New Expressive Works: Boundary pushing

Subashini Ganesan's resident choreographer program featured work by Tere Mathern, Madison Page, Crystal Jiko Sasaki, and Wolfbird Dance

New Expressive Works’ second set of resident artists for 2017 showcased their boundary-pushing new pieces this weekend. Founded in 2012 with the mission to support dancers of diverse backgrounds in developing original work, N.E.W. also provides accessible practice space and a variety of movement classes in a centrally-located, well-equipped studio.

Annually, the space serves 4500 audience members and students, and more than 200 independent performing artists have used the facilities for some aspect of their practice.The program has incubated many new projects and collaborations for its 37 resident artists choreographers working with at total of 100 collaborators.

Highlights have included:

  • Oluyinka Akinjiola forming her performance troupe, “Rejoice Diaspora Dance Theater” during her residency
  • The residency has attracted transplants such as Luke Gutgsell, James Healey, Dar Vejon Jones, Stephanie Lanckton and current residents Crystal Jiko and Madison Page who have gone on to be involved in local programs such as TBA, BodyVox, Headwater Theatre, and Skinner/Kirk.
  • Veterans Linda K. Johnson, Dawn Stoppiello, Catherine Egan, Stephanie Schaaf, and current resident Tere Mathern have produced new work and held critical feedback sessions.

Tere Mathern and Alison Heryer performed in N.E.W.’s 9th residency concert/Courtesy of New Expressive Works

Every six months, four choreographers (or in this case, three individuals and a team of two) are chosen for the residency program. They receive 144 hours of free rehearsal space, a modest stipend, and moderated, critical feedback in the form of Katherine Longstreth’s Fieldwork program. The works, whether they are finished or in progress, debut as 20-minute pieces at the end of the residency, as they did this weekend for the 9th session.

Tere Mathern: “Vestige”

This piece emerged from “open research and investigation of material and its relationship to the body.” That phrase definitely applies to the on-stage action, as the focus of the piece is a long, narrow sheet of bright red synthetic fabric, splashed across the space like a gigantic zig-zag of paint. At the opening, the bolt of fabric is draped between two trapezes, pouring down from each one to the floor where it covers Mathern and her co-creator Alison Heryer, who lie on the ground on opposite sides of the stage. They start mostly covered by the cloth, with their arms splayed out to the side to reveal that their hands have been dipped in blue paint. They rise inside the fabric, and perform most of the show while still covered to some degree.

While the pace was relatively slow, their interactions with the fabric were fluid and clearly very considered. They proceeded through a sometimes-mirrored set of movements that slowly unwound the fabric from its perches on the trapeze, assembling it into remarkably well-structured robes on each of the performers. The ambient music fit fairly well with simplicity and grace of the prop-work.

Later, after escaping the cloth, one of the dancers split an egg-like bag hanging from the corner and a bundle of leaf-like crumples fell out, each with a single, bright LED in the center. Those lights were a simple touch, but went a long way towards supporting the otherworldly atmosphere the piece was conjuring. To that end, some of the passages involving Mathern and Heryer moving in unison while covered by opposite ends of the fabric would have been better served with tighter synchronization—which is a challenge when both performers are hidden under a giant red sheet.

Overall, a sensuous and inventive piece that definitely engaged the audience.

Madison Page: “The Crack”

This was the standout piece of the evening. In “The Crack,” Madison Page “confronts paradigms of shame and critique found in American dance culture and proposes new ones: embodiment, transparency and wit. Not as lofty concepts, but as muscular representations of selfhood through practice, process, and performance.”

“Confronts” is the right verb here. She hits these head on, in monologue and embodied in classical movement, and with ample transparency and wit.

Madison Page and Mary Ann Mattiello performed in N.E.W.’s 9th residency concert/Courtesy of New Expressive Works

This raw and clever autobiographical piece looks back over Page’s career and aspirations as a dancer. It starts with her mother—her actual mother, Mary Ann Mattiello—passing out reproductions of newspaper clippings she’s kept of her daughter’s very first dance performances, one of which had Page’s head circled and indicated with an arrow in ballpoint pen, grinning a child’s smile from the rear of a phalanx of ballet dancers. Mattiello introduces the piece, reading somewhat nervously from cards, talking proudly about her daughter’s life as a dancer. This is the first of many risks that the piece takes and later delivers on. Bringing your mother on to introduce you and gush about your childhood performers can fall flat in more ways than I can imagine.

