writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Politics and Poses

Monkey Business
Deborah Riley Dance Projects
Dance Place,
Washington, D.C.
April 24-25, 2004

By Lisa Traiger
Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger
published April 26 2004

Deborah Riley means business—no fooling around—in her evening length world-premiere, Monkey Business, which made its debut April 24 at Dance Place. That's not to say that there's not a wink, a snicker or even a guffaw or two in store over the course of the 45-minute work, but Riley is parsing big ideas, not just monkeying about. Riley, who co-directs Dance Place with founder Carla Perlo, remains a quiet driving force within the D.C. contemporary dance community, as a teacher and mentor. Her presence is frequently soft-spoken, well considered, distinctive in its exploratory choreographic methods.

In Monkey Business Riley looks east once again, this time to the anthropomorphic concepts expressed in the Chinese calendar. This year, 2004, is the year of the monkey and with its attributes indicating that wood resting atop metal will bring disharmony to the fore, Riley has rich material with which to conjure her deceptively gentle but pointed images. Monkeys, stuffed toys with elongated arms and legs, hang from the ceiling and provide dance partners at various points in the program. Brian Harris's intriguing score— played on bansuri flute and lyre and supplemented with recordings ranging from pieces from "Tosca," Greg Ellis and Jon Hassell, among others—lays a richly cobbled path on which Riley and her four dancers scoot and skitter like shape shifters glimpsed from a distance.

Riley also contributes a recorded and later a live monologue. Initially a folk tale about monkeys capturing the moon in a barrel is re-enacted in a fashion by the four women who link hands and galumph through the space. Later Riley describes a close friend's death and the unheeded search for patience amidst the storm of life trapped and shaken by loss.

Like previous Riley works, some of the most eloquent moments are the sparest, those that offer repose, space and time for introspection, like when the four women sit cross legged, each clasping the paw of a stuffed monkey nearby. An early Riley solo dissects political posturing with an accumulation of gestures attributed to the two top presidential candidates, incumbent George Bush and challenger John Kerry. With a record monologue that analyzes the candidates movement, contributed by Catherine Eliot, a certified movement analyst, Riley gesticulates, cocks her head left (Kerry), stands with hands at hips cowboy tough (Bush) and juicily mines these assertive men's stylistic idiosyncrasies: chin juts, palms up, shoulder shrugs and assorted walks. The question posed isn't which candidate you like, but, which candidate do you most move like, for, as Delsarte noted a century earlier, 'every little movement has a meaning.'

Monkey Business unwinds as vignettes, short scenes, duets, solos, small group work, that is connected thematically. Riley's dancers—Jessica Marchant, Nicole McClam, Lorena Cervantes Racanelli and Grissell Suhy—for the most part manage Riley's easy going lopes, all-fours gallops and even jazzy asides with hips switches and jiggles. But Riley continues to perform at her peak and is the best at embodying her choreographic vision. Her second solo, with its smooth-as-silk execution, even when tremors alight from her body and hands twist and writhe, conjuring an unknown—a monkey perhaps—is strong enough to stand on its own.

Ultimately, although Monkey Business is a fine piece, it is not among Riley's finest. The dancers have more to do to attain the same level of facile performance as Riley and the short vignettes and shifts are sometimes jarring in light of the smooth velocity of so much of Riley's work. The narrative, too, came as somewhat of a surprise, but Riley speaking extemporaneously, though not while dancing, proved up to the task. Monkey Business does take its politics and contemplative choices seriously, even in its droll encounters with stuffed monkeys.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 15
April 26, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on April 19, 2004