ADF: Story Fragments

The American Dance Festival has been a little short of dancing so far this year, and although it is composed of movement, the current program by Beth Gill, Brand New Sidewalk, doesn’t remedy that lack of dancing. The tri-partite program repeats Thursday, June 29 in Reynolds.

I had very much admired Gill’s dance Footprints, in last year’s Footprints program, and the same elegant, poetic aesthetic is at work in the new piece, but…it…is..so…slow. (Not deliciously, intensely, slow, like Eiko–just slow.) The imagery/symbology/indications of narrative are at once too clear and too obscure, and the tension this causes is aggravated by the sound score, which contains sounds like distant, prolonged ringing combined with the ugly urban huffing of giant chillers and HVAC systems.

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From the first section of Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk, at ADF in Reynolds Theater, 6/28/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Brand New Sidewalk is composed like a triptych, and seemingly modeled after altar triptychs, in which the central panel is much larger (longer) and concerns some aspect of devotion, while the side panels may concern some act of a saint, or depict another transformative teaching moment from a religious story.  Brand New Sidewalk begins with a single figure on a pale fabric covered stage–the figure is very bulky in a silver garment such as might be worn by an astronaut, a polar explorer, an outdoor laborer, or a homeless person. Eventually the figure moves, sinking to the ground. After a while, it begins unzipping its coverall and removing layers.

There are many layers, in bright saturated colors, and the garments are very stretchy, allowing cool shape-making, à la Martha Graham. One thinks of various kinds of metamorphosis and growth; pupation, cocoons splitting, snakes shedding–but the image of the homeless person both protected and hindered by layered clothing remained, and seemed to be reinforced by a little bit of scurrying around on the part of the performer (after she’d gotten stripped down to one or two tops and pants that looked like they’d been made out of garbage bags), during which she snatched and hoarded invisible items off the stage floor, like a street person picking up cast-off cigarettes that might have a puff or two left.

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From the central section of Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk, performed 6/28/17 in Reynolds Theater as part of ADF. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

After a longish pause, the curtain rose again–this time the floor was a glowing green. Two dancers in cropped pants, loose tunics and close-fitting headcoverings, all white, moved (slowly) through a series of repeating phrases that all seemed to do with worship, prayer, meditation. There were moments of almost-dancing; the soundscape even expanded to include some music. The gestures, the motions, the space between the bodies, were all very beautiful, in a distant sort of way. The piece’s internal structure, however, was not strong enough to support its temporal span.

After another long pause during which the green floor was removed, the second wing of the triptych returned to the theme of stripping, peeling or merely sloughing off external layers. In this case, the layers were more like swathes of gauze bandages. The bodysuit under all the shreds was a stunningly ugly color, and the woman’s movement was strangely choppy and disoriented. Perhaps she was a newly unwrapped plastic surgery patient; maybe there was no human under there, just a mannequin. By that time, all I really cared about was getting out from under the throbbing headache induced by that depressing noise soundscape. At least there was no talking.


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Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. perform Interleaving at ADF in Reynolds Theater, June 23, 2017. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

There was some fine dancing–talk-free, too!–last week, when Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. presented Interleaving. For this piece, Young split four of his earlier dances into thirds, and combined them: all the beginnings, all the middles, all the ends. The dancers and the costumes were different for each original dance, so in theory you could tell which was which, although I think that if you hadn’t had the information on this cut-and-paste, you would have simply seen one dance with four story lines crossing. Either the music for each piece had been very similar, or the music (Wayne Horvitz) had been reworked, because there were no startling sonic changes.

When I first read about Interleaving, I thought it said all four dances were to be performed simultaneously, which would have been quite something, but perhaps a little too much like real life. Young achieved a little bit of simultaneity, overlapping some of the sections, but never all four at once. As it was, with the segments grouped by life-period, I came over and over to the idea of a group of friends, growing up together, and also looking back on their stacked and linked lives, lives that in all their parts and eras have made a community of them and their shared stories.

The choreography had a clarity, and a humanistic quality that illuminated its deceptively simple steps and designs, and there was some heart-lifting dancing. Several minutes in, I realized I was holding myself aloof from it because the flow was going to get interrupted, and I didn’t know whether there would also be talking. But once the segments had cycled through the beginning phase, I realized–it’s a dance! and gave myself over to the joy of it.

