Susan Marshall & Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, October 2-4

Susan Marshall may or may not be the genius her MacArthur fellowship suggests she is, but her work is certainly smart. In two world premieres, Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, she and her dancers (also credited with the choreography) examine stereotypes about women and fairy tales about love. The two pieces feel like one: the first investigates these issues using the Sleeping Beauty story, and therefore is just a bit programmatic and predictable, while the second slips the bonds of that narrative and provides abstract images that make similar points more elegantly. Marshall’s dancers are superb, and the choreography is athletic and full of unusual combinations. But as exciting as Marshall’s ideas are, on their own they’re unfulfilling. What the evening lacks is emotional punch.

Sleeping Beauty opens with startling postmodern clanging and the sound of thunderous feet. These turn out to belong to the piece’s seven dancers, arrayed casually in shorts and judo robes. Sleeping Beauty herself (the superb Kristen Hollinsworth) is dressed in dance trunks and a T-shirt, defeating any romantic notion of the heroine, and her movements are equally off-kilter: quite a bit of her time is spent facedown, butt up, in a position like yoga’s downward-facing dog. The story too is a bit off: Beauty is awakened repeatedly and keeps going back to sleep. And when she moves from upright to lying down, she does it through an awkward twist of her body–sleeping may be her job, but it’s a distorted and distorting one. The prince (Mark DeChiazza) kisses Beauty several times–and here his kiss seems to induce the sleeping trance as often as it alleviates it. Once kissed, Beauty struggles to her feet and dances briefly with another woman or by herself until the puckering prince reappears to anesthetize her again. On several occasions she tries to push his face aside, but she always ends up collapsing under his gaze. It seems the fairy-tale rescue is actually a trap.

Even when Beauty is awake, most of her moves require writhing, twisting, or bending over backward. Marshall’s clarity about the discomforts of romantic love is a gift to those who write about her–consider the phrase “bending over backward.” But with physical gestures so closely tied to verbal concepts, the work comes to you secondhand–which may account for the dance’s remoteness from feeling. Clarity also risks obviousness: when the prince forces Beauty to spread her legs, the move is so blunt it’s less a metaphor than a sledgehammer swung at the audience’s head.

Sleeping Beauty contains wonderful choreography for the ensemble, as when they tumble and roll in ever-narrowing lanes and ever-tightening circles to form a mechanism constraining Beauty and the prince. Under Mark Stanley’s stark lighting and accompanied by David Lang and Annie Gosfield’s discordant music, the ensemble turns a bare stage into Fritz Lang’s alienated metropolis. By the end of the piece, Beauty is indeed alienated from herself: she’s gone from being moved into various positions of subordination, kneeling or bowed, to moving herself into those positions. Marshall’s argument–that women internalize the constraints they experience–is powerful if overly literal. The piece is at its best when argument gives way to inventive movement, as when two dancers intertwine their arms, one dancer behind the other, to create the appearance of someone wrapped in her own embrace.

Other Stories addresses the same theme as Sleeping Beauty, juxtaposing individual women with women’s prescribed roles. But here Marshall pursues it through unconnected scenes taking place between blackouts and explosions of sound–essentially Jane Shaw’s sound design unifies the piece. One woman (Hollinsworth again) lies on a table and inflates her stomach until she appears to be hugely pregnant, an image made horrifying by the distortion of the body it requires. Just as Beauty repeatedly awakens and falls back to sleep, so this madonna in a hospital bed repeatedly inflates and deflates, as if her body belonged to some outside power. Another dancer keeps swinging her arm like a helicopter rotor or flapping it, gestures of exceptional futility: she keeps looking at the arm as if mystified that its flailings aren’t enough to make her move. A third lies on the ground doing nothing–the real Sleeping Beauty. Floor lamps with bare bulbs are scattered around the stage, and when a bulb flashes, the nearest dancer picks up the headset suspended from the lamp, listens, and then apparently does what he or she’s been told. It’s a motif that seems to represent the arbitrary nature of all social roles, since the first episode of remote-controlled behavior is a delightful, buoyant tap dance with no obvious thematic connection to the piece, except perhaps that its freedom is enjoyed by a man.

The fragments separated by flashes of light suggest that we’re in the world of German expressionism or of Bruno Bettelheim’s exploration of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. But here what’s being portrayed is the magical if bizarre logic of fairy tales, not the literal stories. As a result the piece is looser and freer than Sleeping Beauty. There’s room for the “pregnant” woman to bolt up from her table and begin to threaten those who’ve been working on her, as though she were now Frankenstein’s monster. That image hints at the feminist phrase “giving birth to myself,” just as one of the pas de deux concludes in a hold that irresistibly suggests Shakespeare’s “beast with two backs.” But in this piece the literality isn’t annoying because it’s fragmentary.

Nothing about Other Stories is continuous: it’s as though Marshall and her dancers had exploded every myth about women and then made movements out of the bits remaining. Solo dancers struggle and strut, couples waltz and break apart–and the confusion seems to represent the cost of freedom. Though the female performers are wearing sexy fantasias (costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone’s little jackets, negligees, and fishnet stockings), the dance itself isn’t sexual in the least. Maybe that’s the “other story” Marshall wants to tell us: the consequence of being awake and autonomous is being isolated and terrified. It’s a bleak vision best conveyed by discontinuity–only fragments can do justice to a world fallen apart. And maybe the lack of emotion that vision evokes is what desolation feels like.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul H. Taylor.