REVIEW Rarely does ODC Theater pack them in the way it did Feb. 2 for SHIFT Physical Theater’s first full-evening piece, The Shape of Poison. Manuelito Biag has been making work for close to 10 years, but the buzz has really picked up since 2003, when he presented the anguished Giving Strength to this Fragile Tongue. With Poison, developed as an artist-in-residence project at ODC, he has created a work about the inarticulate, often unacknowledged forces that shape our realities. Watching the dancers in pursuit of endless and often turned-in-on-themselves encounters felt like looking for a cause in all those ruffles, vortices, and surges that continually disturb the ocean’s surface. Poison moves leisurely but doesn’t meander; for all its churning, at its core the piece is quiet and wistful.
Philippines-born and California-raised, Biag has described Poison as influenced by the yogic kleshas corruptions of the mind that prevent enlightenment. It’s not necessary to know that Poison‘s three sections, which can stand independent of each other, explore three kleshas: ignorance, passion, and anger. It’s quite enough to realize that for each part the choreographer developed a highly charged, intensely physical language that he shaped into fluid, at-times soaring movements, which drop hints of narrative like beads of color into a pool of oil. As he did with Tongue, he turned to Jess Rowland for an inspired score, here partially performed live on piano.
The opening trio (Amy Foley, Damara Ganley, and Tessa Nebrida) began posed like statues facing different directions, until Ganley’s tiny tremor sent out enough waves to animate Foley and Nebrida. Even though each of them developed something of a personality Foley’s lyric groundedness was particularly lovely more than anything the dancers created a sense of space through which they were reaching for each other, at times tentatively, at times assertively. One had the feeling they were trying to pierce clouds or curtains that hid something. But whenever a connection or moment of clarity was made, it either evaporated or was cut off randomly. There was blindness to the way their hands reached out; touches became almost accidental. In a kneeling position, two dancers held hands and then simply dropped them. A cupped open hand welcomed another, but no emotional current flowed. Almost animal-like, the dancers nosed up to each other, aware of one another’s presence but rarely reutf8g.
The central duet for Biag and the resplendently fierce Erin Mei-Ling Stuart worked with material already explored in Tongue: the unspeakable tension in a relationship in which two individuals feed off each other’s heat. Here the two people were very much equals. Each emotional punch was matched by one of similar force; the two of them were always at a standoff, trapped with no end in sight. The heartbeat in Rowland’s score at times sounded like water torture as the pair watched wearily, waiting for the next explosion to hit. Biag had a stooped way of yanking his legs up as if dragging them out of a swamp and then ever so gently moving them like a tiger on the prowl that was truly terrifying. Though he designed wave after wave of full-bodied confrontations, one of the most telling came through his use of arms, which present very narrow points of contact. When the dancers stood face-to-face, forcing their stretched arms against each other, you could see the hell of this mutual repulsion and attraction. This duet is Poison‘s strongest component.
At this point, Biag has not quite mastered choreographing for his multicast group. In Poison‘s third section he looked at chaos and instability from a communal perspective. While he was wonderfully adept at designing fluid and formally inventive movements, the circle and diagonal lineups that he set in opposition to individual expressions of anger tiny Tanya Bello was particularly fierce didn’t quite add up. However, an excellent duet for Ganley and Noel Plemmons that peeled away from the ensemble brought on a finale that teetered between hope and despair. In the context of Naomi Lazard’s existential pessimism in her poem "Ordinance on Arrival" (read on tape), about a bleak world from which "there is no vehicle out," hands repeatedly planting seeds suggest futility. Yet the stricken Plemmons, after being brutally repulsed by Ganley, reached out his hand to receive a drop of saliva from each of the other dancers. Thus nourished, he veered toward a strong Ashley Taylor, who throughout seemed to function as a calm within the storm. Was he able to push through suffering into the light? It would be nice to think so. *