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.
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.
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, it’s over,” and, throws up her arms in doubtful victory—trying 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. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Barnes and Bass enter to the windup for James Brown’s “Get Up (I feel like being a Sex Machine).” Here they are, dressed—as is Rowlson-Hall—in 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 you’re in love with all of them.
Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll 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; she’s 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. It’s 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 Jacob’s Pillow, less than two weeks before her group’s 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 Barnes’s 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. Barnes’s choreographic style, always grounded, appears even more weighted, turbulent leaps notwithstanding. The accompaniment for this opening scene—Nina Simone singing “For All We Know”—seems 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 she’s 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 path—sometimes 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 sits—resigned and gallant—on 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.