It took me a while to really settle into my feelings about Headlong Dance Theatre’s world premiere of “more.” at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival a few weeks back. Initially I wanted to sit down and write my immediate feelings about the piece but I felt that my hastened critique and review would have been convoluted at best (which isn’t so inappropriate considering the work in question).
“more.” is one of those pieces that dares the audience to understand what the work is trying to convey. It’s the tale tell story of the artist making art for art’s sake rather than trying to appease the non-artist that shells out the big bucks for said art. I have gone into the artist’s artist persona of show business way too many times, so I will spare the redundant details here.
“more.” is less of a ballet or dance and rather more of a theatre piece with contemporary movement the likes of post-modern and contemporary aesthetics where contractions, extensions, spasms, falls, twitches, intricate handwork and exaggerated emotion reign supreme. The work was inspired by conversations with Tere O’Connor, a reputable veteran dance maker in the modern dance community who has commissioned works for companies across the globe and back again. The conversations, inspirations, aspirations, and actions that made up the myriad of phases to produce “more.” have all been documented here http://www.danceworkbook.org/headlong/index.html in the first installment of a new project from Dance Advance called Dance Workbook that chronicles new dance works from conception to production, with a forum for continuing conversations regarding the piece.
Like many of the Live Arts Festival shows, there was a full house on the closing night performance at the Arts Bank on Broad Street. There was a motley mix of dance community familiars, casts from other shows and the people who love them. There was that ever so common air of anticipation floating around, dense as could be, awaiting the surprises that lay ahead of us. With such a highly regarded company as Headlong Dance Theatre who is known for being a forum with which audiences are encouraged to emotionally interact with dance and provides an incubator for Philly’s most talented young choreographers to hone their skills, it was hard not to have high expectations.
The characters of the work brought simple pieces of familiar furniture onto the stage. A couch, a chair, a rug, a stereo, a coffee table. This was all done simply and nonchalantly as Devynn Emory engaged the entire environment with quirky movements consisting of walks, twitches, twists and noises. There was something light and uncanny about her movements that sparked a little bit of laughter from the audience. It was broken down complexity, raw and vigorous but soft around the edges. Soon, she was inundated with the growing population of cast mates and set pieces, and the stage was almost set.
At first it is hard not to wonder if there is a story or a specific clause that could describe what the performers are acting out. Is it satire? Is it a movement study? Is it commentary? Much of the specific curiosity dissipates as you realize that the story is amorphous and the fragments that the work is composed of are all irrelevantly intertwined in the perfect description of the life cycle as we know it.
The work displays the simple comforts of life: home, movement, company. The added benefits are stripped down to the core and the dancers are left in this surreal, down to earth habitat that has no beginning or end.
After a while, it all starts to make sense when one of the dancers turns on the stereo allowing us to hear actual dialog from Tere O’Connor (or at least, who we are led to believe is Tere O’Connor) that is humorous and ominous all at once. He talks of what “stays” and what “goes” as far as life and our existence. Of course, pain stays while a plethora of other things go away. Is he talking about life? Or is he talking about death? When do things go and when do they stay? That was the unanswered question.
There was a lot of build up of tension which is something that I’ve been playing around with in my choreography and I’ve been seeing a lot of on stage lately. Tension can be a scary thing. Like comedic timing, if you don’t do it right, it could all fall apart. There is nothing more unsettling than sitting in a crowded theatre that is dead silent for more than a minute at a time while everyone’s focus is on a particular element of the piece. In this case, we were tormented with what seemed like a million minutes waiting for a poptart to be finished out of the microwave. To me, it seemed a little unreal that a toaster pastry would be left in the microwave for so long, and it was a little agonizing to have to sit there and wonder what was going to happen next, but I guess that was the point. Right?
Another way that tension was built up was through the never ending repetitiveness of many of the movement motifs. While each character had their own style, it was all cohesive and seemingly in the same genre. Perhaps this was an explanation of cycles and the ordinary tasks that come with the day-to-day world of our lives.
By the end, there was enough tension to poke a stick at and our highlighted dancer, Devynn Emory took the cake (and ate it too) with a rockstar maneuver of ripping up the Marley dance floor from the surface of the stage. Piece by piece, row by row, she (literally) stripped the environment and the neat and orderly safety that the special flooring provided for the stage. I wanted to get up and yell “Yes!” to see something so ugly and so fucking pretty done on a dance stage. It reminded me of my idols who were infamous for breaking their guitars onstage after a riotous show.
Much is to be said for the other dancers who gave exquisite performances with grace, vigor and passion. Nichole Canuso provided much of the most dance-like dance (conventionally speaking) with leaps and turns that provided a familiar lexicon indicative of ballet. Kate Watson-Wallace offered her wonderful zesty, broken down and disconnected, elegant but gritty floor work slash breakdancing that she is so well known for and does so well. Niki Cousineau imparted a vibrant communication through her body work and facial expressions, adding even more depth to the complicated yet focused piece. Jaamil Olawale Kosoko acted as the golden thread who kept the piece together, primarily supporting and asserting Devynn Emory’s role in the work. He commanded all of the movements during his fragments and handled them with precision and grace. Christina Zani played one of the more memorable, bittersweet characters who sustained a foot injury and wore an orthopedic boot and integrated a wheelchair into her dances. The inclusion of her injury in the work spoke volumes about the delicacy of the body and the usefulness of movement in an arena where it is most important. A short solo evoked sympathy and admiration, from her passionate display of helplessness and determination.
By the end we were left with trees in the middle of the living room, a stage half ripped apart and a sole dancer trapped behind a set of barnyard fencing while being gawked at by her peers. Throughout the piece we were given moments of vibrant energy and inexplicable movement, and at other times we were given absolute nothingness. If this is not the ebb and flow of life and of what stays and what goes, then nothingness is. Still, it is a worthy effort, creating this dance without a lot of dance in it from a company that has invited everyone in to see the process from start to finish, has broken boundaries without begetting pretension, and while still managing to entertain an audience.