identity is just a costume change away

by Hope Mohr

Identity is Just a Costume Change Away:
Review of ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival’s Program A (Lionel Popkin & Headmistress)
First published as a guest blog post in tripledogdare, the ODC writer-in-residence blog

The first night of the Walking Distance Dance Festival featured a brilliant pairing by Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke: Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Lionel Popkin and two works by Headmistress, Mongrel and Shame the Devil.  Each work on the program examined identity as collage of the ancient and the new.

Headmistress is the collaborative team of Amara Tabor-Smith and Sherwood Chen, artists in residence at ODC Theater.  Sherwood Chen performed Mongrel, a ritualistic, riveting solo performance.  Entering the space, the audience saw Chen spinning without stop. Chen’s entire body was obscured by layer upon layer of mismatched clothing including a red balaclava, silver fabric tied around his mouth reminiscent of duct tape, mismatched gloves, heavy boots, several skirts and pants, and a small mirror hung around his neck.  Covered head to toe, Chen’s uninterrupted spinning around the edges of the space—he never entered the central spotlight—became hypnotic.  No face, no identity, no gender, no race, no recognizable dancing style: the ambiguity of the image threw a spotlight on my own need to locate meaning.  (Later, when Chen removed the mirror from around his neck, he placed it on the floor to face the audience.)  When Chen finally stopped spinning, the effect was electric.  He began a postmodern striptease that expertly travelled back and forth between his internal world and the external reality of the audience.  Occasionally stopping as if to address us, Chen would drop again into brief visceral dances like someone caught between past and present.  Once shed, Chen’s motley bundle of clothing occupied a spotlight of its own like a patchwork identity no longer useful.  Snippets of glitchy white noise came and went.  Stripped down to one layer of simple black clothing, Chen passed in and out of the light through moments of slumped exhaustion and spinning bursts. In his final swaying backwards walk towards the audience, Chen held a small mirror so we could catch only portions of his face. It was an elegant and elegiac finale.  Chen’s Mongrel shows us an ancient, subconscious body embedded in fractured contemporary consciousness.  All we have to do is peel the layers away.

Amara Tabor-Smith, the other half of Headmistress, performed Shame the Devil in the evening’s interstices.  In the lobby pre-show and on the sidewalk between and after acts (Chen and Popkin’s company performed in different buildings), Tabor-Smith offered intriguing glimpses of deeply inhabited ecstatic states.  Shaking, crying, and jumping, Tabor-Smith was possessed by shifting states often in close proximity to audience members paying varying degrees of attention.  Tabor-Smith challenged an audience in transit to be present to the rituals of the performing body. Unfortunately, the Festival’s framing of Tabor-Smith’s material diluted its power: surrounded and often ignored by the Festival’s pedestrian foot traffic, Tabor-Smith’s potent presence did not receive the respect it was due. Similarly, a supporting ensemble of women that performed brief installations throughout the evening created satellites of imagery without context.  Did Tabor-Smith choose to place these events outside the theater? Did she want to remind us how often we miss moments of transcendence?

Whereas the pleasures of Mongrel come from its ambiguity, the pleasures of Lionel Popkin’s Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore come rom its intelligencePopkin’s Ruth was performed here as an excerpt of a longer evening-length work, which makes it difficult to evaluate the work fully on its own terms.  Nonetheless, even from the sample shown, Popkin’s voice shone through in a knowing, joyful conversation with the ghost of dance icon Ruth St. Denis, a conversation that functioned also as a vehicle for musings on the vagaries of translation.  Popkin is the dance’s MC, narrating its conceptual underpinnings in confessional asides.  Popkin introduced us to the importance of costume in St. Denis’ work as dancers unloaded several trunks full of costumes onto the stage.  Carolyn Hall had a raucous headlong solo with the costumes, metaphors for pieces of identity that, in Popkin’s words, “slip off the skin.” Popkin also introduced us to St. Denis’ choreographic “kits,” which she created to allow others to reconstruct her dances.  Projections of St. Denis’ choreographic notes provided the backdrop for Popkin’s playful mistranslations, which masterfully wove stylized gesture and postmodern pure movement.  But movement invention per se is not the point of Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Popkin is more concerned with the intellectual process of translating concept into choreographic structure.  Popkin excels at creating rich task-based images with clear relationship to his source material.  Popkin repeatedly kissing the body of Ruth (Emily Beattie) in unison with Hall tapping a microphone wonderfully conjured the image of the voice of the body.  Another powerful image involved a flickering projection of St. Denis’ choreographic notes vanishing word by word over time to leave only redacted traces.  In the dance’s final haunting moment, Popkin used a leaf blower to move a heap of costumes over the prone lifeless body (of Ruth).  Like Chen holding a mirror up to his face as he backed toward his audience, Popkin revealed himself in fragments.  At one point, Popkin blithely thanked his mother for providing the Indian saris used in the show, revealing a subterranean poignancy under the formidable intellectual skin of his work.  Popkin made his ideas accessible, but kept his inner life out of reach.