Susan Marshall has always used repetition enthrallingly. Her dancers recycle actions and phrases that tear at your soul. Often it’s like watching someone pluck out an eye over and over. By the end of one of her pieces, you can be deeply moved, exhausted, or drained. In two recent works, repetition seems to be on a rampage, out of control. I’m gripped, yet want the dances to stop.
In Sleeping Beauty, fenced on three sides by Douglas Stein’s walls of many-paned windows and hanging lamps in metal cages, the extraordinary Kristen Hollinsworth is at first only one of several sleepers, but she’s the different one, the endangered one—the one no kiss awakens, despite persistent efforts by Mark DeChiazza and five others. Aroused, she clings to odd, contorted phrases; she twists and coils until she’s half upside-down, her head somewhere you think it can’t possibly go. Petra van Noort kisses her too, and when Luke Miller presses his face into her neck, she holds the spot for a while. But she’s in her own world, and the rest are in soft focus, rushing in and out, rolling through, having brief adventures with one another. Jane Shaw’s mix of separate musics by David Lang and Annie Gosfield creates a wonderfully haunted environment.
DeChiazza repeatedly grabs Hollinsworth while she’s standing on one leg; she gasps as he twists her to the floor and pulls her up into an embrace. He gets her in the narrow corridor outside the “room” (elegantly lit by Mark Stanley), and makes her walk in an orderly herd with the rest of them, but she keeps breaking out. Even in the final rolling line across the front of the stage, she’s going the wrong way. She’s among the living. But barely.
When Other Stories begins, Hollins-worth is lying on a table, undulating like a serpent as she breathes, but she’s not the center of this story. Marshall, using frequent blackouts, reshuffles props and personnel in scenes that may last only a few seconds. Hollinsworth keeps diving onto the table as it’s moved under and away from Stein’s overhanging grid. At one point, van Noort and Miller make gestures over her that suggest an operating room from hell. A slinky woman in red (Rachel Shao-Lan Blum in one of Kasia Walicka Maimone’s bizarre costumes) intersects with the men. Jill A. Locke and Hollinsworth behave like DeChiazza’s devoted if robotic attendants as he stuffs underlings back under his chair and gives orders to Darrin M. Wright via a telephone that causes a light on a stand to flash (Wright rushes to the stand, puts on headphones, and listens). The often witty actions proliferate without apparent cause, but there is a progression. Miller goes from being DeChiazza’s footstool to being the big boss. Whatever that means.
We’re used to seeing Clare Byrne explore childhood memories and her Catholic roots with wit and rapscallion charm. Her new Rend and Sew emphasizes brightly conceived dancing over theatrics. At the halfway mark, she and her seven dancers take off their fishnet overshirts—that’s that.
The work takes its title from Ecclesiastes, rending and sewing being two of those opposite acts that there are appropriate times for. Byrne’s process seems to have been to take material apart and put it together in new ways and to different music (the extracts—12 in all—in Stefan Jacobs’s sound design range from Gabriel Fauré to Thelonius Monk, with quite a bit of gospel and a choir singing parts of the Mass). In addition, the images suggest a community coming together and breaking apart, but without animosity. When Sharon Estacio kicks people sleeping on the floor and they roll away, she might be shooing pets or clearing away dust balls. The group passes Nicholas Leichter down a line, then starts to struggle and disperse. No big deal. Dancers race through on private errands, but cluster to support first one, then another in the sudden silence that follows the deep, dark honey of Aretha’s “Let It Be.”
The tearing and mending aspect is heightened by the space, sensitively lit by Eric C. Bruce. This Dixon Place production takes place in the lofty old gym at University Settlement. Half the audience sits at one end, and the other half perches opposite on the semicircular balcony. At intermission, we switch places. Rend and Sew isn’t a big site-specific deal, but the change not only alters our perspective, it brings out the tension between same and different in the two halves. Yes, here’s that soft clapping again, but more people are doing it, and now it’s leading into something else.
There’s a lot of dancing in this work, and it’s as variegated and full of soul as the music: big sailing movements for a quartet of women; explosive bent-legged jumps popping up in a corner; frisky, skipping steps; slow balances. Sometimes—hips swaying, arms raising, elation in every footfall—the dancers (including Janice Barclay, Donna Bouthillier, Kerville Cosmos Jack, Jared Kaplan, and Theresa Palazzo) might be celebrants working up steam in a Southern Baptist service. But Rend and Sew also has a darker, more questing side. What is Bouthillier looking for when she digs/scrubs at the floor? What lies beneath?