Domestic unrest

Pub date July 2, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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Survival often depends on one’s ability to scurry around. Dancers and smaller-scale presenters must use their wits if they want to show their audiences more than homegrown fare. For the most part, the process at SCUBA — a presenters’ network that shares companies out of Seattle, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco — works. Sometimes, however, there is a glitch. Such was the case June 26–28 with one of the two dance installations presented as part of "ODC Theater Festival 2: Local Heroes/Big Picture," Kate Watson-Wallace’s House and Karen Sherman’s Tiny Town.

Watson-Wallace has made something of a reputation for herself in her home city of Philadelphia, where she takes over physical locations and transforms them through performance. Since these are acutely site-specific works, traveling with them is difficult. At Theater Artaud, she was confronted with a huge space that has a strong personality of its own. It proved particularly problematic during the first of two performances on opening night when the soft light of dusk streamed through the huge, history-crusted windows of Artaud’s loading dock. She also had to deal with memories (at least this audience member’s) of Lizz Roman, Joanna Haigood, and other artists who have presented their own — and stronger — interpretations of Artaud. Watson-Wallace works best with intimacy, and her production simply needed more confinement than the space or the budget allowed.

House consisted of what probably were three excerpts from the original piece, performed in the theater’s loading dock and lobby. To create the dining room, she placed a long table and six chairs in a corner, which afforded some sense of enclosure. This first part was choreographically the richest, and well performed by Watson-Wallace, Megan Mazarick, and John Luna with local dancers Sebastian Grubb, Jocelyn Lee, and Marisa Mariscotti. Shifting relationships — on, over, and under the table, as well as up the wall — flowed with the inevitability of clock time, yet they were filled with nuanced little fits and starts. An emotional climate redolent with suggestions of love, rebellion, and fatigue recalled tense moments around anyone’s family dinner table. People came and went, hands tentatively touched, looks were exchanged, support was given and withdrawn.

In the living room — suggested by a sofa, rug, and coffee table nailed halfway up a wall — Mazarick’s slow-paced solo had to deal with gravity as she slithered, climbed, and hung over the furniture. This was bland. Two pillows attached to Artaud’s lobby served as Watson-Wallace and Luna’s bedroom. A live video projected their movement onto a lumpy mattress. The duo’s well-danced intimacy — tender, playful, troubled — suggested two people used to each other in bed and out. I kept wondering whether an element of voyeurism was supposed to be at play between the real and the virtual performance. If there was, I didn’t see it.

Sherman resides in Minneapolis but was born in St. Louis. The person sitting next to me at the show was familiar with the choreographer’s birthplace and caught local references that escaped me. Tiny Town was a sardonic but curiously affectionate portrait that peeled away the layers of what the program described as a "Midwestern landscape," yet this could be any small town. It’s a place where everyone minds everyone else’s business, where residents frantically try to keep up and fit in — and woe to those who can’t.

Tiny was meticulously crafted with rich production values. It ran a little flat toward the end, but showcased fine performances from dancers Sherman, Joanna Furnans, Megan Mayer, Morgan Thorson, and Kristin Van Loon. You knew that not everything was right behind the set’s picket fences when a rising cloud revealed two atomic reactors and a woman with her legs tied literally turned herself upside down to "walk." She ended headfirst in a stack of pancakes, and that was just for starters. In this world of superficial prettiness — flowers stuffed in mailboxes, glittery party dresses — tomboys get beaten up and toothy housewives are indeed desperate.

The dancing was appropriately stiff-legged and fractured, full of moments infused with a dogged persistence. It spoke volumes about discomfort within one’s skin, if not outright self-hatred. And all of it was presented with pasted-on smiles.