1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation: Manning explores time and the woman at Manbites Dog

This review was first published by The Independent Weekly, online at http://www.indyweek.com, on June 21, 2012. You can access it here, or read on.

All art is to some degree autobiographical. Any creation tells us something about its creator. But some art is more explicit, depicting or revealing the artist as she sees herself, or in the case of Killian Manning’s new work, exploring the milieu that shaped her.

Manning was born in 1956; she is 56 this year. Her age makes looking back and taking stock almost inevitable, and the numerology makes the undertaking feels cosmic and lucky. In her 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, she explains and—yes—celebrates herself by animating a cast of famous 50s characters, and her mother. In fact, the dance-theater work can also be taken as an extended love letter to her mother. At her daughter’s insistence, Cathy Manning joined the cast for their bows in Manbites Dog Theater on June 20, shifting her feet in the same signature movement that Killian gave character Cathy on stage. 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, which runs through June 24, is the final show in MDT’s Other Voices series for 2012.

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg portrayed by Derrick Ivey. Photo by Eric Waters.

And there are voices in this dance. In fact, the dance feels secondary to the theatrical exposition (it is not a drama). After a little introduction, Manning parades her characters onto the stage one by one, and each does a little movement riff by which we shall know them. Manning has chosen these people to represent an imagined zeitgeist of her natal year (and beyond), but it is as interesting to think about who’s not there as who is. The only dance artist included is ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Not, for instance, modern dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, who was certainly making news in 1956. Grace Kelly gets a role, for making the transition from actress to princess, but Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar that year for her work, goes unmentioned. The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gives what you could call the keynote speech (Derrick Ivey, reciting from Howl, in the show’s most gripping moments), but there’s no equivalent musical giant like Charles Mingus, who released the amazing Pithecanthropus Erectus album that year. Instead, there’s the young Elvis and his new release, “Hound Dog.” The point is not that Manning’s choices are wrong in any way, but that this is her version of her 1956. She has shaped it to fit the woman she has become.

Jonathan Leinbach as Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo by Eric Waters.

Manning mixes straight biography with a soft-edged magical realism, some of it quite charming, as when President Eisenhower dances and chats with Cathy Manning, or when J.S. Bach appears to her for a long conversation, in which he explains that Killian really is musical, it just all comes out in the dances. There are a number of pleasant and enjoyable dance sequences in this work, but none of them are special, not even Margot Fonteyn’s (and really, she should have been wearing pointe shoes) or the well-conceived duet between Bach (Jonathan Leinbach) and Glenn Gould (Matthew Young). Most of the cast are not advanced dancers (a fact all too obvious during ADF season), and even if they were, they would still be contending with the concrete floor—it is no wonder if there is a slow tentativeness to their movement. Some of this may have been purposeful, to enhance the dreamy magical quality, but it made for a lack of brio.

As interesting as her idea is, it is not quite adequate to carry the production. I admire Manning for keeping on keeping on making new work. But this show points up how difficult that must be, what with a full-time job, few dedicated funds, no foot-friendly theater space, etc.

There is just not enough time or money to take it all the way. No aspect of the show is fully thought-out. For instance, two media screens hover in the background, showing pictures from 1956. For them to have been really effective, Manning would have needed many more images, a flowing river of images, not a short repeating cycle. The script would have benefitted from a little ruthless cutting—I never could figure out what Diane Arbus was doing in there, and her actor, the unflappable Marcia Edmundson, seemed equally at a loss. Marilyn Monroe didn’t seem too sure about what she was doing, either, and that’s out of character for actor J Evarts. The sound was not exploited for emotion, but stayed quite even in volume and texture throughout. I longed for it to thunder out while Bach and Gould danced their duel, and I really longed for Manning herself to project some volume during her speeches.

For all its unevenness and lack of kinetic glory, 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation is still an enjoyable evening. It is good to look back, and see how far away we are not from the times that formed us.

Keigwin + Company: A city’s worth of energy in Reynolds Theater as ADF continues

A Keigwin + Company dancer, gorgeously kinetic. Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of ADF.

