Kate Weare and Monica Bill Barnes Gently Expose the Human Comedy

Attending the second program in the Joyce Theater’s presentation of four women choreographers, you ready yourself for intermission by drying your eyes and leave the theater at the end of the evening laughing. But humor and high jinks play a part in Kate Weare’s beautiful new Bright Land, and tenderness seams together the outright comic events in Monica Bill Barnes’s 2009 Another Parade.

Bright Land begins with music. The five members of the terrific bluegrass-and-beyond ensemble, The Crooked Jakes, are onstage under a modest hanging lamp. Collin Gallahue’s fiddle is frisking above Charlie Rose’s bass, while Rose Sinclair, Lisa Berman, and the band’s founder, Jeff Kazor, manage the guitars and mandolin. Dancers Leslie Kraus, Marlena Penney Oden, Adrian Clark, and Douglas Gillespie—respectably, but not fancily appareled by Sarah Cubbage, the women in full-skirted dresses— might be attending any old-time, small-town Saturday night dance, except that they’re the only folks there, and the music is reaching into their souls.

We get hints of that early on, when the very versatile musicians sing “Sea Lion Woman,” and the woman watch their seated partners bump along the floor and lie there frozen. Still, there’s plenty of rich, happy dancing —with the dancers’ legs flying out, their bodies dipping and spiraling to fine old tunes like “Shady Grove” and “Ida Red” in potent new arrangements by Kazor or Kazor and Berman. The men whirl the women around and into the air. The clusters for four are tangled but friendly. Catching up with Gillespie as he’s pulled along by others, Kraus gives his butt a smack. There’s little overt “behavior,” however, and, although the night and the tunes occasionally make Kraus and Oden feel sexy, they don’t pursue the men in any obvious way; they just stretch and tease their bodies like cats in front of a warm hearth.

Leslie Kraus and Douglas Gillespie in Kate Weare’s Bright Land.
Christopher Duggan
Leslie Kraus and Douglas Gillespie in Kate Weare’s Bright Land.
Celia Rowlson-Hall, Monica Bill Barnes, and Anna Bass in Monica Bill Barnes’s Another Parade.
Christopher Duggan
Celia Rowlson-Hall, Monica Bill Barnes, and Anna Bass in Monica Bill Barnes’s Another Parade.


Kate Weare Company
Monica Bill Barnes & Company
Joyce Theater
August 10, 12, 14

Monica Bill Barnes & Company
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
July 28 through August 1

Religious feelings and intimations of death appear like unavoidable guests at the party. While the musicians chant and clap, exhorting Gabriel to blow his horn, the dancers move slowly through positions that might be seen as accusatory. They reach straight arms out to the side—in many directions—and stare beyond them. For a long time, Gillespie stands holding one bent arm up in front of him—neither quite warding off nor quite beckoning, perhaps remembering something he once touched. Later, Clark is lifted like a body on a bier.

As Bright Land heats up, the dancers discard items of clothing —a tie gets tossed into the wing, a vest handed to someone. Kraus stand close together, staring at each other, while they unbutton their dresses and take them off (they wear lighter ones underneath and slips beneath those). Brian Jones’s beautiful lighting subtly turns the backdrop gold, then fades it to blue twilight, then lightens it again. The band members try different instruments; as Clark and Gillespie strive together, a harmonium and a toy piano appear in the mix. Kazor sings in a strong, lazy voice; Berman’s higher, twangy one is sharp enough to cut heartstrings.

The core of the piece is a duet for Kraus and Gillespie. He has suddenly flung himself between her open legs and lain there while Clark and Oden dance in the background, but when the recumbent pair sit up, Gillespie gently touches Kraus’s face. Kazor’s voice caresses them both: “I’m so tired; sing me to sleep,” as Gillespie lifts Kraus into his arms. These two—as in other works by Weare—are extraordinary. They slide awkwardly, yet knowingly together; sometimes you’re not sure whether he has picked her up or she has climbed onto him. Nothing seems feigned or studied; you feel their desire viscerally as part love, part anger, part question. A waltz tune turns into something scratchy. In a final, unforgettable moment, Gillespie has flung himself down on top of Kraus, but after they’ve sat up and faced off, she, sitting on his legs, suddenly butts her head hard against his chest; he leans back slightly. She keeps hammering—almost speculatively— until he’s flat on his back.

In the end, the musicians are strolling downstage, calling on Jesus to meet them. The dancers are back among the instruments and music stands, clapping and feeling fine in their sweaty splendor. “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down” go the words. Watching the inhabitants of this bright here-and-now land that Weare and her superb collaborators have made, you can believe it.

Monica Bill Barnes has created for herself a pungent milieu that faintly echoes those established by Charlie Chaplin. In pieces for her small, all-female ensemble, the dancers’ apparent onstage goal is to be bold and adventurous, but insecurity and doubt aren’t easily vanquished. Daily life seems like a rehearsal for a performance those involved don’t fully understand. Watching Another Parade (2009) at the Joyce, you sense unspoken questions. “Am I doing this right?” And, “should I be somewhere else?” You laugh at the telling looks and gestures, the brave displays, but you feel the poignancy of the women’s determination. Many of the movements are everyday ones, ingeniously altered and expanded, but the women in the group—Barnes, Anna Bass, Charlotte Bydwell, and Celia Rowlson-Hall— dance big too, and with athletic gusto.

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