Each time the HERE Arts Center door opened on January 12, another down-swaddled body squeezed inside the tiny lobby, and we got a blast of frosty air. It was as though that bracing cool, that instant sharpening of mind and senses, was what each of us was contributing from the busy-ness of our lives to the communal watching of concert dance to come. Despite the chill, despite the midweek scheduling, the door kept opening, the crowd was merry, and the Mainstage seating was full.
Excerpts from Laura Peterson’s Wooden and Johari Mayfield’s the Venus Riff (both in progress) shared the bill. Could two artists be more unalike? Peterson, a formalist, creates non-narrative dances as visual art, with meaning the fruit of compositional rigor. Mayfield, a storyteller, choreographs works of social commentary that confront received cultural values and meanings head-on. Décor is central to Peterson’s choreography; visual artists, no less than company dancers—and choreographers Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and William Forsythe—are strong influences. Mayfield, on the other hand, credits choreographers Abdel Salaam (in whose Forces of Nature Dance Company Mayfield is both soloist and Rehearsal Director) and Joan Miller for their guidance in creating characters and devising non-standard narrative forms. The happy news is that contrastive pairing worked: each artist’s distinctiveness stood out.
Wooden is inspired by the works of environmental sculptors Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy, as well as the “natural cycles of growth and decay.” Peterson developed the choreography with company members; early site-specific improvisations were distilled and manipulated with the theme of building up and breaking down in mind. Though decidedly abstract, this excerpt of Wooden, through its music, décor, uncommon movement vocabulary, and unfettered performance style, evokes intense and affecting mood. Even the title implies layered meanings—“natural” of content and “stiff” or “unnatural” of manner—and the material we saw seems a fierce contemplation of both.
Massive tree limbs—stripped of bark, bonelike—dangle in sparse formation across the black-painted Mainstage. One could be a mastodon carcass; another, a colossal fork of coral; a third, a dinosaur’s thighbone. They seem benign, if odd, and suggest a ravaged landscape—a site of extinction; a site where survival resumes.
A man and a woman in the foreground have their backs to us. They wear identical bone-colored shorts and tees, occupy private spheres and, gazing downward, flex, torque, and fold—arms rigid, fists clenched. Sputters, buzzes, and beeps crackle electronically through the air. The situation seems dire. It’s hard to know what these beings have to do with each other, but they seem native to this terrain and something about their unadorned effort suggests humanity in the moments before guile. When the two finally do make contact, it seems as accidental as it is essential: they fall into each other, braced upright, shoulder to shoulder.
Two more dancers appear. The four cluster and disband, thud to the ground, recover, wheel in squats and leaps, shudder, fling, slice the air with their limbs. The music is propulsive, rhythmic and the choreography rides its textures with extremes of dynamic, shape, and speed. An interlude features the tree limbs swaying as though caught by a breeze. During intermittent black outs the dancing goes on.
The Venus Riff
This is a solo burlesque of a show that grew from Mayfield’s “obsession” with an early 19th century Khoisan woman of South Africa who became Europe’s Venus Hottentot—a “savage” and anatomical specimen—naked and caged for public ogling of her large buttocks. Mayfield describes the piece as “an exploration of cages: scientific and religious” and likens the riff of the title to a jazz improviser’s theme and variations. An opening vignette featuring the caged Venus states Mayfield’s theme; five vignettes that follow feature fictional female characters, present and past, who feel variously shackled by societal norms. Recorded voice-overs—most notably the internal monologues of three pivotal characters—establish the framework, moving the action forward and back in time. Lighting and layered snatches of music create ambience. Otherwise, (as of this showing) the stage is bare.
Mayfield stands in a spotlight. She’s Venus, wearing nothing but a lined fishnet bodysuit. We learn that finally, in 2002, Venus’s body parts were returned from display in France to her birthplace. Next, the spiel of a British carnival barker takes us to Venus’s Piccadilly cage, where Mayfield/Venus, by turns abashed and brazen, performs the gyrations her audience might have expected to see. Serpentine movement rolls outward in waves from spine to limbs and, along with crotch-grabbing and other gestures, repeats and modulates in the phrases that follow.
We hear Venus’s clear-eyed side of her story; a contemporaneous British wife questioning women’s guilt for the Fall; and a 2010 African American woman – an intellectual who is obsessed with the Venus Hottentot, parses Darwin, and propositions married men in elevators. Mayfield dramatizes each speaker through dance and mime, cutting loose in the finale to Lil Mama’s poppin’ “Lip Gloss”. What you know ‘bout me? thunders the refrain. Just what the Venus Hottentot might have wanted to ask.