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Gabrielle Revlock and Darrin Wright, both former ADF students, dance in Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co.’s performance of Interleaving in Reynolds Theater, 6/23/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Gabrielle Revlock (she of the charming hoop dancing last year) stood out among the dancers for her joie de vivre, but every one of them exhibited the balance and precision, the elasticity and quickness, of Cunningham dancers (and many have been; some are now teaching Cunningham technique). Despite being made of bits, Interleaving was clean and uncluttered by verbal agendas. Dance theater is all very well, but it simply can’t salve the sore soul like pure dancing can, with its non-verbal tinctures and spells.

The Dance Cure opened for Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co., and performed Natalie Marrone’s Thresh, another short story well-told without words. Marrone draws heavily on her southern Italian ancestral background and its “vernacular” dances. In this piece, she also utilized the repeated agrarian motions that formed the bodies, and the time-sense of her wheat-farming grandfather and his community. Using the economical repetitive movement language of scythe, thresh, winnow, bale, bag and drag, dancers Lucas Melfi and Rachael Mehaffey beautifully communicated the elemental struggles of farming, its simple grandeur and its plain hard work, while Marrone’s staging conveyed their smallness against the scale of the land (excellent lighting by Ross Kolman). All the rhythms of work have been put to work dancing.  At ten minutes long, Thresh felt complete, but I was sorry to see it end, and hope it will become one dynamic chapter in a much longer dance.

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Rachael Mehaffey and Lucas Melfi in Natalie Marrone’s Thresh, at ADF in Reynolds Theater on campus, Jun. 23, 2017. Photo: Ben McKeown.

ADF: Cherdonna

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Cherdonna performing Clock That Mug or Dusted  at the Living Arts Collective as part of ADF Out of the Box. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Cherdonna Shinatra‘s ADF performance Saturday was along the general lines I had expected from reading up on her, and talking with her, yet I can’t recall having been as surprised at ADF since I first saw Dairakudakan (or at least Rosie Herrera), as I was by the first of Cherdonna’s series of six performances in the Living Arts Collective theater on West Geer St.

The outward appearance of Clock That Mug or Dusted is one of induced chaos (and there’s not much dancing), but it’s driven by a subtle mind that has created this mad melange with its own sly kind of order. If you have any interest in the further reaches of performance art/dance theater, I urge you to go to one of the two remaining performances–Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th. This art is not going to submit to rational analysis: it must be experienced; I can’t describe it for you beyond saying that this is some superior strangeness, high-chroma, with lots of sensuous substances spread around, and lots of great physical theatre.  Although some audience participation is required, those who play are well rewarded, and Cherdonna won’t pick on you if you really don’t want to participate.

Cherdonna’s creator, Jody Kuehner, seems to have drawn sustenance from many sources. Not just from Cher and Madonna, the performers whose names she has appropriated, but Dolly Parton, too. Not just the work of 1960s feminist body art/dance practitioners, and drag style queens, but children’s puppeteer Shari Lewis and her character Lamb Chop. Plus 1970s womyn’s music, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and Shen Wei. Also physical clowning traditions–and Butoh. And Mary Tyler Moore. The incredible thing is that it holds together. Often hilarious, it is also unexpectedly touching, and really, very sweet. Cherdonna clearly subscribes to the “honey draws more flies than vinegar” technique of winning friends and influencing people, and honey, she loves her some paradox.

48 hours later, and I’m still feeling like the boa constrictor that swallowed the elephant: this is going to take a while to digest! Tickets here.

 

 

ADF: Coming Up June 23-27

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Lucas Melfi and Rachael Mehaffey in an earlier performance of Natalie Marrone’s Thresh, which will be the opening act in Reynolds June 23-24. Photo: Alec Himwich.

 

The American Dance Festival continues to highlight North Carolina connections in this 40th season in the state. On Friday and Saturday the 23rd and 24th, Natalie Marrone’s company The Dance Cure will open for Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. in Reynolds Theater. Marrone’s work was shown in the combined ADF/NC Dance Festival program four years ago.  Young was raised in Durham, but has always worked in New York: this is the company’s ADF debut. They will perform Young’s Interleaving, which cuts four earlier dances into thirds and recombines the sections so that there are four beginnings, four middles and four ends laminated into one arc. It’s an interesting way to mess with time perception, weighting the time-frame of the collected stories more heavily than the time flow-through of each story, and rather cinematic in concept. The piece is 30 years old, but the artistic penchant for taking things apart and putting them together differently never goes out of style.

