American Realness Festival
Abrons Arts Center
New York, NY
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2015 by Martha Sherman
Ben Pryor, founder and curator of the American Realness Festival, makes no secret and needs no excuse for his edgy taste in dance and performance art. As idiosyncratic as his choices are, the sub-categories of post-modern work that appeal to him are also fairly predictable. He often includes the work of powerful women, who eschew soft edges. Two of the artists in this year’s festival who fit that bill were Karen Sherman and Liz Santoro.
Karen Sherman, “One with Others,” January 9, 2015.
In “One with Others,” Sherman and her collaborators, Aaron Mattocks and Joanna Furnans, leaned on props of metal and wood, text and external triggers to create a work that was not about things, but about selves. All strong dancers, they used controlled simple movements in duets and trio to mirror each other. Their legs and arms were prongs, intersecting in hard geometry. Smooth balletic leaps and birdlike arm motions were also hosts to small and unique details, twisted necks and heads, crunched and fisted fingers.
Joanna Furnans, Karen Sherman, Aaron Mattocks in "One with Others." Photo by Ian Douglas.
A few movement patterns wove like choruses through different scenes and stories, like a sashay on the stage as one hand raised above and curled to touch their heads while another arm slashed the air in front of them. Each dancer had a story. Mattocks, who is as good an actor as a dancer, led with a wending script that included words and messages arcing from clichés and generalities (“I can’t change your life; I hate myself”) to poetry. Often, he lied (“I will never surprise you.”)
Later, he played a faux piano in a low wooden box that dressed stage, singing like a cabaret performer to his partners in motion. Other furnishings were arrayed, including a large wooden panel, an oddly constructed light box, and a wooden silhouette that Sherman used in her solo as both prop and foil. Some props were menacing, like forceps, gloves, and water. In addition to the stage furnishings, the three also took on odd wooden appendages slung across or around their bodies, crude harnesses and with holes and hooks. Standing in a simple line, the trio appeared as mechanical as human – but only briefly.
Where some of the movement patterns were more industrial with arms moving like pistons, smooth and controlled, their dancer selves kept emerging. Mattocks and Furnans moved in a balletic duet with wide arabesques that plunged their heads and arms down, shifting their weight. Sherman stepped in to smoothly replace Mattocks in the duet, while his self-talk continued to accompany the fluid movement (“give it time…”) Then, in a frightening turn, Furnans was trapped against the large wooden board, stapled to it in a crucifix form, as Mattocks lay at her feet as a pillow, or perhaps an acolyte.
Furnans loosened herself, slowly, awkwardly, from her trap, and crumpled to the floor quietly. As her partners moved into a duet, arms stretching and sweeping freely, she joined them and the three melded, their arms and fingers stretching out and open. The trio didn’t offer each other perfect stability, but in a world that felt more constrained than free, they were safer together then on their own.
Liz Santoro and Pierre Godard, “Relative Collider,” January 10, 2015.
Choreographer Liz Santoro partnered with Pierre Godard, who brought his applied mathematics skills to the service of art in their relentless, mesmerizing “Relative Collider.” Unlike Sherman, whose props and staging implied an industrial world, Santoro’s stage was bare. The sole prop was Godard and his laptop, standing stage right through the performance, and reading a score of words through much of the work, each beat corresponding to – colliding with -- the beats of the dancers in motion.
The machines of this piece were the imperturbable dancers, Santoro, Cynthia Koppe, and Stephen Thompson. As they stood in a simple triangle, staring ahead, unblinking, their bodies subtly shifted in complex rhythm patterns. First they each shifted their weight onto one leg, then the other, in perfect alignment to the quickening beats. Then a series of crisp hand gestures were added, just as rhythmically-- a raised arm, pointed finger, fist in, fist out. No knee or arm or hand was out of synch, and no beat was missed. The movement was mesmerizing, the discipline breathtaking.
As they broke apart, their bodies were separate planes, leaning or aligning, creating boxes around each other and just avoiding collision, as each subtle movement shift kept them in close relationship. A circular, smooth movement around the floor suggested an infinity figure eight, and the dancers’ movement began to increase in pace, the specificity of the beats and motion just as exacting. Their leaps across the space were larger as the soundtrack grew louder; the pace became frantic – and then silence fell, though the dancers quick, entirely synched motion continued. As the dance ended, the auditory afterimage of the driving beat haunted the space, as three bodies in motion finally stilled.
Liz Santoro, Cynthia Koppe, and Stephen Thompson in “Relative Collider.” Photo © Ian Douglas.
copyright © 2015 by Martha Sherman