Secret Stories

Building airy houses on solid ground

Vicky Shick's dances are like luminous dreams that I wish would come to me at night. In them, an everyday gesture, like a woman brushing something off another woman's dress, becomes an enigma, and extraordinary movements have the look of domestic chores you can't quite fathom. Some choreography begs to have its meaning puzzled out; Shick's sensitive, fastidiously serene works make watchers feel at home with mystery.

Her onstage world is created and inhabited by women. Sculptor Barbara Kilpatrick, who has collaborated with Shick for 14 years, designed the set and costumes for the recently revised 2005 Repair and the new Plum House (A Cartoon). Elise Kermani, who has worked with her for four years, devised the sound scores for both. At DTW, the lighting for the two pieces is by Chloë Z Brown. And the marvelous performers are all female—Shick and Jodi Melnick for Repair, Laurel Dugan, Diane Madden, Juliette Mapp, Perrine Ploneis, and Derry Swan for Plum House.

Repair is now slightly more succinct. Kermani doesn't play portions of her score live. Nor do wands manipulated by the performers cause sounds to emanate from Kilpatrick's light-strung white skirt attached to a pearly female torso. The duet, backed by two translucent standing sculptures suggesting parted curtains, now seems even more strongly to allude to aspects of performing. When Shick and Melnick dance together, they define and shape the spaces around and between their bodies, delivering soft complexities as if thinking through a process. Shick also watches and grooms Melnick; she could be her mother, sister, teacher, assistant. At one point, Melnick puts a black skirt over her black dress; when a string of small lamps on the skirt light up, she utters a few high, sharp cries and jiggles excitedly like a little girl in an important party dress. Shick then helps her off with the skirt and carries it away.

But Shick sits very still with her back to Melnick when Kermani's wonderfully allusive score unleashes music from the mad scene of Giselle, and Melnick channels the distraught heroine’s gestures (suggesting Ophelia as well) with beautiful sincerity and restraint. I, who rarely shed tears for the ballet Giselle’s sudden insanity, find my eyes stinging.

The quiet tickings and vibratings, the tinkle of breaking glass, and the flashes of Chopin piano music in Kermani’s score enhance the fragility of Repair's atmosphere—that of a world out of kilter in which the rational and the irrational make poetry together.

If you interpret Plum House in terms of its set, you also think fragility. In one corner of the stage stands a house designed by Kilpatrick and built by Dan De Prenger. It consists of two walls set at angles to each other, a high window, a doorway, and the framing of a roof. The walls appear to be made of wire mesh. A single household bulb dangles over the structure. The five women could never fit into it comfortably, and it'd never protect them from a coming storm.

We know only that they matter to one another, that they're a little tribe. Kilpatrick has dressed them in an interesting assortment of clothes. Madden wears a leopard print tunic over dark tights and Mapp a curiously bunched up gray skirt with spotted tights and a black top. Swan's black pants have a band of purple lights running down one leg. Although we see each woman acting as an individual, they do many things together—like standing facing us, holding curved arms in front of the them, and soberly circling their hips. All but Ploneis form a line from the front of the stage to the back, and she has to push Madden slightly to the side in order to fit into place. They put their arms around one another and move as a chain. Mapp backs up along a diagonal, arms lifted, fingers snapping, and the others follow her in a procession (at this point Kermani's music has a carnivalesque air, but afterward you can relate Mapp's action to the guitar sounds that open the piece and the trace of flamenco that pushes in later).

There are many indelible images: the women inside the house stretching up to wave at something outside the high window; Swan standing on a stool while Ploneis and Dugan measure her; Madden dancing while the others bring stools and sit and watch; Dugan lying alone in the house, her eyelids glittering strangely in the dimming light. The house is wheeled forward, turned, and then returned to place. A recorded voice sings Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne" in Italian. Late in the dance, Melnick, wearing the same black dress she wore in Repair, comes to visit.

These wonderful dancers treat the distinctive movements and patterns that Shick creates as fragments of a daily existence that, like the process of dancemaking itself, involves both cooperation and solitude. They do not "act," but focus fully on everything they do, on one another, and on the spaces that unite and separate them.

This gentle society may be endangered. From time to time, the women look up, as if scenting a pending hurricane. Brown occasionally blacks out the lights. Right at the end, Kermani's score increases in volume and intensity, and a siren cuts through it. You don't know whether the "house" will stand. If this magical dance is a cartoon, as the subtitle implies, I suspect that Shick is focusing one of the meaning: a full-sized drawing that's used as a model in the creation of an artwork. In this case, the unfinished project may be life, and something has erased parts of the sketch.

 
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