Natalie Marrone and The Dance Cure won their stage time in an ADF competition for North Carolina choreographers earlier this year. They were chosen from 18 entrants from around the state who submitted video of works up to 15 minutes long. Marrone’s 10-minute duet Thresh will be danced by Rachael Mehaffey and Lucas Melfi, both of whom were seen recently in Renay Aumiller’s boneGlow.

Marrone lives in Chapel Hill and teaches part-time in the Duke Dance program. We spoke by phone earlier this week, when I asked her about the challenges of making and presenting contemporary dance in this area. “There are many opportunities to present a dance that has already been made,” she said dryly. “Funding sources are geared for production, not process.”

The process takes time, and time is expensive. The choreographer needs time to see and consider her ideas embodied by the dancers; she needs time to revise, edit, add–and she needs time to do that again and again. And, she says, “the dancers need time to work with the choreographer,” so that nuance and depth can develop as they come to know and trust each other. “I always want to go deep,” Marrone says. “Before I taught at Duke, it was very expensive to make a dance. And it was hard to find a dedicated space: we don’t need a space for two hours–we need it for six months!”

Marrone has worked on Thresh on and off since January, 2016, and in it she continues to combine her interests in vernacular dance styles and her own family history with a contemporary dance vocabulary. There’s a good descriptive piece about the dance by Susan Broili in the Herald-Sun.

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Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. make their ADF debut with the revival of Interleaving, a 30-year-old work–that mined their own previous work. Photo: Alex Escalante.

 

Starting Saturday the 24th, Seattle artist Jody Kuehner, in her stage persona, Cherdonna Shinatra, will bring us some playful-serious West Coast attitude in her first ADF appearance. Actually, Kuehner has been to ADF before, when she danced in Mark Haim’s wonderful This Land is Your Land at the Nasher in 2013. But Cherdonna is about to burst upon us for the first time with Clock That Mug or Dusted.

We–Jody and I–spent an hour talking this morning, sitting outside Joe Van Gogh, where her silky short pink hair looked amazing against a backdrop of purple thistles in the sprawly little pollinator garden by the Broad Street curb. Kuehner identifies herself as queer, and in her performance persona she indulges in an extreme version of “hyper-femininity:” Cherdonna is an performance art drag queen. “‘Queer’ has become more of an expansive identifier,” she told me. “It’s associated with a value system of gender fluidity. It’s not about reproduction; its about partnership.”

We discussed the persistence of rigid gender expectations, and the current groundswell of bold gender fluidity, and how feminist art and action have and have not changed in the decades since the early female body artists made their radical messes, taking “the personal is political” to its artistic limit.

Like these earlier performance artists, Cherdonna’s on a mission. She wants us to free ourselves from inequalities of expectation, inequalities in what’s required and what’s allowed in expression of self. She wants equality all across the gender spectrum, equality under law and under social code. She’s the Notorious RBG* of performance art. But unlike RBG, who is cloaked but not masked and who must work for equality of the sexes in a clear framework, Cherdonna can do as she damn well pleases, no edges, no boundaries, and under her mask of make-up, she is pleased to communicate about the freedom of choice to live as you will.

Expect excess. Expect talking. Expect expressive movement, body slathering and what Kuehner calls “live painting” (the results of which will be collected and used in the next section of this ongoing performance work, one great, bright, brittle all togetherness) Expect intimacy. “I want people to be with,” Kuehner told me. “I like these intimate spaces.” In the flash of a smile, Cherdonna appeared. “Cherdonna’s philosophy is–we’re all in this together.”

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Cherdonna Shinatra will be getting messy in 6 performances of Clock that Mug or Dusted, in her ADF debut, at the Living Arts Collective. Photo: Lou Daprile.

 

The Living Arts Collective is very small. You probably want to have a ticket before going. If you can get there without a car to park, all the better for you.

*”At the core of Ruth Ginsburg’s lifelong project is the conviction that there should be no separate spheres for men and women in the eyes of the law, and that distinctions based on what “most” men or women do, on the choices that “most” of them make, is an obstacle to full legal equality.” Linda Greenhouse, writing in the New York Times 6/22/17.

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