Three women in drab black dresses and utilitarian shoes stare at us from a bleak habitat. Two chairs. A window. A table. A radio. Half-packed suitcases. One woman scratches the back of her leg with a foot. Dancing—wild, yet precise—builds from fidgety gestures. Determinedly flinging their legs and arms about, the three look as if they’re executing a folk dance to keep from going mad.
Who are these people? Well, they’re actually Dayna Hanson, Gaelen Hanson, and Peggy Piacenza, whose Seattle-based 33 Fainting Spells opened the Altogether Different series. But in their meticulous, intense, small-scale Sorrow’s Sister, they’re women in war. The world outside their window is crumbling and exploding. Inside, there’s little to do and less to eat. They’d leave if they knew where to go.
A proscenium stage isn’t the best site for 33 Fainting Spells. I need to feel trapped in a room with these women, preferably without the distraction of an intermission. Nevertheless, their beautifully chosen and performed actions draw me in; I lean forward to catch the small pained gestures with which Gaelen Hanson removes her sparkling earrings and hands them to Dayna Hanson (to pawn, I realize, when Dayna returns with three potatoes).
Their terrible reality has the strangeness of a dream. Dayna wears a small, stale cake with lit candles as a party hat. Her birthday present is a single roller skate. The three dance with the precious potatoes; Gaelen falls in love with hers and has to be persuaded to surrender it to the pot. After Piacenza has returned, bloodied and staggering from a foray outside, the bed on which she writhes emits clouds of dust. Or is she turning to dust as we watch?
The triumph of Sorrow’s Sister is that the three collaborators reveal immense drama through small, numb moments. There is fitful music (Bartók, Weill, manic Paganini, et al.), Dylan Thomas’s magisterial voice reciting his “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” the noise of a train or a plane, and the women’s rhythmic footfalls. But the predominant sound is silence. That the women don’t talk only adds to the impression that they are barely surviving. They panic at moments, but haven’t the energy for self-pity. When there’s nothing you can do, you do what you can.
** I feared that Yoshiko Chuma’s revised Footprints of War, another view of women in peril, would also suffer from being transferred from an almost claustrophobic space (the Kitchen) to the Joyce’s stage. Instead, the performers (Rocky Bornstein, Sharon Hayes, Vicky Shick, Kasumi Takahashi, and Chuma) seem more exposed, more vulnerable as they wait uncomfortably in striped beach chairs or stare over a ship’s rail. However, the distancing effect of a conventional theater and Chuma’s revisions make us less aware of particularities in these intense, highly distilled and abstracted images related to the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath. Toppling and rearranging chairs becomes more of a movement motif than the expression of specific desires.
Dances with agendas are trouble. The choreographer has a message, but feels it necessary to create “dancing.” Chuma’s subject in her new Reverse Psychology: Agenda Number 1: Japan is complex. Articles in fabricated newspapers passed out to the audience during the piece crack jokes about the Japanese Pokémon becoming a capitalist enterprise in U.S. kindergartens, about cross-cultural misunderstandings, xenophobia, the erosion of Japan’s postwar pacifist position, and her increased military alliances.
But you can hardly peruse the newspaper during the performance. One article gets read on tape, and Treva Offutt imitates Diana Ross (but you have to read the paper to get the connection). Chuma’s choreography and Ralph Lee’s set design reconfigure the uncomfortable sharing of space, the peril of crossing boundaries, and the warring of cultures as turns-taking encounters within and around a large open cube. Although four little groups of lights on the floor suggest both compass points and home base, the performers often tilt and turn the cube, destabilizing geography. The female performers—Offutt, Takahashi, Jodi Melnick, and Ksenia Vidyaykina—wear vividly colored sports clothes and wigs of straight black hair (costumes by Gabriel Berry). They and Christopher Caines slam into the cube accompanied by the sound of breaking glass, or violent music played live by composer-guitarist Marc Ribot and a small ensemble. Occasionally specific emotions emerge, as when the women explode into dementedly rapid martial arts moves and high shrieks, or when Melnick and Offutt end a duet in the cube cheek to cheek. The blend of seriousness and humor, of the specific and the abstract, seems uneasy. The piece, for all its color and energy, remains opaque.
** Dixon Place’s tiny space at Vineyard 26 can barely contain Jody Oberfelder’s Social Dances. That’s part of the evening’s charm. Three performers crowd onto one of the couches that form the funky seating. I chat with another dancer who’s sitting beside me in the aisle. When they explode into tangos and waltzes, the walls become backboards for their more acrobatic antics, and their flashing legs create a wind in the front rows.
Oberfelder, small and sinewy, is an athlete, and she embeds her love of physical challenge in her choreography. Gliding over the floor in a partner’s arms and arching with romantic extravagance are de rigueur, but so are handstands, dives, and startling tangles. People use one another’s legs as turnstiles. Oberfelder and Joshua Bisset spin Melanie Fox on her head. When the “Blue Danube” plays, Bisset, Fox, Chris Hutchings, and Laura Quattrocchi sit on the floor and pull on imaginary oars.
In Oberfelder’s strenuous, witty, and warm-hearted social-dance lexicon, the concept of partnering is relaxed. Deliciously sensual Sara Joel cleaves spoon-fashion to Fox during “Moving Violation,” to music by the Tin Hat Trio; she also slinks with Hutchings to a hot Steve Elson tune. In “Pick-up,” the whole cast becomes Hutchings’s centipede of a partner. Tall, gray-haired Sally Hess, the most elegant dancer in the room, joins Oberfelder and her little daughter Yanna Oberfelder-Riehm in a sweet trio, and what might be seen as incongruity becomes camaraderie.
Not all Oberfelder’s dancers are technically expert, but they have endearing verve and daring. They hurl themselves into the steps as if the walls and floor were foam rubber and they couldn’t conceive that someone’s arms wouldn’t always be there to catch them.
** Hetty King is one of those special performers. No matter who the choreographer or how banal the activity, she dances as if every movement were a thought emanating from her and in turn feeding her. She first appears in her Waltz, eyes heavy-lidded, arms folded, torso rising from an iridescent foam of a gown by Naoka Nagata. When she lifts her skirt to examine a leg or licks one hand to a wash of sour-sweet music by Jon Gibson, she embodies her own artistic statement: “The body contains my hunting ground. . . . I excavate memories.” Whatever she shows us is interesting: the way she slaps herself or limps across the floor, the way she looks framed against a window of light (design by Jane Cox), the way her long black hair comes down when she spins.
King makes only a few links between what she describes in the program as “three dreams, three portraits.” Amy Baker performs the second section of Waltz on and around Larry Hahn’s wooden construction. It’s reminiscent in form and function of the structures Isamu Noguchi used to design for Martha Graham, except that real branches emerge from it. Although Baker enters pulling it, and it’s both portable and collapsible, it’s still more domain than set—a place to roll in, a place for holy experiences and exhibitions. Yet her movements (a few of them echoing King’s) seem desultory, as if she weren’t sure of her purpose.
David Figueroa’s presentation is the most blatant. He’s intermittently in our face, welcoming us effusively, checking our responses. But he’s also involved in a violent dream of a detective story. He starts when a dog barks, shadows his face with a fedora, tries to climb the wall. We assume a murder. He lies on the floor in a pose earlier taken by Baker and chalks his own outline as sirens howl. Seconds later, King lies down in the shape he’s drawn. The second episode still seems unmoored, but the intersections that accumulate toward the end are tantalizing, making me reevaluate what I’ve seen previously and wish for more links—not to clarify a mystery but to enrich it.