Mattiello’s presence in the piece isn’t a gag or simply to be cute. She’s integral, both as a foil to Page’s accounts of childhood events and as a warm, humorous, and ultimately charming presence in the unflinching account of the pressures and trials of studying to become a professional dancer that her daughter has endured for most of her life. The cathartic, X-ray vision of the piece owes much to the fact that Page is dissecting such personal material in front of her own mother, such as how her casting calls dropped off after she went through puberty. A lot of the questions she asks, about how women’s bodies are viewed and used in the world of dance, may be questions the audience doesn’t want to ask, but her dynamic with her mother inspires us not to blink. Their willingness to confront and accept the dirty part of being a dancer, together and in front of us, is impressive, especially when they talk about her mother’s varied role in this process as both a vital supporter and another form of pressure, even if unintentionally.

Monologues from Mattiello and Page are interspersed with Page performing some of the movement they’re discussing—at one point holding an arabesque while calculating how much it cost her mother for all the lessons and time and equipment that went into her learning that single posture as a child. The rough patches in the acting and the discursive structure creates ample opportunities to break context and get meta, go deep, or change expectations entirely. Any two viewers would have plenty to talk about if they were to compare notes on what moments they thought were scripted and what might have been an accident or improv.

This piece brims with potential for a longer-form production. It’s inexorably tied to dance, but it’s more monologue than dance performance. Page’s movement paces and expands her monologue, but the focus is her story. She’s found an intense, engaging way to explore that narrative, and I hope she gets more chances to keep digging.

Crystal Jiko Sasaki: “Coppe”

“Coppe” is slow, atmospheric, and ritualistic. Sasaki opens the piece on the floor in the aisle by the risers. This meant the majority of the audience couldn’t see the first few minutes of the show from where they were seated. The framing, or lack of framing, around this decision seems to indicate that it’s not so much about breaking the fourth wall, but to show that her slow crawl to the stage is part of a world that the stage is only glimpsing, something that continues whether we are watching or not.

Crystal Jiko Sasaki performed in N.E.W.’s 9th residency concert/Courtesy of New Expressive Works

Her first gestures on stage seemed beseeching, like genuflection in a ritual. This fit with her facepaint—glittery geometric shapes reminiscent of astrological signs. She transitioned into a slow crawl on all fours, legs straight and hands and head down. She explored the room ponderously, with a steady determination. With time the posture seemed less and less human, and more like something wilder or weirder was possessing her. Later audio, reading from the ‘zine produced with the piece, drew on a heavy mythos of spiders and their role in the legends of various culture throughout history.

Sasaki worked with Takahiro Yamamoto on his TBA show “Direct Path to Detour,” which also published a book as an accompaniment to the performance. Structurally, these pieces seems to share some DNA: both feel more studied and methodical than performative. The movement vocabulary is self-contained and confident, and the ‘zine provides a rich background of mythology and research, but this piece felt the most in-progress of all of them. I think some viewers may have struggled to connect the written material to the performance, and I would like to see how the “crawl” passage would read if it were shorter or, conversely, more repetitive. Looking forward to further iterations

Wolfbird Dance: “Baggin Saggin Berries and the Possum Belly Queen”

This piece uses traditional clown performance as a vehicle to explore the (unhealthy) relationship between the two performers (who are characters played by the members of Wolfbird), mixing in contemporary movement and flattening the presentation to give the audience a more direct perspective on the clowns as performers.

Wolfbird Dance performed in N.E.W.’s 9th residency concert/Courtesy of New Expressive Works

Removing the background of a circus or vaudeville act invites a meta-reading of the performance, but the lifeblood of the piece is clowning. Clown costumes, clown movement, clown jokes, clown music. This material is not unoriginal, and they have clearly studied traditional clowning. If you enjoy or are interested in this tradition, this may be an interesting piece to you. The clowns are performers, and we are invited to view their relationship and their attempts to perform together as perhaps allegorical, but it was unclear to me what the clown aesthetic could provide that other approaches couldn’t.

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