Larry Keigwin could probably power an entire city with the energy generated and released during his dances, five of which comprise the program for Keigwin + Company’s three-night run in Reynolds Theater as the American Dance Festival continues. For Tuesday’s opener, the theater was well-filled with ADF students, whose enthusiasm gave energy for energy, and raised the already high sound level. Keigwin has a penchant for loud music with a driving beat; occasionally the thought occurs that it could drive one right out of the theater.

The program opens with 12 Chairs, from 2012. Its dozen dancers, working with folding chairs, display clearly Keigwin’s continuing interest in patterned repetition, as does the music, Flexus, by Jonathan Melville Pratt. The dancers, with magnificent physiques and skills to match, wear casual work-out clothes, mostly drab, with the exception of three bright red clothing items. The red bits highlight the shifting patterns and alliances in a very interesting way. Although this is not a musical chairs game, where one player will be left out at the end, still it embodies much competition. I found its combination of aggression and ennui distasteful, and did not see anything really fresh in the choreography. At this point, I’ve seen quite a few pieces in which the dancers hop up on folding chairs, proving their aim, balance and confidence in their own invincibility.

Trio (2011) powers on with more relentless beats and repeating phrases (No. 6 for Piano, Marimba, Cello, Violin, by Adam Crystal), and with fewer dancers and much more uncluttered space, both their grace and Keigwin’s concerns are clearer. Trio depends on one of Keigwin’s tropes I find particularly irritating—whiplash fast reversals. Seldom does he allow a long flowing sequence in one direction. Still, he does build segments out of these self-mirroring bits, and these sometimes repeat in reverse, which is much more intriguing. There is a great deal of walking or running circles, but there is also some great dancing in Trio: beautiful, daring weight transfers as energy flow is reversed; some very fine spins and lifts. Oddly, although the two men were near her size and she was clearly equal to the task, never did the female dancer lift either of the males on Tuesday night.

Natural Selection, which the ADF commissioned in 2004, is set to yet more driving music, Weather One, by Michael Gordon. Long-time festival-goers may remember this work: it was the subject of an adulatory feature by former News & Observer dance critic Linda Belans, before in premiered in Reynolds in 2004. She was very taken by Keigwin’s use of the back wall: he deepens the stage space by removing all the back drops, and allows for movement up the wall in a novel way. But before we see that, we get a parade of arm-swinging Neanderthals, and a great deal of aggressive, even angry, chasing, grabbing, throwing (many bodies hit the floor), flinging and dragging, set to music raging hard and fast, loud and louder. Eventually, the dancers form and travel through a tunnel of time extending across the downstage floor. She who successfully evolves walks upright, if sideways, across the back wall after climbing over all her companions.

A new work commissioned by the ADF this year opens the program’s second half. Contact Sport features four male dancers in white shirts, ties, and snug gray pants or shorts. I thought they were prep school boys, but they are meant to be brothers. The quick-reversing patterns continue, along a theme-line of adolescent physical gags and rough-housing, but the music is a surprise—a medley of wonderful old songs, sung by Eartha Kitt in her wise old voice. The pairing of that experienced voice and the youth of the characters is delicious.

As you may have gathered, Keigwin is not my favorite choreographer. He irritates me, so I’m always looking for a nice big pearl as the pay-off. The night’s final offering paid up. First of all, Megalopolis (2009) is set to music that doesn’t beat you up: Steve Reich’s Sextet—Six Marimbas, along with excerpts from MIA’s World Town and XR2. Reich’s music is of course made of repeating patterns, but it doesn’t turn on itself, instead going on in long marches toward infinity. The dance in Megalopolis does the same, and without the jitter and fracture, gorgeousness appears. The dozen dancers are clothed here in outrageous black or silver bodysuits (by Fritz Masten) sparkling with swathes of crystals. Some have insect wing-like additions on the shoulders, some have thick stripes of sparkle down their backs or across their chests. As the sleek creatures criss-cross the stage, vamping and waving their antennae, you may giggle with delight.

Powerful Petronio at ADF

If, like me, you have been waiting and waiting for the Stephen Petronio Company  to appear at the American Dance Festival , wait no more. They are here, for one more night at the DPAC. It’s a dangerous thing to say so early in the festival, but this one’s a standout. For any modern dance fan who loves balletic style, the Stephen Petronio Company offers an ecstatic experience.

Underland, the single, 60-minute work on the program, is both all a person can handle and not nearly enough.


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