at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

January 20-22

The second weekend of MoMing’s annual showcase of emerging choreographers proved frustratingly tame. These works generally lacked clarity, rigor, and insight, inching hesitantly along a well-worn path rather than mapping out new territory confidently.

The notable exception was Krista Willberg’s strikingly inventive Waiting for Pancakes. Willberg, dressed in cotton panties and a huge white T-shirt, begins the piece upstage, sitting with her arms resting on her knees and staring at an offstage television that we could hear but not see. After a few moments, in an utterly engaging imitation of a bored child, she lets her legs flop to the floor and then bats them back up into place, as if her body were a kooky toy that she was just learning to operate. Then she discovers her T-shirt, pulling it down over her feet and drawing her arms inside–a big white polyp with a little girl’s head. Willberg goes on to create several ingenious images by stretching her T-shirt into different shapes. She pulls it over the top of her head to become a mother superior. She squats and pulls it over her knees, giving herself enormous breasts. She hooks the bottom of the T-shirt over one foot and stands up, making her look like nothing on earth.

Willberg, who had perfect control of her body and her materials, had obviously devoted much time and thought to this piece. Every image that she presented–each “discovered,” as if she were simply playing, amusing herself in the midst of her boredom–was clearly drawn and skillfully articulated. Waiting for Pancakes had no heavy message, but it captured a naive wonder, making a plain white T-shirt a remarkably expressive tool, thrilling in its suppleness, its mutability, and its utter ordinariness.

Willberg herself was equally engaging. Nothing was forced here. Willberg seemed endearingly candid, genuinely delighted each time she devised a new use for her magical T-shirt. She had full command of this piece, on both a technical and a psychological level.

How Willberg could also have been responsible for Hexicon, a duet she performed with Mario Ricoh, was a mystery. Not only was Hexicon embarrassingly uninventive, it was disturbingly misogynistic. The piece begins with Willberg in a scanty leotard writhing inside a wigwamlike structure made of polished aluminum poles, while a bare-chested man watches from a distance–talk about the privileged male gaze! While he watches her, once in a while imitating a gesture of hers, she spends a good amount of time stroking the poles, seeming unable or unwilling to extract herself from this cage of phalluses.

Once the man joins her in the structure, writhing with her in semiunison, he is always placed in a privileged position: either the audience can see him better or, more appallingly, he is in a position to restrain her physically if he chooses. He is a constant unrealized threat to her. But the choreography never seems to comment on this fact, never acknowledges this imbalance of power. Rather than commenting on misogyny, Hexicon draws its energy from an unacknowledged fantasy of male domination.

On Husbands, choreographed and performed by Julia Mayer, left me more confused than enlightened. Mayer, in a plain brown dress, performs a series of enigmatic, codelike gestures while sections of Marilyn Stablein’s The Census Taker are read in voice-over. The text has to do with an imaginary primitive culture that has no word for husband but only synonyms, such as “saddle,” “knife,” and “bell fruit.” But constructing some relationship between text and dancer seemed impossible. At one point the voice describes surrogate husbands–husbands for hire–and Mayer makes several sharp gestures as if she were dividing the air in front of her into two-foot lengths. This initially seemed evocative–as if this female-centered fantasy world were just as obsessed with regulation and demarcation, just as restrictive of gender roles as our own. But this gesture came and went in unfocused moments, and when Mayer repeated it at different points later, its rhetorical effectiveness was greatly weakened.

Perhaps it’s wrong to insist that the dancer illuminate the text–perhaps she and the text can exist entirely apart from one another, and that’s what creates the tension in the piece. But by presenting this text as pure information, without exploiting its musical or poetic potential, and accompanying it with highly specific and repeated gestures, this dance invited viewers to make a connection. And for me, that connection was indecipherable.

Mayer also presented Quiet Arms and Beneath the Groovy Moon, two duets with the same gestural vocabulary as On Husbands. Quiet Arms, which paired Mayer with Elizabeth Cracraft, puts the two women into a rather bellicose relationship: they accost one another all over the stage, although finally they lie quietly in each other’s arms. In Beneath the Groovy Moon, set to jazz recordings of Dinah Washington, a woman and a man (Mayer and Toby Lee) go through a series of quasi-ballroom combinations.

Both of Mayer’s dances lacked passionate commitment, especially–and oddly–on Mayer’s part. Mayer seemed to be executing without interest a series of movements; she never allowed the dance to consume her. Her partners seemed more at ease, especially Lee, who stole my heart with his brazen coolness. Most disappointing about her pieces was Mayer’s limited vocabulary–the gestures she chose seemed not only interchangeable but entirely lacking in expressiveness.

Emily Knowles presented two performance pieces, Pisa and Mother Goose Lives in the Loop. Pisa, which I had seen in its initial incarnation last July and which had excited me with its potential, left me entirely cold at this viewing. Though unchanged in its written content–it explores a collection of utterly disconnected characters and their absurd attempts to overcome constant failure–in this performance Pisa crawled along at a deadening pace, and this intentionally disparate work fell to pieces.

Mother Goose Lives in the Loop, which equates typical urban characters–the banker, the broker, the bag lady–with fairy-tale archetypes, was simply embarrassing to watch. None of the actors seemed comfortable, and the ideas behind the piece were sophomoric. The brokers, for example, who continually gloated “We’re moving up!” suddenly turned into Jack and Jill, who of course came tumbling down their hill. Unfocused and confused, this piece made me wonder what had attracted Knowles’s interest in the first place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.