Kate Weare and Monica Bill Barnes Gently Expose the Human Comedy
Attending the second program in the Joyce Theaters 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 Weares beautiful new Bright Land, and tenderness seams together the outright comic events in Monica Bill Barness 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 Gallahues fiddle is frisking above Charlie Roses bass, while Rose Sinclair, Lisa Berman, and the bands founder, Jeff Kazor, manage the guitars and mandolin. Dancers Leslie Kraus, Marlena Penney Oden, Adrian Clark, and Douglas Gillespierespectably, 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 theyre 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, theres 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 hes pulled along by others, Kraus gives his butt a smack. Theres little overt behavior, however, and, although the night and the tunes occasionally make Kraus and Oden feel sexy, they dont pursue the men in any obvious way; they just stretch and tease their bodies like cats in front of a warm hearth.
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 sidein many directionsand stare beyond them. For a long time, Gillespie stands holding one bent arm up in front of himneither 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 Joness 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; Bermans 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 Krauss face. Kazors voice caresses them both: Im so tired; sing me to sleep, as Gillespie lifts Kraus into his arms. These twoas in other works by Weareare extraordinary. They slide awkwardly, yet knowingly together; sometimes youre 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 theyve sat up and faced off, she, sitting on his legs, suddenly butts her head hard against his chest; he leans back slightly. She keeps hammeringalmost speculatively until hes 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. Aint 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 arent easily vanquished. Daily life seems like a rehearsal for a performance those involved dont 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 womens determination. Many of the movements are everyday ones, ingeniously altered and expanded, but the women in the groupBarnes, Anna Bass, Charlotte Bydwell, and Celia Rowlson-Hall dance big too, and with athletic gusto.
Barnes structures her works fastidiously. Every section of Another Parade queries, replays, and alters the themes introduced by Celia Rowlson-Hall in an opening solo. The stage has piles of confetti in the wings and a sprinkling on the backdrop (set and costumes by Kelly Hanson), and lighting designer Jane Cox has provided Rowlson-Hall with a follow spot for her opening solo. Rowlson-Hall is a tall, leggy beauty with a strong face, and she acts like a deer caught in the headlights. She lets us know she sees us before hunkering down to rabbit-punch an invisible opponent. Oops, she takes one on the chin, comes back, signals, OK, its over, and, throws up her arms in doubtful victorytrying the gesture on for size. That move and others (she runs, checks her pulse with a stopwatch, grabs the air above her as if to pull down bouquets, challengingly hikes up her sweater to show us her belly and edges the neck of her sweater down to reveal a shoulder), tell us more each time they reappear in the piece. She also mouths exchanges between someone on her right that she likes, and someone to her left that she despises.
The elegantly timed flashes of humor increase as Another Parade progresses. So does the pathos. Rowlson-Hall does her solo to a sarabande from one of J.S. Bachs suites for unaccompanied cello. Barnes and Bass enter to the windup for James Browns Get Up (I feel like being a Sex Machine). Here they are, dressedas is Rowlson-Hallin good-girl skirts and sweaters in drab colors, trying to look powerfully self-confident and sexy. Their impeccable unison, along with their quite different facial expressions, makes their situation all the more entrancing. The other two performers enter and join in. This time, when they pull down their sweaters, they lick their shoulders enthusiastically, like misguided porn-star wannabees. By now youre in love with all of them.
Burt Bacharachs Ill Never Fall in Love Again introduces some new elements to be reexamined and repeated. Cox cleverly turns the backdrop candy-pink, and the women sway bouncily from foot to foot. Arms akimbo, they wiggle their hips strenuously. Bach continues to vie with various good old tunes. Bass does a star turn to more James Brown; shes a marvelous comedian, with the kind of collapsible face I associate with Carol Burnett. At some point, she runs up the aisle and watches for a while from the side balcony, while Barnes patiently, wearily, gives the other two a lesson in wiggling and other moves and points out good spots to stand in. Its a very low-key scene, and a strangely sweet one.
For a finale, each woman brings up a willing person from the audience and gently dances with her new partner. Then the performers step approvingly aside and the volunteers shyly, bravely wiggle their hips while confetti rains down. In the brief follow-up, Barnes and her accomplices dance radiantly, and in the steps we now know by heart, they finally look like the champions that they are.
At Jacobs Pillow, less than two weeks before her groups Joyce appearance, Barnes premiered a new piece, made in part during a Creative Development Residency at the Pillow. Mostly Fanfare, like Another Parade (which was also on the bill, along with Barness wonderful solo Here We Are), mingles comedy with poignancy, expertise with ineptness. Seldom have Ta-da! moments been dissected so eccentrically. How could you not be entranced by the sight of Barnes, Bass, and Bydwell, dressed in demure dark skirts and white blouses, their heads topped by ostrich-plumes? You think showgirls, then parade horses, then, not really. Red beams of light strike them from behind, as they jog (more like trudge), posture erect, along a forward diagonal. Their tiny-steps gait brings to mind the paratrooper shuffle, except that they never break into a flat-out run. Sometimes they look up warily; sometimes a force buffets them back. Barness choreographic style, always grounded, appears even more weighted, turbulent leaps notwithstanding. The accompaniment for this opening sceneNina Simone singing For All We Knowseems utterly appropriate.
Simone sings all the songs in Mostly Fanfare, and all of them tie in smartly. Bass is dancing alone to Let It be Me, her hands out, when a carton is tossed into them from the wings. More cartons follow, and she manages to field them all; the on-tape applause for Simone becomes applause for her, although shes not equipped to handle the storm of boxes from above that ends the number. To 12th of Never, the women balance chairs in their mouths.
The unlikely accompaniment to the ending is a theme from Camille Saint-Saëns Samson and Delilah played on a piano. Again the three travel along that diagonal pathsometimes stepping perkily, sometimes shuffling like much older women, sometimes spinning. Glitter blows alluring in from their apparent destination. Several times, Bydwell outpaces the other two; she reaches the corner, but is repeatedly knocked back. The spotlight finds her. Eventually, the others pass her and exit. She sitsresigned and gallanton a suitcase that has suddenly appeared at the edge of the downstage wing. Stars fill the backdrop, and applause rends the air. Is hers the success story, or theirs? You could weep.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.