Strange Art: Best Feet at the Southern

Lightsey Darst went to see Best Feet Forward, Feb 3-20 at the Southern Theater. This collection of over a dozen choreographers showed the range of dance around here.

Several shows

She came out into the stage lights. Writhed; but slowly, without agony; reached, but without desire—instead a muscle pulled a ligament which brought a bone and limb into a motion more body than soul, more in her genes than in her life. She made no step, no form, showed no consciousness of position, expressed nothing—only moved.

It took me a minute to realize I was waiting to recognize something. It was as if I had never seen this strange art (dance) before. What would I call it? Then the lone baby in the audience started screaming. Every audience should have just one baby, so we can find out which piece makes the baby cry. I call it the baby test, and Cynthia Stevens’s riverine “Round House” passes. Stevens’s dancers don’t represent people or emotions, but visions, maybe, slants of light, or still-life glimpses (the woman on the bus that pulls away), or needs of the body, hunger, sleep, the certain uncertainty of atoms. Stevens gives us an unreality more real than our reality; perhaps we are the stage she watches. Vital, unnerving, “Round House” may bring down all our houses.

The Best Feet Forward festival will disrupt your life with not only Cynthia Stevens, but fifteen or so other dance visions. The sheer number of ideas is alternately exciting and depressing—depressing because I have the feeling we’re being prodigal, exploding in all directions without shoring up the foundations, the connections between us (and depressing too in the way that one artist’s enthusiasm often provokes another’s doubt). But the excitement is obvious.

Some pieces feel distinctly idea-driven: Base8, the lobby performance (now there’s a great idea) for the second week, throws a dancer’s (Anna Resele’s) computer-manipulated shadow against a screen (programming by Christopher Baker); in “Night Light,” Tom Kanthak’s concept for Perpich High dancers, dancers follow improvised computer art projected onto a screen. Wilderness (choreography by Amber Ellison and Jesse Walker) studies animals and attempts to use dance movement to understand the natural world.

Other pieces push the definition of dance: Three Dances’s pretty princesses, drunken socialites, and lost believers, alternately satirized and beatified, feel like cabaret; likewise Matt Jenson’s psycho-mytho-comic sketches, with their dependence on costumes and props (the confused Narcissus Jr in his day-glo toga, the satyr who would be a mother with his giant phallus); Deborah Jinza Thayer’s knockout “Meet the Nation”—a debate between politicians who moan, blow raspberries, and stutter instead of telling us about health care—is as much acting as dancing; and in what way can Cynthia Stevens’s “Marian Leatherby’s Mirror”—three women wearing hip-waders and veils of dotted swiss and singing through dunce caps—be dance?

But why section anything off: in a hundred years or so we may drop all distinctions between forms of art. This is good news, if it means we’ll see more pieces like Vanessa Voskuil’s “The Weight of Light.” Like the movies The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset, Voskuil’s piece wants to explain modern love, love without children or money or families or marriage, the love of two people talking and touching. Voskuil throws everything in: her dancers (Cade Holseth and Megan Odell) hug each other while dangling from aerialists’ silks, bark Barthes while sorting apples and oranges, and dance their need, their irritation, and their bodily affection to the courtly music of Geminiani and Vivaldi.

Best Feet Forward isn’t all disorienting invention; you’ll have time to get your bearings during some more familiar pieces. Soft-Eyed Collaborations’ “Song-Cycles” relies on the genuine smiles and open-flower-meets-world gestures we’ve become too cynical to believe. Krista Langberg’s “Mãte” is a symbol-fest of women lifting women, women feeding women, and paper falling from the sky—as the woman behind me innocently asked, “Why did they eat their words?” The program notes inform you that “. . . is of the Essence,” choreographed by Mary Harding for Perpich High’s talented students, is about time—if you didn’t catch that from the ticking-hand arms, stops and starts, and clock-face spacing. I think I knew protest art was coming back, but I wasn’t ready for the solemn parade of American flags to start now (Rosy Simas’s “Have Gun Will Shoot”).

Karen Sherman’s “Missouri Compromise” is not itself familiar, but evokes a familiar feeling of confusion; I should understand something from the constrained yet fevered dance, the conversation between two unconscious beings, and the smidge of context suggestive of American dystopia, but I don’t. In Maggie Bergeron’s “Absent,” content doesn’t rise above the drama of vampiric young women falling down in old-fashioned frilled skirts and corsets. But in these last two pieces, something moves below the familiar surface: Sherman dances with conviction, while the four young women of “Absent” keep, coiled in their bodies, dangerous talent; and in both pieces—and many other pieces in Best Feet Forward—costumes have become so prominent as to be nearly characters themselves.

In between the revolutionary and the familiar sway some choreographers with new ideas in traditional modes. Penelope Freeh’s barefoot ballet “Before Words” brings Sally Rousse and Stephanie Fellner together. Rousse and Fellner are both quite small, and Freeh (who is herself small) uses a vocabulary of rapid ticks and splayed limbs that makes the most of a smaller dancer’s speed, precision, and strength. At its best, “Before Words” feels almost anthropological, the dancers relics of some lost civilization. Megan Flood and Dean Magraw create something lovely in “Eva,” breathing dance perfectly meshed with skimming music; Flood looks like an underwater animal, bending the element around her. I wonder if it’s not too easy, though, for Flood and Magraw to make something beautiful. Robin Stiehm’s Dancing People Company shifts from traditional modern to the luminous and dignified male duet “In a Room, Gambling,” where a father and son speak to each other with love and an inevitable slight distance. Stiehm also gives us her inverted idea of a “Solo”: it’s what you do when no one is paying attention to you.

Although our dance ideas fly in all directions, the collaborations on the program prove the community itself stays close. Witness all the resources we’re sharing: dancers, among them Megan Flood, Eric Boone, Morgan Thorson, and the scene-stealing Denise Armstead; music-makers like Christopher Cunningham (composer), Michelle Kinney (cellist), and Tom Hambleton (sound designer); the hard-working Jeff Bartlett, who designed lighting for the entire festival; and the Southern Theater itself, which is home for dancers as diverse as the balletic Penelope Freeh and the free-wheeling Jamey Garner Leonard.

Finally, let’s talk about Judith Howard. In “Ophelia,” she’s the antidote to everything that’s bothered you lately: she rips off a cakey pile of wedding dresses, flaunts her bad attitude, and stomps around stage in combat boots and a pink feather. Later, she’s mystery, chimes in her hair, hands of a fortune-teller, as she places two boots on her dress’s train (death? a last unwilling journey? rebirth?) and slides off-stage. Want to go shopping with Judith Howard? She triumphs with the thrift store attitude I slighted in my last review, matching a hot-pink push-up bra, a black negligee, and spikey do-me pumps with a red remote-controlled sports car.

This suggestive scene (complete with the squeals of the car) begins her “Suite Goodbye,” which I read as a woman’s reluctant farewell to sex; next, eleven women roll and cavort toward the back upstage corner in a wild thrift-shopping and stripping orgy; the women line-dance to Dolly Parton, then toss and turn in insomniac sleep, until the stage reverberates with pent-up energy. Howard has ideas, wit, talent, costumes, and props, like other choreographers, but she translates all this into flesh: a body, rocking.