Momentum 2: New Dance Works

Camille LeFevre gives us her take on the second weekend of Momentum: Cathy Wright and Off-Leash Area are wild and wonderful.

Cathy Wright
off leash

Wow. Where did Cathy Wright come from? And do her colleagues at Apple Valley High School run and hide, or flatten themselves against the wall, when she walks by? One has to ask, because if her dark, ritualistic work “Return” is any indication, she’s “into some seriously heavy shit” (as one of her high-school students might say). And we’d all better pay attention, because it’s good. Intriguing. Weird. Fantastical. Creepy, even. But good.

Wright’s five-part work opened the second weekend of Momentum: New Dance Works—probably the series’ most consistent run ever in terms of high-quality performance innovation and professional execution.

The other half of the weekend was filled by the Ivey Award-winning theater/movement troupe Off-Leash Area. “Our Perfectly Wonderful Lives,” co-directed by Jennifer Ilse and Paul Herwig, was a hilariously loose take on the life and art of Andy Warhol—renamed, in this show, Randy Harlow, and perfectly embodied by Herwig—that expanded beyond those parameters to address our culture’s obsession with celebrity.

But first, Wright, whose bio says she “was a devoted fan of film directors David Lynch and Ridley Scott in her pre-teens” and that she created films in high school. That makes sense, given the cinematic, otherworldly quality of “Return.” Part fairytale, part Wiccan ritual, the work features Wright in wig of long red hair crouched away from a figure in black, hunched in front of a copper-colored scrim topped with hair, and scrunching animalistically across the floor.

Hair, my Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets tells me, plays a critical role in witch-charms and is believed to function as a repository of the soul. In “Return,” Wright thrashes beneath her veil of red hair, extracts hanks of hair from a box, and whips those hair hanks through the air or across the floor like some sort of priestess in a wild, preconscious state.

There’s also a section in which three men (Christopher LaPlante, Alex Loch, Dustin Maxwell), bathed in red light and fueled by composer Matthew S. Smith’s raucous score, engage in a testosterone tangle of break-dance moves, cartwheels, head thrashes, preening and body slamming. They could be in a mosh pit at some underground rave or on the outlying fringes of a parallel universe.

Five women dressed like rag-tag poppets with their little hats, leggings, necklaces and layered tops, gesture and pose to Smith’s oozy music. They grab their butts, jut their hips and twist their arms in ritualistic aerobics, then cool down as a voice in the soundscape intones, “breathe.” (That’s Wright, whom Smith recorded as she read her journals.) This is no ordinary day at the gym, however, as these women bring to mind a coven energetically casting a spell.

A sleepy, dreamlike section follows, in which the dancers, in white pajama outfits, toss and spin each other about, and move through yoga poses as two deities look on. Wright’s shaman closes out the piece. As she heaves, tosses, and flings herself across the floor, images morph rapid-fire on the wall behind her, as if her life were literally flashing before her eyes. They conclude with a kindly pantheistic image: a tree. But “Return” is nature red in tooth and claw, death and rebirth with a speed-metal score, a grunge aesthetic, and terrifying inconclusiveness.

Off-Leash’s “Our Perfectly Wonderful Lives” seemed absolutely giddy after all that, with the production’s handling of the material clear and concise, silly and trenchant. This work, too, opens with a ritual: of waking up. Diane Aldis, John Munger, Ilse and Zeb Henderson Shreve (representing “The Public”) rise from slumber, open up their hollowed-out televisions, and bring out the objects of their individual morning rituals—whether that involves plugging a coffee grinder or razor or hair dryer into the flower pictures behind them (a nod to Warhol’s repetitive pop-culture screen prints). Aldis exercises. Ilse smokes cigarettes. Munger salutes the flag. Shreve drinks coffee. Then they all “watch” tv.
The host of the show (this one, and the imaginary one on tv) is Wendy Williams (Katie Kaufman). And through the 40-minute “Our Perfectly Wonderful Lives,” she rises from tv anchor to tv personality as she follows (and leads) her subject, the artist Randy Harlow, from relative obscurity to sudden sensation (he’s just painted his first picture of a sugar packet); into a museum show (yes, everyone must get a t-shirt); through fan frenzy, the opening of a club (read Warhol’s Factory) and drug-fueled debauchery; and out to a Michael-Jackson-state of enervated recovery, in which Harlow (Herwig) is made up to resemble one of Warhol’s blue-lidded, red-lipped, white-faced celebrity portraits.

Her questions evolve from “Why paint sugar packets?”—to which Harlow provides a long childlike answer—to “Do you take a multi-vitamin?” and “Who are you dating?” From there, Harlow’s answers are a simple “Yes” “No” or “I don’t know,” which becomes his pop-culture mantra. When Harlow, dressed in red-rosebud-encrusted jock strap and cape, regally walks into a glass case, the transformation from person to exhibit is complete.

Off-Leash has turned its critical eye on our individual, institutional, and cultural complicity in the commercialism of art and creation of celebrity. Except for a lull during the debauchery of the club scene, they keep us on our toes and entertained all the way.