When you enter FringeArts’ performance space for Subcircle’s HOLD STILL while I figure this out, you're given a hand-drawn flowchart instead of a program, then left to figure it all out as it the action (or inaction) unfolds.
Hard to believe, but Subcircle is now nearly 20 years old, yet its principals, Niki and Jorge Cousineau (née Lehman; he took her surname when they married in Dresden) haven’t aged at all. Niki is a thinking dancer who prefers teamwork to virtuosity. The family virtuoso is Jorge, an award-winning set, lighting, and sound designer who has so many talents in his tool belt, it would drag him down if he wore them all at once. Yet he hefts them with quiet sureness. Both have received multiple awards for their work in theater and dance theater.
As ever, Subcircle transforms space. Their last full-length work in 2014, All this happened more or less, centered on the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Jorge's birthplace. His set was cool and Bauhausian. This time, it’s messy as a backstage dressing room, flanked by dozens, if not hundreds, of props and costumes.
Now back to that flowchart. It’s a bit like a musical score you might see by composers like John Cage, who allow for chance to determine how the piece may be played. According to HOLD STILL’s whimsically drawn instructions, the piece can be performed differently each night at the dancers’ discretion.
Thursday's opening night pretty much followed the chart: starter image, in which the dancers choose and discard random costumes from a huge coat rack; words, after which a timer starts; solo, by anyone; arrange space, by all. Throughout, there are commands for observation, comment (silent or not), reaction, and engagement.
There is a "first" trigger and a "last," plus feedback and playback prompts, which I assume are controlled by Jorge. But unlike the Wizard of Oz, he remains in full view of the audience and even participates in the frequent costume changes, slipping from one black sport jacket into another identical one and donning a hat that would be perfect for walkabout in the Australian outback. His soundtrack includes the Beach Boys, Elton John, and Edith Piaf, among his own musings and spoken and recorded phrases by Niki.
Stealing the show
There’s your mise-en-scene. Now, to pull in close up: two dancers frequently cast in Subcircle’s works, Christy Lee and Scott McPheeters, are back in their milieu after quite some time. Lee’s inner sense of fun is irrepressible; still a slight, girly figure with a heart-shaped and heartbreaking face, she’s the one balancing the ladder on one toe, or lifting it and deftly climbing up while pulling multiple yards of white tulle behind her. Is it a bridal veil? Ha, no. She scrunches it up into a cloud and hooks it to a hanging length of rope on a pulley.
McPheeters is droll throughout, whether dancing in a Scotch-plaid hat with furry side flaps, or in a little skating-skirted black-and-white striped dress near the end, to Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” He held his posture, with dignity; only his eyes and mouth betrayed the mischief within.
Finally, the dancers come together in a synchronized dance called “random full song/walking pattern” a trio that reminded me of the dance scene in director Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande à part. I could hardly end with a better comparison. These three stole the show and will give it back in different ways in the remaining two shows.