Mary Johnston-Coursey

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

June 15-17

Specific bodies make specific dances. A strong dancer will use angular, percussive movements because it’s easy for a strong body to throw itself quickly. A flexible body will prefer swinging movements that create a lot of momentum, because a flexible dancer has enough range to wind up and let loose in a big arc.

In one of dance’s mysterious alchemies, specific bodies also have specific sensibilities. Dancers and choreographers with flexible bodies often have flexible minds as well, accepting other people easily and maintaining a near innocence. Strong dancers often have an admirable toughness of spirit. When strength and flexibility are matched and fully developed, the resulting sensibility can be a joy to watch.

Mary Johnston-Coursey, who last weekend presented her first full concert in Chicago, at MoMing Dance & Arts Center, has qualities of both strength and flexibility, and they’re fully developed. Her body ripples with muscles yet maintains a ballerina’s range of movement. But as much as these physical qualities make her a fascinating dancer to watch, it’s the sensibility of her dances that draws an audience in.

Triptych begins with three women (Ann Boyd, Winnie Ladd, and Jane Siarny) standing in a line behind one another in a shaft of light in a far upstage corner. In silence, the women move forward swaying. As their formation starts to break apart, each woman picks up the skirt of her dress and shows her legs, then releases it, letting the soft material float down. After this mysterious action is developed, the women suddenly break, run back to the far corner and into line again, the lights rise, and a more frenetic dance begins. The strangeness of this sequence is appealing, while at the same time a deeper pattern shows itself shyly, like a squirrel hiding in a tree.

Dividing the three major pieces are four interludes. The first interlude introduces the concert’s movement vocabulary. In darkness, the sound of drumming feet is heard. Natural light from windows at each side of the stage gradually reveals a single figure (Johnston-Coursey) that slips into and out of darkness, in sudden shifts and sudden angular poses. The figure repeats a horrifying movement of lying on the floor, pushing on it with her arms, and launching her piked-over body into the air. She flies from one side to the other, her hips and legs slapping the ground. Later she stands balanced on one leg, reaching her foot out to a wedge of light on the stage.

The group pieces expand this vocabulary of grounded and sometimes violent movements with falling, catching, holding, leaps that cover space, running, and sharp exhalations. These movements require strength, which the dancers amply provide. Propulsive movements alternate with sudden stillnesses–in A Pleno Sol (“In Full Sun”) Kathleen Kemme stops close to the audience in center stage and simply looks at them like a lost child. Slow stretches and deep back bends fill the quiet moments.

When two dancers interact, one is likely to lift or carry the other, or to hold another’s head, or to lift a collapsed dancer from the floor. In A Pleno Sol, Toby Lee throws himself at the four women in the piece (Boyd, Suet May Ho, Kemme, and Sandra Sucsy), sometimes literally. Sometimes the women run away, traumatized; sometimes they simply ignore him. Lee picks up the last woman (Boyd) after she has fallen, and almost lets her fall again, but catches her before she hits the ground. The two try to dance together but end up circling one another. When the other women join their circle, Lee and Boyd run at each other one last time, but Lee falls to the floor. When Boyd picks him up, he tries to throw himself around her neck, but she gently pushes him away. When Boyd walks slowly away, Lee runs to join her and jumps onto her back; overwhelmed by his helplessness, Boyd carries him offstage.

In these partnerings, shy patterns of meaning start to emerge. All of the dances are about relationships, between men and women and between women and women, and about the relationship of oneself to oneself. Johnston-Coursey’s vision is very bright and very dark. People help each other, catching and holding. There is still more than enough pain for everyone. That pain is usually due to weakness of character or to personal tragedy. Even during the most extreme pain, there is an accepting arm.

Triptych shows this theme most clearly. After the eerie prelude, the three women play together, running past each other, slapping the floor, catching one another, like three close sisters in a happy childhood. They play harder and harder, until they hurt each other. As the sisters grow up, difficulties start to enter their lives. Both the youngest sister (Ladd) and the middle sister (Boyd) start to experience the strange pain of romance and sexuality. The oldest sister (Siarny) somehow doesn’t see what her sisters are feeling. She becomes brittle. The youngest sister is destroyed by the sudden bright light of a man; her solo afterward is wrenching. The other two sisters comfort her, holding her. But the oldest sister, not understanding their feelings, starts to resent the attention the youngest sister is given; the oldest sister pushes her away, throwing her limp body over her shoulder. The middle sister rescues the youngest, but is abused by the oldest. When the oldest sister retreats into herself, her brittleness becomes madness, evident to everyone, including herself. She throws herself at the other two sisters. The final image is of the oldest sister lying in the youngest sister’s lap, while the middle sister, hurt too much, backs away. (This story may be too specific, but the dance resonates with a plaintive understanding of women’s strong emotional relationships with one another.)

This dance shows the sensibility of a strong and flexible body. The strength allows Johnston-Coursey to probe the depths of the psyche. The flexibility allows an acceptance of everything, even what is found in the underbelly of human nature. Strength and flexibility together form the foundation for ecstatic experience, which the dances aimed for and achieved.

The interludes between dances are a parable of emergence from psychic depths. The first interlude is the bleak solo by Johnston-Coursey. The second interlude starts with the same movements and mood as the first, but halfway through Johnston-Coursey is joined by Siarny; the interlude ends with the sound of drumming feet. Siarny seems like Johnston-Coursey’s alter ego, a welcome friend in the darkness, and in the third interlude, which merges into A Pleno Sol, Siarny and Johnston-Coursey are joined by Ladd, a third alter ego. As alter egos are added, the lonely desert of the self is peopled; the self emerges from isolation, strong enough to participate in the world.

The technical work was uniformly excellent. The dancers were expressive and beautiful to watch. Ken Bowen’s atmospheric lighting design caught the dances’ textures–sometimes the light seemed almost one of the dancers. Michael J. McGonagle’s music for A Pleno Sol made a lovely otherworldly home for the dance, whereas the vocal music for the other pieces threatened to oversimplify their complex meanings.