The “Cloudless”
Susan Marshall & Company
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
February 1, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2007, Susan Reiter

Generally, choreographers are ready to move on to the next project once their current one has premiered, and audiences are usually lured by the promise of seeing someone’s latest, newest work. But Susan Marshall’s “Cloudless” is such an accomplished piece of work that it certainly merited the two-week return engagement that DTW was enlightened enough to provide.

A work in 18 brief sections marked by cryptic beauty and sly surprise, it was first seen at DTW last March, and went on tour to California. The same superb cast of five, who manage to suggest and evoke intriguing questions and possibilities through deliciously matter-of-fact performances, was back to make this suite of delicate, unpredictable vignettes accumulate its full complement of poignancy and absurdity.

“Cloudless” is exquisitely crafted, with every element carefully considered and making its own strong contribution. The musical selections — primarily by Jane Shaw, but also including some delicately melancholy piano etudes by Philip Glass, a David Byrne arrangement of the famous male duet from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” and the 1960s pop song “Crimson and Clover” — are deftly chosen, astutely supportive and never overwhelming to the material. The incorporation of video – seemingly de rigueur at many dance events these days — is handled delicately and never comes across as a gimmick. The use of props in a somewhat mockingly prosaic manner is brilliantly managed. The costumes (by Kasia Walicka Maimone) are simple — usually soft and sporty, sometimes diaphanous – and change just enough to help propel the work’s momentum without calling unnecessary attention to themselves. Mark Stanley’s lighting always enhances the subtlety and detail of the material.

The delicate irony of the opening visual design — a small rosy cloud seems to float across a video screen, only to be revealed as a fluffy suspended set piece once the screen is removed — helps to prepare us for the unexpected and the off-kilter. Meanwhile Petra van Noort’s opening solo, in which her nervously fluttering and winding hands suggest a hyperactive butterfly, and her wonderfully spontaneous manner suggests a young girl whose innocence has already been slightly tinged with regret, sets the tone for the artfully detailed, scrupulously focused movement Marshall has shaped so eloquently. All excess has been pared away, but while what remains is meticulously refined, it has a haunting air of possibility, as though it’s being freshly discovered.

Some of the pieces make their impact through robust movement and confrontation. The wonderfully impassive Luke Miller writhes with tension as he faces us, and them, as though he wasn’t already beset by his own demons, has to contend with bodies sliding onto the stage from the wings, refusing to stay hidden when he tries to push them back. Kristin Hollinsworth and Joseph Poulson create a relationship in which deep passion and harsh cruelty are intermingled. His hand is clamped over her mouth, and whenever he lifts it, she lets out a thin, mournful scream. Is she his prisoner? Does she even want to get away? Or is their regular mating dance? The dip and sway and undulate as “Crimson and Clover” plays with increasing volume, and the tension is both scary and sensuous. By the end, it has become a dance of mutual cruelty — or perhaps tenderness? — and she is covering his mouth, and he’s emitting his own screams.

In some scenes, Marshall makes artful use of the mundane. The pages of a huge heavy book do their own dance, seeming to flutter of their own accord, even though we’ve just watched the dancers set up the standing fan that creates the effect. But the mysterious tableau that Marshall has created around that book — Miller and Poulson sitting close together at the table on which the book rests, gently lifting its pages as though going on the journey inscribed on them, while Hollinsworth and Darrin M. Wright hover behind them. It could be a family portrait seen in time-lapse photography.

Even though relationships are quietly sketched and left open to interpretation, the skilled, restrained performers imply deep secrets, possibilities of trust and betrayal throughout these delicately honed miniatures. Throughout, Marshall evokes human vulnerability in fascinating ways, but always with an air of distance and abstraction. The rich, fascinating imagery of “Cloudless” is beautifully open-ended, inviting us to give in to its textured precision and let it take us wherever we allow it.

Volume 5, No. 6
February 5, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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