Keely Garfield Dance
Saint Mark’s Church
New York, NY
January 21, 2012
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
At the beginning of “Twin Pines,” dancer and veteran choreographer Keely Garfield nestles up against a tree stump—one of the half-dozen or so scattered around the performance space in mute testimony to some sort of arboreal apocalypse—and lays her head down on its raw top. Anthony Phillips, dressed in black, sits on another stump nearby testing the weight of a very real ax. Ever so softly, Garfield begins to sing the opening verse of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby.”
By the time she gets to “I don't know why but I keep thinking / Something's bound to go wrong” you don’t need to know anything about Chekhov’s gun to know that sooner or later that ax is going to go off, and it won’t be pretty. But you giggle anyway. And when the other cast members—Phillips, Brandin Steffenson, and musician Matthew Brookshire—join in the refrain, you can’t help but giggle some more. Don’t worry, Baby? What have you been smoking?
Just a little over an hour in length, “Twin Pines” is divided into two sections. There’s no plot to speak of, though there’s plenty of drama and the dancers do form a recognizable community. The first half, “Stump,” is a clutch of enigmatic vignettes loosely bound together by dream logic. Amidst a clutter of flea-market props—an ornate marble-topped table, some velvet curtains, a vintage upright vacuum cleaner—Phillips drapes Steffensen in a bright pink sleeping bag as if it were a ceremonial kimono, then presents him to Garfield, who wears a golden coat hanger like a pharaonic diadem. There’s an ax murder (of course), a resurrection, and some spilled milk that turns out to be nothing more than packing peanuts.
The second half, “Flesh,” is made up of dancier episodes, though the choreography is generally earthbound and spare. Quotidian movement—a TSA-style pat-down, for instance—is repeated until it takes on the luster of a dance phrase. The cast is augmented by the magisterial Omagbitse Omagbemi, who performs extended duets with Steffenson, Garfield, and a gorgeous length of saffron fabric that spills down from the mezzanine above.
The section titles come from Native American folklore: Stump and Flesh are Ho-Chunk Nation hero-twins who represent the soul and the body, respectively; perhaps they’re the Twin Pines, too. Garfield’s program notes are choked with references to trees in myth and metaphor: Apollo and Daphne; the branches of the human nervous and circulatory systems; the branches of Linnaean taxonomy. We’re told that the work’s denizens “wrangle through twisted branches of human ecology foraging a middle path around the root causes of desire and dread” where “seedling thoughts grow-up into monstrous reflections and are cut down to size.” That’s a lot of trees for one dance.
A sign that points in so many directions at once points nowhere. It turns out that Garfield’s trees are mostly the choreographic version of a MacGuffin. The myths and metaphors may have set her imagination going, but they aren’t critical to the work. “Twin Pines” isn’t anything so simple as the re-working of a legend or an exploration of, say, man and nature. Focus too much on the program notes’ trees and you’ll miss the work’s more intriguing forest of images.
“Twin Pines” is fueled throughout by the same mix of dread, deadpan whimsy, and the uneasy jostle of layered images that powers the opening scene. Early on in “Stump,” Garfield—dressed in a woodland sprite’s idea of a cocktail dress—picks up two white plastic hangers with the earnest gravity of a child playing dress-up and flutters them behind her shoulders like dainty fairy’s wings. It’s hilarious six different ways. But a few seconds later she’s sprawled on her back with her taffeta skirt hiked up around her ears while Steffenson—wearing only a plaid woodsman’s vest and a pair of hiking shorts—looms over her, hauling her up his thighs by her bare legs. Wings, plaid, a violent embrace: it’s hard not to think of James and the Sylph. Or, if we’re taking our hints from Garfield’s notes, Apollo and Daphne. That the participants seem lost to themselves and to each other in a vacant daze is hardly a comfort.
In “Flesh,” Omagbemi and Steffensen perform a duet to Phillips’ soothing recitation of a guided meditation exercise. (The duet puts one in mind of Wally Cardona’s “A Light Conversation.”) On the one hand, it’s funny to watch two active, upright bodies attempt to enact something intended to be done in prone, still solitude. When instructed to listen to their breath and the sound of the heart beating the dancers run around each other in furious circles. But as an image what goes on inside us when we try to get mind and body to cooperate, it’s spot on.
Garfield’s rambling edifice is held together by repeated gesture, vocabulary, and a presentational style. The same gestures pop up episode after episode: the mimed offering of a ceremonial teacup, a head dropping down in a stupor, arms held tight against a shivering body, roundhouse martial arts kicks. Twinning is everywhere: sometimes two dancers execute the same steps in parallel, sometimes one will echo another’s movements several episodes later. Ceremonies are everywhere, too, and as often as not look like children’s play-acting.
Garfield’s ability to make an image do double or even triple duty gives the work its peculiar power. When she dons her clothes-hanger crown, she’s simultaneously a legendary queen, a girl hard at work at make-believe, and a nutcase. In both halves, the dancers’ affect is either flat, abstracted, or stupefied—they never seem really present—and there are more than a few moments when they look as if they’re suffering from a neurological deficit. It’s their very distance from the proceedings, however, that allows them to resonate on so many levels: we’re invited to project like mad, and so we do.
The music of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Matthew Brookshire makes an enormous contribution to the work’s coherence and emotional power. There are some brilliant covers. He gives Eisley’s chirpy “Tree Tops” an appropriately brittle edge and his rendition Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” accompanied by the drone of a harmonium, replaces the original’s cocksure cheek with so much longing it’s practically sinister. Brookshire’s original work, which he performs on guitar, ukulele and harmonium, is no less affecting. He sets the botanical names of some of Prospect Park’s specimen trees—Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’, Querqus alba, Pinus densiflora—to a haunting melody. Sung in his beautiful, plangent tenor, it sounds like a prayer. If there’s a god of trees, surely he’ll be blessed.
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos by JulietaCervantes
Top: Keely Garfield and Andrew Phillips in “Twin Pines”
Bottom: Omagbitse Omagbemi in “Twin Pines”