SubRosa dances the issues in the culture

SubRosa Dance Collective's concert at the Headwaters dives into some crucial cultural issues and tropes

On Saturday night at The Headwater Theater down by the railroad tracks, the curtains opened on SubRosa Dance Collective last weekend. I found myself looking down onto the small stage at a group of four women dressed in cosmically decorated leggings, sexy short tops and purposefully garish wigs, writhing around in an exaggerated and suggestive way on the floor. I felt like I was looking down into a lion pit, or maybe we were the lions and they were the lambs? Objectification of course.

Guest artist Kate Rafter, artistic director of her own company, Automal, choreographed the dance, “What Is The Sound Of One A$$ Cheek Clapping?”, and the program notes took a shot at explaining what we were seeing: “When Portland dancers meet new people, new people immediately ask ‘So You’re a dancer? For what strip club?’ When women get pissed at The Man, sometimes they lash out at each other instead. No thanks. Out with the male Gaze, in with the Preggo Gaze! Lacan: Thanks for getting the ball rolling, dude. Welfare state: Bring it on. Twerkin: Not for everybody.”

I can’t speak to the last part of that statement, but as a dancer myself, I can attest to the importance of making this distinction right away when meeting a new guy about what kind of dance you do. This scenario happens over and over again. Some men really love to drag this conversation out for their enjoyment; it’s uncomfortable, annoying, degrading and predictable. I wish they would stop, and so does Rafter apparently.

SubRosa Dance Collective performs Kate Rafter's “What Is The Sound Of One A$$ Cheek Clapping?”/Photo Credit: Design By Goats. 2015.

SubRosa Dance Collective performs Kate Rafter’s “What Is The Sound Of One A$$ Cheek Clapping?”/Photo Credit: Design By Goats. 2015.

The rest of the dance went like this. Hip-hop music starts, dancers form into a group with their backs to the audience while sitting on their legs. They “twerk.” which just means their hips are moving side to side. For the record this is nowhere near what real twerking looks like. I’ll call it pseudo-twerking. As they are sitting, dancer Tia Palomino walks in and around them gazing down at them from her “pedestal.” She is wearing a full-length beige skirt and a bra top exposing her beautiful, and very real, pregnant belly. Her character is the know-it-all Earth Mama who is here to save the day. One by one she touches each “twerking” girl, who in response, “repents” takes off her wig, hands it to Palomino, and goes off to do some “real” dancing. I get it. They are not strippers, they are “real” dancers.

It’s meant to be satire, and though the ideas and images aren’t fully formed, maybe that was the point.


The next two pieces were solos. The first was called “Good Citizen,” choreographed and performed by Cerrin Lathrop, and the second, “Tenement,” choreographed and performed by Jess Evans. They were both beautifully executed, and at one moment I decided that I would be perfectly happy seeing an evening of solos by the SubRosa Dance Collective. Just sayin’.

“Good Citizen” was publicized as being about a woman’s experience in the military. The program told us that we were being briefed on the Uniform Code Military Justice Article 120. That article explains in detail what acts fall under the rape and sexual assault section. We are only two pieces into the program and both have touched on sexual objectification and assault. Artists are a reflection of their cultures.

Lanthrop, dressed in a beige, knee-length tunic, despite the heavy topic at hand, was painfully beautiful to watch. With the intimacy of the space, the dark, shadowy Noir-like lighting, the brownish color of her dress and skin and her smooth, seamless movement, I was reminded of flowing, melted chocolate. Her movement was emotional, describing an internal struggle, twisting and falling, reaching out and pulling in only to succumb and harden in the end.

In “Tenement” the emotional component was stronger than the choreography: My lasting impressions are of the dress Evans wore. It was a black gauzy material with small polka dots that created a landscape of texture across this stretchy delicate fabric. I was taken with the shapes that the dress was making as Evans moved around inside of it. It reminded me of the striped dress that Martha Graham wore in “Satyric Festival Song.” For me, it became about a woman caught under this fabric, pushing a heavy emotional load around the stage in the dark, caught like a bug in a spider’s web, or a fish in a net.


“And Walked The Night Alone,” choreographed by Kailee McMurran, was a trio danced by Carolyn Hudson, Evans and McMurran. It began and ended the same way, with three dancers, holding hands, lying side by side on the stage. In between, it became a complicated, interweaving puzzle among the three dancers to Led Zeppelin. The program note quotes Lewis Carroll, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and I felt the hurriedness, complexity, the rigidness of time and space and their exhaustion as they fell back onto the floor out of breath at the end.

SubRosa performs at the Headwaters Theatre./Photo Credit: Design By Goats. 2015.

SubRosa performs at the Headwaters Theatre./Photo Credit: Design By Goats. 2015.

The closing piece in the concert was “Foibles,” choreographed by Carolyn Hudson, danced by Hudson, Evans, Lena Traenkenschuh, Palomino and McMurran to Vivaldi, Franz Schubert and Jean-Paul Egide Martini. The dancers were dressed in various types of street clothing: shorts, skirts, shirts and sweaters in an array of shades from white to beige or oatmeal, layered and textural. One chunky oatmeal-colored sweater kept getting pulled open and stretched—I thought it looked like an advertisement for J. Crew or Anthropologie. Aesthetically very attuned to pop culture, these costumes made me wonder if they were taken from their personal wardrobes or intentionally chosen. They suggested a relaxed, homey but very chic kind of vibe. Just like a clothing advertisement.

The structure of the choreography closely followed the structures and development in the music. Group choreography with lots of little gestural details interspersed with solos and more group sections. Except that Hudson like many contemporary/modern choreographers working with classical composers, steered away from using specifically classical ballet vocabulary and added her own flavor by putting together everyday gestures and pedestrian movement with modern dance steps. It was smart and funny, if sometimes a little too cutesy.

About halfway through the dance I had this “ah ha” moment when I realized that the dancers were no longer separate from the music, that they had somehow shed all of their dancerly, social, feminine affectations and were completely embodied and absorbed in the moment, just moving. In that moment I thought, ‘This is really good choreography and these dancers really are on to something and I’m excited to see what the future holds.’ In that moment they shed something that brought their artistry to light.

SubRosa’s movements are interesting and inventive, but my take away is more the energy and ideas left behind, not so much a memory of all the steps. I also wondered how much of their “style” is intentional or a characterization or just a product of their generation and of our culture now? I wondered if it could all be expressed the same, without the “stuff”? I will have to wait and see.

The show repeats this weekend, June 26-28 at The Headwaters Theater, 55 NE Farragut St., Suite 9

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