writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Dionysian Screwball Comedy

This is not a peep
Emspace and Bibliodance
Dance Mission Theatre
San Francisco, California
November 14, 2003

by Ann Murphy
copyright © 2003 by Ann Murphy

Since coming on the scene as a dancer less than a decade ago, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart has stood out. When she moves she looks silken, molten and boneless, a mythical fish girl/woman, or a shapechanger who slips between the real world and the archetypical, the human and the animal. Part of Stuart's magic is that she projects a sexy emotional availability on stage that flows out of a viscous physicality. She is an antidote to local artists who have embraced dance like barbed wire, keeping out classical ideals of beauty, musical structure and human relationship on the premise that not only are those ideals suspect, if not politically bankrupt, but that everything sucks, has always sucked and will always suck, no matter what you do.

Thankfully, Stuart is neither a puritan nor a nihilist. She fits in the Dionysian wing of local dance whose queen is the much older Sara Shelton Mann and being a classically trained violist, she probably can't escape her musicality. Even when she veers toward darkness, she finds some sensuous splendor to bring back to us. And last weekend, calling her company EmSpace (as in em dash, the long dash in typography. or her first two initials), she joined forces with dancer/choreographer Ann Berman. Berman calls what she does Bibliodance, although there were no books in evidence. But never mind. They were there in spirit in the intelligence and wit of Berman's wacky style. Berman is a lanky dancer just this side of gawky who makes dances at the edge of venerable screwball comedy, borrowing from the annals of female physical humor as expressed by such incisively funny pioneers as Carole Lombard and perhaps a bit from goofy Geena Davis.

This was an evening wryly, even rather absurdly named This is not a peep in which, with the grace of a good catering staff, we were offered a treat called peeps during intermission. I accepted one, a yellow marshmellowy chick made of sugar, thickening agents, and food coloring. With one Proustian bite I was sent hurtling back to hypoglycemic Easters of long ago, and I was aware that, although the program was also sweet, it was no marshmellow.

Stuart revealed herself to have deep formalist interests. Her opening dance Type/Set (2003) seemed to owe a great deal to choreographer Nancy Karp, with whom Stuart has performed, and whose own pursuit of pattern is nearly architectural. Decked out in clever tops bearing a single vowel (minus the Y), the five dancers moved in the dark, sleekly lit space to Christopher Keyes' richly rhythmic score of manual typewriter clacking. It was a modernist's version of the shop come alive, but rather than dolls the inanimate objects brought to life were a printer's letters. I half expected them to spell out words, and couldn't decide if the IOU that lined up was intentional.

With a stop and go rhythm, and beautiful freeze framed moments, we felt the letters personify the writer's process of pausing to think, writing in an ordered rush, pausing. Stuart intermittently captured the movers (herself, Katie Aggen, Ann Berman, Maggie Kelley, and Julie Sheetz) in noirish pauses. These had the fog and trenchcoat drama of a detective story pared down to absolute essentials, the mystery being, with postmodern irony, about communication itself. As the dance progressed, though, the patterns felt a little too spartan, and Stuart missed opportunities for crazy interjections or zigzagging digressions that would have deepened the structure of the otherwise elegant and intelligent work.

Stuart moved on to a dance of emotive sensuality with If There Was A Me for You, excerpted from a longer work called Seconds. This is the kind of female/female duet that was long overdue, one of twinning, frolicsome togetherness embodying the Platonic ideal so many girls treasure but which gets lost for many once adulthood hits and people feel forced to choose between men and women to love. Sexuality is implicit in the animal intimacy Stuart presents, but it is an intimacy that doesn't necessarily lead to sexual relations. That deep emotional openendedness and freeform sense of bond was joyously captured by Deborah Miller and Leyya Tawil who supported each other like counterweights and rolled and lunged with puppyish delight.

Part three of Stuart's choreographic persona emerged in the last piece of the evening, the slight Suitable Beautiful Ducks, a play on the Ugly Duckling Tale, with a sound score called Dutiful Ducks by Charles Amirkhanian, a leader in new music nationally, former music director of the Pacifica station here (KPFA) and a long-time Bay Area composer. Here was Stuart the playful parodist who decked out her ducks in orange-billed baseball caps with flip flops on their feet. Ballet is full of swans and ugly ducklings and bird-like creatures meeting perilous ends, and with enormous humor Stuart joined that lineage. From ugly duckling rejected by the other ducks, she becomes a black clad Odile and finally makes common cause with Berman who dances a campily moving variation on Odette in a white halter-topped cocktail dress. It was the best vaccine against the coming Nutcracker onslaught in town.

Ann Berman led us to that zany finale with her surreal view of the world. Potato Dreams (premiere) was a cartoon of the psychosis of a woman whose hair sprouted out all over her head in tiny tails (Amy "Ray" Kingwill) in a straitjacket for whom every Rorschach blot produced a vision of dancing potatoes, the simplist blots producing two, the complex ones yielding a veritable field of spuds with legs at one end and eyes peering out near the top. Never mind that the resident nutcase danced a hokey shuffle-and-flap dance of little interest and smiled ghoulishly at us, or that the potatoes repeated the step a maniac number of times. Madness isn't necessarily a rich or complex experience--Berman assured us of that. She continued in a similar vein with Chicken Complex.  Complex Chicken (2000) where she took the juvenile slur of "chicken" and gave it a Marx Brothers literalness, whether from pulsing head movements or the contests between pairs of dancers, one on the shoulders of the other, cluckling and bawking as they battled another couple until one was queen of the roost.

Berman's humor lies in her literalism. That literalism isn't easily transferable to the kind of formalist effort of her 1999 work Accretion. This is a dance that in the press kit Berman described as a depiction of obedience to authority and the dangers of collective behavior. I only read that much later. Reflecting back on it, nothing about the dance suggested group think to me. In fact, what was strongest about the structure of patterns, which were not modeled on a mathematical sense of accumulation (1+1, 1+1+1.) as I first expected but on a fragmentary build up of experience, was its perpetual ebb and flow. The ominous implications of those patterns eluded me, perhaps because I was thrown off by the title and looked literally at accretion. Maybe I overlooked nuances in the relationships that were there. But even if I did, the failure isn't mine alone. Berman needs to deepen her exploration of what movement ought to look like to depict people acting like lemmings or what happens in the world when a single person exerts unusual suasion over others. It may be seductive but it sure isn't pretty.

Photo: Damara Ganley, Katie Aggen, Julie Sheetz
Photographer: Andy Mogg

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 9
November 24, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy




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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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