writers on dancing


Telling Stories

"Women on the Way"
Dance Mission Theater
San Francisco, California
January 12, 2006
by Charlotte Shoemaker
copyright ©2006 by Charlotte Shoemaker 

"Women on the Way" (in its 6th year) presents a three-week smorgasbord of dance, theater, comedy and music created by women. (Last year it has broadened its programming to include transgender artists.) Nine groups or individuals perform in various combinations, two to four each evening, over the twelve performance span of this festival. It has given me a chance to see work that that has intrigued me while also being introduced to work I didn't already know.

This year the showstopper for me was a piece I'd seen once before and was delighted to see again—"6 Hours." Its choreography, dancing, and sound design (a blending of music by Ben Harper and The Autumn Leaf, sound effects and an original story) were all by Sean Dorsey. It focuses on a long car trip Dorsey takes with a new lover (danced by Mair Culbreth) to visit the father who still thinks of Dorsey as a woman. This one experience tells volumes about a life, bringing the viewer dead center into its contradictions, fears, uncomfortable behaviors, wisdom and tenderness, thus illuminating the common humanity we all share. "6 Hours" is so convincing that it appears to be profoundly personal biography, which elements of it may be. It was also superb theater, vivid dance and a spot on spoken story. Often words seem to exist as a way to shore up a weak dance rather than functioning as a counterpoint to a strong one, but here both are crystalline, precise and exactly on target. Dorsey and Culbreth danced together with such tenderness and conviction that they gave me a privileged view into "their souls" and "their relationship."

Kerry Mehling's "Mama" also deals with "real life experience" using theatrical imagery and dance to communicate two intertwined life stories. The piece was inspired by her grandmother's life. She designed the costumes and danced the part of Mama; Jennifer Michelson danced Carole Ann. (The music was a blend of energetic and romantic popular songs, and achingly beautiful classical songs that were a poignant contrast with what we saw on stage.) The piece began strongly with the two women in nightgowns sitting on a table their backs to us, chewing gum, stroking hair, their arms fluttering like seaweed in the water of their symbiosis. Gradually one emerges as the aloof glamorous mother who pulls ever further away and the other becomes the devoted daughter who tries to pull Mama back, and later endures her insults and resentfully picks up after her. Some of the images are riveting, such as, the daughter in a child's short dress, her back to us, struggling to pull a long rug at the end of which stands Mama in high heels and a fancy coat, tottering and chain smoking. Carole Ann then runs around Mama offering her cupped hands as an ashtray. As clear as these images were and as heart wrenching as the relationship described, I didn't feel it. I remained outside watching and wanting it to reach me more than it did. And yet Mehling is bold in her ambitious scope. She created some powerful images and she held a firm hold on my attention. I would like to see how her work evolves.

Christy Funsch's "Earthquake Eyes" (a premiere) alluded to a story. The Afiara String Quartet, sitting at the back of the stage, played Shubert's String Quartet #14 (Death and the Maiden). Three women (Cari Bellinghausen, Jody Pettle and Sarah Sass) , wearing cocktail dresses and fuzzy wings, moved softly and gently, with two men dressed in street clothes. One of them (Skorpio) stood apart and moved with the still rapid abrupt movement of slowed down break-dancing. The other (Glenn Curtis) was frequently the center of attention as he repeatedly collapsed and was revived by the others. Frequently Skorpio appeared to be directing the action, even from a distance. His movements certainly had the most authority and the integration of break-dancing with delicate movement presents all kinds of interesting possibilities. A sixth dancer was listed in the press release but absent from the piece due to injury. Perhaps last minute scrambling to fill the void she left added to the inconclusive qualities of this dance.

The final piece "Hurt" (premier) choreographed by Alma Esperanza Cunningham consisted entirely of unique, accomplished and forceful dancing. It began with an intricate duet skillfully danced in silence by Leigh Riley and Rosemary Hannon who were horizontal as they moved around and over their own extended arms and legs, skittering like insects towards us. They shivered, sneezed and ran. Their heavy breathing was not simply the result of exertion; it also created a space into which they danced with open arms. Their dance was immediately followed by music (played by the Kronos Quartet) and Ashley Taylor's powerful solo. Her movements were big, wide and grounded. Audible breathing was also a part of the choreography in this segment as she blew into her outstretched hands and then fluttered them creating an almost tangible sphere of her energy. The title is intriguing; both the choreography and the dancing exuded strength and complexity. This was the sort of injury that once healed is stronger than it ever was before. So here too, in the only plotless dance of the evening, is a kind of story.

"Women on the Way" will be continued in various permutations from January 19th to the 22nd and from the 26th to 29th. For information and/or reservations call 415/289-2000 or go to

Photos courtesy of the Women on the Way Festival.

Volume 4, No. 2
January 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 Charlotte Shoemakerl



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last updated on January 16, 2006