasons for them, with a great deal of refined pleasure at directness of the literature.*

However amidst the promenading and the elegant legs, the ladies frequently erupt into modern interpretive dance steps and motions, flopping and reaching and snaking about, adding fist bumps and jazz fingers to the hand kissing, even engaging in a game of freeze tag. According to the program, these in-congruencies are meant to show the private body rebelling against the smothering varnish of etiquette and manners imposed upon women in that time and this. It’s a solid principal but the effect is spoiled as the ladies seem to have just as much fun extending their pinkies for teatime as communicating by hand signals that they wish us all to “rock on”. Politics aside its charmingly humorous and a fair introduction to an evening of clashing styles and general grace.

*Warning, the pleasure comes at savoring the snippy tone and foul eighteenth century language. Things don’t get worse, only different.

Second Chance by Laura Wade.

No idea what to make of this one, though it was very impressive. Set to the Glitch Mob’s “Animus Vox” the dancers stretched themselves to the vary limits of human flexibility and strength through a variety of lifts, contortions, leaps and Hee-hee-I’m-invisible-prancey-dances. I thought a story was being informed on the lines of Grossman’s The Magicians: a group of youngsters, testing the full limits of the abilities, uncontrolled and loving it.

And then the same lifts, contortions, leaps and prancy-dances were applied “Sonata in A Minor” by Domencico Scarlatti. The story (and perhaps I look for stories closer than I should) vanished and all that was left was a tongue in cheek second look at how dance styles adapt to different rhythms and different times. I hope none of the performers get hurt; telling or not, they made excellent use of their forms.

Reflection by Joel Valentin-Martinez

A tribute to those women caught up in a cycle of violence and repression across world culture, Reflection is a thoughtful and innovative but slow number set to John Tavener’s “The Protecting Veil”. Four women dressed in colorful fashions hurry across the stage bound hand to hand or foot to foot or sometimes hand to foot by multicolored veils. Each trying to freely move but impeded by their cloth shackles in manners both humorous and pitiable. The story moves well from oppression to liberation to self sovereignty but has too few beats in between to really carry our attention. A little more carving in the rehearsal hall and it will be ready to make hearts bleed.

4. Impolite Society by Jeffery Hancock (revived from the 2009 exhibition)

Now this was strange and superb. As before we get to see the higher brows behaving badly, and still being more poised than you or I can ever hope to be. Dressed in black, seven society members meander about like pleasure yachts, lightly slapping, joshing, and gossiping together and occasional turning into whirling mobiuses of black silk and effortless skill.

Trying to keep up with the fast paced steps of society, giving the dreaded “glance askance” the seven bring on chairs and a strange series of games begin: status games anyone can recognize, games of politeness and ruthless will. While the ladies spin about trying to execute the most perfect feats of elegance (or perhaps impale themselves on their chairs, its hard to tell) the gentlemen, getting into a tussle over who has the firmer , more honest handshake go off to a corner to strip and play thumb wrestle with their bodies. And then the chairs start moving off the stage of their own free will. It is wild and “trippy” and hilarious, showing not only superior skill of the performers but also very clearly defined characters and intentions. I hope that the company will see fit to revive the performance in years to come.

5. White Light Motif by Lizzie Leopold.

Now, unfortunately, this one truly belongs to Lindsey Lyddan the lighting designer. Oh the dancing is wonderful, the three performers swimming in and out of each other to the snap and crackle of “Terrycloth Troposphere”, but their pulsating will-o-the-whisp tunics of christmas lights against shifting backgrounds of sun bright to night dark, flipping the dancers from the only visible features to black figures against a great sweep of sky, makes us wonder more at the power of electricity than biomechanics. Not to see that the performers don’t do good jobs setting up lifts and catches and aborting them, bearing each other back against the current, and generally setting each other up for picaresque failure. It’s that Lyddan keeps jerking our attention off them.

6. The Woman Inside by Amanda Exley Lower

Now off all the excellent pieces I saw tonight, I hate to confess it, but this was my favorite. Elegant, sumptuous, and disturbing, this piece has it all. We begin with an angel (Composer and Concert Violinist Bryce O’Tierney) reading a book and summoning great heroines from literature folklore and world mythology to act out their private stories. I couldn’t name them all for you but could point out a few, each draped in the robes of her story: Sita with her righteousness, Anna Karenina with her self assurance, Pandora with her box.

Setting down her collection of stories O’Tierney summons from the flies a collection of gorgeous black dresses. The women happily shrug off their antics, and their period dresses and slip into a variety of elegant black numbers. Then to O’Tierneys accompaniment they fly about the stage singing the sweet and sad “End of the World” by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee, glad to be free of the weight of their implacable destinies, and free to please themselves. And then the terror sets in. O’Tierney summons a second collection of dresses, this time in white, from the flies and launches into “Undone”, her own composition. The storied woman are at once driven to distraction, searching for something lost, surrendering to something horrible, pushed and pulled and never able to rest, as they are drawn about and about by the melodious strings and the serene cruelty of their maestro. And once her song is done, and her collections back in line, O’Tierney puts down her violin, puts on her wings and begins sets each creation back into their story, making each solitary narrative perfect, before leaving them to dance into the dark. Am I reading too much into this, layering too many of my own pretexts? Quite possibly. But that doesn’t deny that it was beautiful sad, and stimulating to the eye the ear and the imagination. Bravo.

Dear Torvald, Love Nora by Emma Draves

I find the eponymous reference to Ibsen’s Dollhouse, the belittled Nora and the patronizing husband who treated her like a child, humorous in the extreme. There is nothing belittled or childish about Draves’s collection of liberated, luxuriant women. It’s quite the mental picture to see Nora don lycra pants and electrical tape and join the sisterhood. The dances begin as series of small sinuous movements among the group, picked up and copied by some shunned by others, each shoulder roll or finger curl, fully self licensed and meant to set the world back a pace. These group expressions become more reverent, blending with some unidentified song, with the air of an ancient celtic song drifting up from old firths or perhaps a pre-Christian discotech. Then, after some ritual stomping the ensemble begins the last assail of our senses that evening with “Riot Rythem” by Sleigh Bells, with sleek extensions that still manage to convey the sense of a thrashing march; the complete opposite of the demure rebellion that began the show.

While it may not be “pushing buttons” this years dance works is admirably conscious of injustices, knowledgeable of new and old forms, and for the most part has some splendid stories to tell through song, dance, and self-animate chairs. I highly recommend popping by and seeing what you can glean from this collection of intelligent minds and nimble feet.

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