"The Wall", "Belle Phantasm" and "Shift"
Rehearsal Studio, Woolly Mammoth Theatre
June 4, 2010
by George Jackson
copyright 2010 by George Jackson
Presenting work in progress and promoting conversation between authors and audience is the stated purpose of Artists' Bloc. Of the current pieces, two choreography and the third a play, only the play isn't far enough along to have a definite character. "The Wall", a dance work and first on the bill, even has significant shape. It is in two "scenes", with no literal wall at first but then, in a shorter portion, the wall becomes actual. This happens in three ways: the dancers engage with a real wall at the back of the stage space, trying to understand it, penetrate it and demolish it. Finally they try to vault it but rebound, turn around and rush at us, the audience, as if we too were wall. The wall's third manifestation is in a film of the one that today separates Palestine and Israel; the film is shot from the Palestinian side. Let us, though, take a step back to the printed program and the first portion of Betsy Loikow's dance, "The Wall", which "does not seek to make a political statement".
The choreography is for four women who enter the stagespace one after the other at a slow, ritual pace, their bodies upright and almost flattened. Execution is very clean and although the allusion is to ancient Egyptian style, there is space and time in the processional for signs of balletomodern technique. Leg extensions and kneelings fit into the pacing organically. The women's ritual walk returns thematically throughout the course of the "The Wall".
Women fall individually out of their stylized stance and stepping, collapsing onto the floor. When they recover, it is to dance emotionally, both in concert and separately. Often their postures are crouched. Arms act as signals that send feelings into space, pound the floor and clamp hands to the head. Or, the women's hands resort to everyday work. The longest solo has Kaethe Kollwitz dimensions of woman in eternal struggle at the precipice of revolution.
Strong stuff, in the first portion of the piece as well as in the wall scenes. It isn't entirely clear whether the first section is intended to show the constraints of these lives prior to the wall or whether the "Egyptian" processional is a symbolic representation of the wall. No music credits were given in the printed program but the first section seemed more traditionally Arabic and the actual wall parts wilder and experimental. Betsy Loikow developed the choreography in collaboration with the other dancers - Ellen Massey, Heather McGuinness and Sylvana Christopher Sandoz (who had the long solo). This quartet struck the right balance between a sense of ensemble and allowing individual personalities to show. Is it possible, though, to point to just one side of the West Bank Wall and "not seek to make a political statement"?
For "Shift", Nathan Andary developed a remarkable swathe of movement. He uses 5 dancers as humanoids subject to tensions maintained for long durations. The motive forces, although apparent on the surfaces of the bodies in space, seem to arise from within each creature. The interaction of anatomic pull and push is such that the humanoids sometimes seem to be in the process of being born, of evolving, and sometimes in the act of expiring, of decaying. Never, for more than a moment, could I tell which it was.
The dancers are depersonalized (sheer stocking masks covering the head blur features). They are close to being desexed (due to unrevealing grayish tight dancewear) but they are exposed as body parts. Visible is the hinge action at joints and the action of muscle bundles. A bit of a story shows with four of the creatures searching with flashlights for the fifth, who is about to be born or die. The four are the chorus assisting in the process and perhaps experiencing it too. Much of the action has the bodies down on the floor and the heavy mood too was reminiscent of Tieftanz, the "deep down" dancing of Central European expressionists between the world wars. Sound rather than music, together with the lighting gloom, helped to produce a dark ambiance.
No telling yet how Andary will cut his swathe for there was no sense of finally resolving the humanoids' tensions. Simply maintaining the edgy movement, though, had a fascination.
The bill's middle piece, "Belle Phantasm", written by Alia Faith Williams with direction and choreography by Catherine Aselford, is full of contrasts and cliches. Four of its six characters talk incessantly and two don't talk at all. The title character, based on the historical Beatrice Cenci, appears and moves like a vampire from a horror movie. Hard to say from either the action or language where this play is going - serious melodrama or send-up. Wouldn't the two silent figures affect the talkers, cause them to slow down and finally bring them to shut their mouths? While the walking dead Beatrice was strangely beautiful, is she innocent or guilty of the crimes for which she had been executed? There ought to be a clue in the fragment performed.