Headlong's "more' at Live Arts Festival (1st review)

Is it art, or just movement?

Emory: Walled inside a fence. (Photo: M. Elizabeth Hershey.)
Emory: Walled inside a fence. (Photo: M. Elizabeth Hershey.)

For their world premiere of more, Headlong Dance Theater's three artistic directors—David Brick, Amy Smith and Andrew Simonet— wanted to find "new tools and approaches" for "creating and refining movement." After two years in "dialogue" (i.e., collaboration) with the New York-based choreographer Tere O'Connor, each of the trio created one segment of a piece for six dancers (although the program doesn't say who choreographed what).

The first movement sets six characters (Nichole Canuso, Niki Cousineau, Devynn Emory, Jaamil Kosoko, Kate Watson-Wallace, and Christina Zani) at an evening spent together with friends; in the second, they bring in tree branches and implant them in the furniture. At the beginning of the third, four dancers pile the furniture to the side of the stage while Emory pulls back the black flooring to reveal a bright green surface underneath. Then they cordon off this space with a post fence, walling Emory inside, as the five of them fan out across the stage for a final ensemble dance.

Rearranging a rug

Throughout, the dancers employ the familiar setting of a party to push the boundaries of their dance vocabulary and also simultaneously to question what can still count for their company as movement. The patterned dresses and thin-lapelled suits, not to mention the blue vinyl couch and yellow-fabric chair, set the evening sometime in the 1970s (although an iPod and microwave confuses this idea). Perhaps it's just a gathering of hipsters with bad haircuts and poor fashion sense.

In either case, more presents familiar movements and activities. Characters rearrange the rug or furniture, sit on a sofa and whisper, make shivering noises with their mouths, and even vacuum the rug and cook food in a microwave oven while others writhe on the floor. Every seemingly insignificant action becomes part of the dance. When Canuso crossed her legs or pulled down the hem of her skirt, I had to wonder: Did the choreographers tell her to fidget at that exact moment?

When the "dancing"— or at least what an audience might traditionally recognize as dancing— does occur, all six of them execute the motions with exacting clarity. Stepping hard in clearly exaggerated footsteps, they pump their elbows and rock on their hips, or flail an arm wide into a turn, not always to music, and sometimes to the percussive sounds created by slapping their hands across their legs or chests. At all times, the choreography has them standing on the stage to create a compelling visual and spatial array of disconnected bodies.

The ridiculous essentials

And that's part of the problem. About 20 minutes into the first segment, the dancers sat still on the stage while a voice-over solemnly explained what remains in an absence of everything: "Here's how it works…body parts go away, your legs go, your face goes, your lips go, herpes stays."

But when "music and dancing stay," more appears more like a deconstruction than an expansion of the boundaries. The dancers break down an evening's events to the ridiculous essentials, where reorganizing a rug evokes laugher, and the frenzied rubbing of knees evinces the anxieties that underlie and betray social graces, the stilted conversations, the party games that fail to generate excitement.

People wind up asleep in corners or under tables; Emory brushes her long hair onto Kosoko's bald head; and later, the two of them reduce male bonding rituals to finger-rubbing gestures. As in John Cage's silent 4'33", Cousineau commands us to "wait" as she microwaves a snack for a full three minutes, during which time a woman in the third row cackled hysterically while a wise four-year old sitting behind me asked her mother, "What are we waiting for? What's so funny?"

While Emory sang, Canuso and Kosoko slow-danced grotesquely, their heads touching at the tops with their shoulders hunched over. I felt both disturbed and invigorated by the cumulative experience of Headlong's new and very poignant piece of dance theater. But despite the humor and more engrossing moments, like any piece of deconstruction it also exhibited a detached, clinical quality.

A question for my cleaning lady

Nor did I believe for a minute that more had shown me what remains of dance when bodies disappear. The work asks important questions about the boundaries of dance's movement vocabulary: Is rearranging your own furniture an artistic endeavor? If so, do I owe Headlong royalties the next time my cleaning lady comes over?

With more, Headlong has set up an insignificant tautology, proving only that whenever dancers (or anyone) engage in movement, they're engaging in movement.♦

To read another review by Jonathan M. Stein, click here.
To read responses, click here and here.
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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