Misnomer Dance Theater has recently received more money in grants than any six-member, left-of-center dance group I can think of. That good fortune is due, in large part, to the several exceedingly smart and workable online systems that Misnomer’s artistic director and choreographer, Chris Elam, is developing. The interactive programs are designed to bring a given dance company into closer contact with audiences and draw in potential viewers. It helps that Elam’s choreography is appealing, witty, and just a bit weird. At present, a web surfer’s attention may easily be snagged by the photos and videos at misnomer.org.
Elam wants spectators to understand what he’s doing. And to understand that sometimes there’s nothing to understand but the intriguing dance of limbs in space and the surprise of bodies attaching to other bodies (and whatever those moves may mean to you). He prefaces his relaxed but informative program notes with these encouraging words: “The notes I offer below are an inlet into some of my thoughts on the works, but should by no means supercede your own.”
In Rock. Paper. Flock, the middle of three works on a program entitled Being Together, he makes spectators feel as if they’re in on the dance-making process by creating a simulacrum of an early stages rehearsal. He gives suggestions; the dancers (Brynne Billingsley, Luke Gutgsell, Jennifer Harmer, Coco Karol, and Dorian Nuskind-Oder) follow through very creatively—looking great in charmingly wacky costumes by Liz Prince that hint at parade-ground attire. Interestingly, Elam is almost the only one who talks, although his “materials” may shoot inquisitive or put-upon looks his way, when he gives them countdowns to find interesting group poses or says to Karol, “Coco, please do what I’m thinking.” Wearing a black jumpsuit and a leather Russian aviator’s helmet as a thinking cap, the choreographer delivers instructions that reveal, in witty ways, quite a lot about how dances get made. Sometimes he’s snared by his own creation; sometimes it takes off without him.
Fantasy and gritty reality blend. He grouses that he needs a new “element,” and man in a suit and a woman in a dress (Jenny Campbell and Val Loukiano) run on and fit themselves in. He asks Nuskind-Oder, whose back is to us, to turn blue. After a pause in which we can’t see anything happening, he says, “Good.” Later—with layers of clothing peeled off to reveal Kaibrina Sky Buck’s skimpy, ruffled, flesh-colored costumes from an earlier Elam piece—he, Gutgsell and Karol engage in some improbable Elam linkages; sometimes he picks the other two up and staggers forward—the straining base of an oblivious circus act.
His opening piece, Too Late Tulip, needs little explanation. Wearing Prince’s pastel-colored, simply cut dresses, Harmer, Karol, and Nuskind-Oder show you how Elam’s simple, attractive phrase looks when they perform it in canon or in different spatial arrangements. By attractive, I don’t mean bland. Elam’s fairly slow, luscious movements stretch the dancers’ limbs, bend their torsos, and cant their hips. When Billingsley and Gutgsell enter, the tender words of one of the musical selections—a song by Greg Brown—return to suggest a couple and a family. So now you can see the three women as daughters. If you wish.
The last dance, Zipper, continues the wide-open theme of togetherness. The audience, primed by Rock. Paper. Flock, can catch the tiny scenarios that crop up and dissolve, enjoy seeing froggy cartwheels become sleek balances, wonder why Karol is standing wiggling her fingers intently. The first week, the three-man band Real Quiet plays Evan Ziporyn’s score live, and David Cassin’s impetuous-sounding percussion contrasts with cellist Felix Fan and pianist Andrew Russo’s quirkily sweet melodies the way the dance’s beauties marry its oddities. Elam is a master of strangeness. Entering late, he struts like a supervising stork, knots his body improbably (alone or around others), and hunkers down in the angular positions that attest to his training in Balinese masked dance-drama.
The performers are all vibrant, although I find myself wishing that they would always just be themselves instead of “themselves”—that they’d be puzzled or suspicious, if that’s what’s called for, instead of telegraphing, or commenting on, that state.
Some mysteries you fret over; others are best left unsolved—just savored for their strangeness. Actor-writer Lee Sher and dancer-choreographer Saar Harari call their performance February; that’s the first mystery. Think cold? Maybe. That umbrella title covers Little Island, a short play by Sher, and Harari’s One Day (Sher is also given credit for its choreography). Is there a connection between the two works? Maybe.
