May 17, 2014
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2014 by Martha Sherman
Laurie Berg’s “Afterlife” reveled in layers - both of dance and identity. Along with dancers Jodi Bender, Bessie McDonough-Thayer, and Jillian Sweeney – and several masks – Berg offered a meditation on celebrity, fame and glitz, engaging the audience with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek.
Co-presented by Invisible Dog and Joyce Unleashed, Berg is very comfortable punching through fourth walls. Here, she walked into the bright raw space bare-breasted, to alert the audience that the show included partial nudity, and to advise where the exits were and to turn off our cellphones. Chatting with the cast as they emerged from a large closet (“Are you ready?), “The Afterlife” began as if a studio showing. A bystander was enlisted to act as a standing pillar for the four performers as they unfolded themselves onto the stage with an enormous train of multi-colored cloth panels, which they then wound around their human column to form a large “X.”
As the quartet waddled and eased into the four corners, each untied a part of the cloth train and wound the fabric into tight cords that they bound around themselves into big glorious diapers, exotically colored and textured. Berg laid out a circle of electric tea lights around a pool of light (the inventive lighting was by Chloe Brown); then she stood by and watched, as the other three dancers moved into the circle of light and moved to Glenn Miller’s rhythmic, melodic “Perfidia.”
The trio moved in and out of their diagonal girl group. Bender and McDonough-Thayer swept their arms wide, then moved into long low squats, and flipped into flat facedown poses, as Sweeney sauntered around the edges of the circle, swaying her hips, and shivering her buttocks. Eventually, all sashayed around the circle, their light smiles and parallel movements Andrews Sister-like, with arms angled out, flippantly mannered.
The music and scene shifted, as the dancers donned masks (sometimes on their faces, sometimes the back of their heads), changing identities; the masks were the faces of dead, flamboyant celebrities, and perhaps reflected parts of the dancers’ identifies. When Bender emerged in Michael Jackson’s face, the undulation of her body as her arms scooped forward was a good approximation of him; later, when Sweeney took on MJ’s face, her solo of sharp jerks and spasmodic energy gave him another “afterlife.” The masks shifted bodies; the bodies shifted motion; and each famous face was offered its share of adulation, along with a dollop of foolishness.
The dancers shed layers of cover, wrapping and unwrapping themselves like the uncovering of privacy that comes with fame. Bender was the most exposed, first fully wrapped burqa-like, then bared herself and leered as she raised a pair of tea lights to her breasts. The combined ex-superstars (MJ, Divine, Anna Nicole, Bob Ross) danced in her shadow, slinking like crabs on their backs.
As the dancers shifted masks and identities, each became less individual; the famous faces hiding more than they explained. At one point, a dancer wore MJ on one side of her head, and Anna Nicole on the other: two-faced, indeed. The disguises and layers flattened, and the four dancers moved into a routine of jumps and kicks (Berg calling counts); finally, the smooth waves of Glenn Miller’s “Perfidia” returned. For the four avatars, it was time to celebrate their lost stars – and themselves. As her three performers slid back into the spotlit pool, Berg moved to a hidden storage closet upstage, pulled out a bottle of wine and glasses, and poured drinks for the dancers – and the audience. As they took their bows, the performers merrily toasted us; and, deservedly, we toasted them right back.
copyright © 2014 by Martha Sherman