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The 35th Home Season Concert of Anne-Marie Mulgrew & Dancers Company (AMM & DCO) began with a welcome from founder/artistic director Anne-Marie Mulgrew, who remarked upon the thrill of performing indoors for a live audience after two years outside. AMM & DCO, an experimental modern dance troupe based in Philadelphia, has a history of innovative approaches that included outdoor performances long before the pandemic. Mulgrew and the dancers brought the company’s inventiveness to their exploration of today’s tumultuous times. Beautiful Chaos, a new full-length work, considers the hope and potential of uncertainty.
The word chaos comes from the Greek term for “formless primordial space.” As the program notes explain, “Many of us think about it as danger, confusion, or turmoil but it also can be seen as an opportunity for exploration or transformation.”
Mulgrew made a meaningful connection between the dance’s themes of beauty and chaos and the art of Isaiah Zagar, the Philadelphia mosaic mural artist and creator of South Street’s Magic Gardens. The program included several short films, one of which took a point-of-view approach to a Zagar mural. As the camera zoomed in to show the tiles, paint, and fragments of pottery, it reminded viewers of the intricacies of Zagar’s art, which looks beautiful, clever, and chaotic all at once. Like a shard of mirror in one of the city’s many mosaic murals, AMM & DCO’s Beautiful Chaos often reflected these qualities.
Potential and connection
“Prelude,” the first dance, introduced themes and movement phrases that appear throughout Beautiful Chaos. Dancers circled the space, then paused to form multi-level shapes and tableaux with bodily contact, such as a hand on another’s shoulder, arm, or wrist. As Em Godfrey, Anya Kress, Kate Lombardi, Hannah Murphy, Leslie Ann Pike, Ava Pizzi, and Arielle Ridley alternated between motion and stillness, connection and independence, their movement resembled the primordial space from which creation emerges. The dancers lifted Godfrey overhead with one leg extended as if to take a step, an image suggesting the emergence of something new and full of potential. Performed to live music by percussionist Dr. Andy Thierauf, the dancing matched the notes in perfect synchronicity for a memorable finish.
“Basking in Bach” built upon this by reflecting on community, support, and the unknown. Mulgrew’s choreography effectively used variations in level, formation, tempo, and the space itself to fill it with movement. Dancers formed multiple groups in which they moved in sync with each other, but not with other groups. They took turns soloing while others watched, seated upon the floor. Gestures including an embrace and a supported handstand evoked connection and assistance, while the music, a recording of a Bach concerto for oboe, lent an air of atemporality or timelessness.
Godfrey’s grace and precision, a delight to behold, distinguished their dancing here and throughout the program. From spins and kicks to leaps and balances, Godfrey demonstrated superior control and seemingly effortless strength. A few other dancers faltered in single-leg balances, though, and movement seemed off tempo in some of the synchronous sections.
Feelings, memories, and shock
Clever staging created a seamless transition to the next section, a solo for Pike entitled “Memories from Within.” Pike entered as “Basking in Bach” concluded, and the “Bach” dancers lifted her, as if imbuing her with their support before they exited. The program notes described “Memories from Within” as exploring the internal chaos that exists within as emotions and memories arise and conflict, even as they coexist. Slow pulses down to a split and a heaving chest that propelled Pike’s body back into motion suggested a range of feelings. The nature of those feelings was difficult to discern, though; perhaps the dance was too abstract to convey them fully.
Pike returned with Godfrey and Lombardi for “Chaos One,” in which a frantic pace and mimed screaming conveyed the negative emotions that chaos and uncertainty can bring. Godfrey and Lombardi moved with the energy necessary for a dance of chaos. Pike’s dancing did not match their intensity, but she brought strength to several lifts, smoothly raising and lowering Godfrey.
The next dance, “Stunned,” evoked responses to the chaos of the pandemic. As Mulgrew explained, “Stunned” was conceived as a solo in a chair and “created for a tiny space using a sparse movement vocabulary, as if stunned by personal and world events.” Kress, Murphy, Pizzi, and Ridley held contorted poses on folding chairs standing among empty seats that symbolized both pandemic isolation and those who have passed. Shuffling feet and restless legs suggested feelings of anxiety, and the chairs resembled cages when the dancers held them over their heads. Despite its interesting use of props and gestures, “Stunned” failed to sustain interest, perhaps because it too closely resembled many experiences of the last few years.
Healing, growth, and mystery
The theme shifted to healing and resilience with “A Meditation on Healing the World” and “Quiet Power” (2019), the only dance in the program created and performed live before the pandemic. Lombardi’s empowering solo was just as commanding as when I first saw it two years ago, and it connects with the program’s overarching themes of beauty in chaos with tempo variations and the elegant strength of resilience. However, “Quiet Power” felt out of place with its pre-Covid innocence and use of the musical theme from Game of Thrones, a TV series that seems dated after quarantine content binges. Similarly, “A Meditation on Healing,” while welcome in message, did not quite cohere with the other works. An elegant duet for Godfrey and Pike, it incorporated open-handed gestures of welcome and safety as well as movement drawn from the traditional Chinese medicine practice of qigong.
The final piece, “Beautiful Chaos,” incorporated poems by Yukio Tsuji, the late Japanese writer who published many books of poetry and essays in the late 20th century. Unfortunately, it was impossible to hear the words of the poems read aloud with unamplified voices. Nevertheless, the dance contained evocative and haunting images featuring the entire company. Ridley and Lombardi shone as a pair caught in a movement frenzy. This gave way to a space full of movement with multiple things going on at once: people dancing, someone reading a poem, and Mulgrew, shrouded in layers of clothing, seeming to represent an enduring, insightful wise woman. The piece concluded with Mulgrew alone on stage, removing the shirts and pants draped around her frame one by one. She laid them in a trail on the floor before exiting, leaving beauty and mystery in the space formerly filled by chaos.
In finding opportunity for creation and growth in formless uncertainty, Beautiful Chaos is a thoughtful and hopeful reflection on our times and a testament to AMM & DCO’s creativity and endurance.
What, When, Where
Beautiful Chaos. Choreography by Anne-Marie Mulgrew. Anne-Marie Mulgrew & Dancers Company. $20. June 24 and 25 at CHI Movement Arts Center, 1316 S. 9th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 462-7720 or annemariemulgrewdancersco.org.
Masks are required inside the venue. The company advertised a proof of vaccination requirement, but did not check.
CHI Movement Arts Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with an accessible restroom located backstage and available on request.
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