“Martha who?” That must be what the unheard voice on the telephone is asking. “Martha Who, yes, that is my name,” says the woman sitting stiffly in the middle of a white sofa. This woman (Sher) might as well be marooned on a real island. The only other furniture is a free-standing door and a potted tree that Joe Levasseur makes very important with his lighting. Martha Who is wearing a nice black velvet dress and pretty shoes, but she’s not going anywhere. She also seems to be pregnant, and you can try to figure out whether this is the character’s condition or the performer’s (the latter, I think).
Everything about this woman is formal and dignified. Sher enunciates her sentences carefully, drawing out her words in a low, accented voice that’s musical but varies very little in pitch or rhythm (Little Island was written in Hebrew and translated by Noa Shabti and Neil Wacks). For long moments, she stares straight ahead, expressionless, almost numb. She telephones the police, which she has evidently done a number of times; she wants an officer to come over as soon as possible. Why? She doesn’t say. She also calls her doctor and asks him when he’d like to see her (note the way she phrases the question); she itches all over. You wonder why she suddenly sticks her feet straight out and wiggles her toes, but after a while she starts talking to an invisible masseur about a vacation in Brazil she may or may not have taken.
There’s a knock at the door, and a policeman (Walker Lewis) is standing there, which stuns her for a second. While he’s certainly solid looking, he’s a dream officer in terms of his behavior. When she tells him that “It is quiet here. I think something is wrong,” he endeavors to find out what kind of quiet and, after pacing for a while, decides this is a serious case. He accepts her invitation to stay, have some dinner, keep her company, but he’s radioed to proceed to an accident. Why is he played by an actor, while the masseur is more clearly imaginary? Does Martha Who’s power of imagination wax and wane?
When another knock comes, she guardedly opens the door. Who’s there? A multitude: friends, relations. She calls them joyfully by name, cries “Come in come in!” Are these members of a desired absent group? A family? If you think again about Martha’s black dress and the frightening quiet, you can believe these visitors are the remembered dead, and be suddenly moved for a tragedy you’re on the verge of understanding. Then the lights go out.
Harari’s One Day is performed by two extraordinary women: Jye-Hwei Lin, who’s tall and willowy, and Hsin-Yi Hsiang, who’s shorter and slightly sturdier. Both from Taiwan, they attended the University of Illinois at the same time and have presented their own work at Danspace; Lin performed in Harari’s 2007 Geisha. The title of the due is apt. Watching the dancers, you can believe that all the thoughts and responses of a day are passing through them and animating their movements. Sometimes we hear a recording of Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart, sometimes snatches of other music (AGF, Perez Prado & His Orchestra, Alva Notobut). But mostly we hear the women’s breathing, their footsteps, and on occasion, their voices—as when Hsiang talks animatedly in one of the Chinese languages and Lin, bent over, hands resting on her knees, responds with a few words.
Harari presents these two fascinating performers in a state of almost constant flux—now poised and dancerly, extending straight legs into space; now clumsy and spraddle-legged, their heads jutting out at odd angles as if they’re craning to find something. Modes of behavior and reactions wash over them like water coming out of a showerhead. At times they swagger, waggle their hips almost lewdly, or strut like models. Once, for a second or two, Lin—elbows, knees, and hips akimbo—resembles a Balinese dancer. Once she settles into a martial arts stance. There are moments in which both women seem to be trying to fit their mobile bodies and limbs into oddly shaped crannies of space (the effect is curiously sensual). At first, they throw or stretch their movements away from them, rather than gathering the space in.
They dance in unison. They perform different steps simultaneously. I can’t recall them touching. Twice Lin leaves the stage. For the most part, they’re absorbed in their own thoughts and explorations, but at certain points, they, or just Hsiang, come very close to the first row or spectators and confront them with a sexual bravado. Tough or tender, they’re amazing. And mysterious. But these mysteries don’t need to be solved. In our hearts and our own bodies, we know them.