MGM Grand makes “highly structured dances” in unpredictable and often-times unconventional places. They produce work on the outskirts of institutional frameworks, with their liberating dancing anywhere, anytime attitude. I like this punk rock, DIY mentality, and at the same time, I question how a work like MGM Grand’s Nut would play out in a venue as established as The Kitchen, one of the prime institutions for contemporary dance in New York City. I was further intrigued by the fact that the program is curated by choreographer Sarah Michelson. I didn’t know what to expect, or what was expected of me as an audience member.
MGM (which stands for Modern Garage Movement) Grand is currently Jmy Leary, Biba Bell, Piage Martin (Paige Martin’s MGM pseudonym), and R. McNeill. Nut opens with Bell lying on her stomach in the back corner. Martin stands, back towards the audience, while Leary walks across the stage, crouched low to the ground, shuffling her feet and eventually landing on her bottom. She gives a welcome speech in a raspy whisper (think Tony, Danny’s creepy imaginary friend from The Shining), speaking about MGM’s history and noting that this type of introduction is “typical” in a performance. The remarks pique my anticipation along with the fabulous stage set: A felt-cloth runway constructed of hard-angled geometric shapes, vaguely reminiscent of Lynda Benglis’s Fallen Painting series. The bold colors plunge down the back wall onto the floor, and up the steps of the audience’s seating.
What follows is a series of unfinished thoughts with long stretches of time devoid of content. Leary, Bell, and Martin are dressed in tight, strappy glittering dresses with swaying skirts and olive green socks; they sashay across the stage, smugly moving their shoulders and hips back and forth. All the women, adorned with large fake eyelashes, have blank, affected looks on their faces. Their mannerisms call to mind ’90s heroin chic models, ironically sexy and coy as they loll around in waves of apathy. It feels like the dance floor of an awkward party, where guests disingenuously move their bodies to make it look like they’re dancing, but in actuality are more interested in seeing who else is around, or who else is watching.
Arms flail about in a manic, dizzying array while bodies topple over one another. Leary clumsily climbs on Bell’s back in an attempt to bring her to the ground. Later, she holds Martin like a mother carrying its oversized monkey child in a forward piggy-back ride. Martin stands apart as an eerily enigmatic presence throughout the evening and is, by far, the most impressive of the group.
Megan Byrne’s lighting adds a much needed perspective to the performance. At one point, three triangulated panes of light stretch across the stage, cutting shapes into the three women’s faces as they catwalk through, creating a chilling, strobe-like effect. Unfortunately, lighting efforts don’t save Nut from its meandering ways and failure to demonstrate focus or a cohesive structure. Even Nut’score concept of a “Motown female trio with a lead dancer and two backup dancers” bears little weight in the performance, with the exception of the remixed Motown tunes by R. McNeill. Instead, it feels like an improvisational exercise, an experiment without any parameters, something that was put together in two weeks.
After plenty of colliding and falling, a few more catwalks, a costume change for the sake of a costume change, and some synchronized bouncing, Bell calls for an intermission where audience members are invited to stretch their legs and come on stage for water, beer, and chips. Fifteen minutes later, everyone is back in their seats. In the final act, Leary and Bell enter, wearing black leotards adorned with variously colored felt shapes, ballet shoes, and masks (a picture of Martin’s facial silhouette) on the side of their heads. They look like characters from the children’s show The Big Comfy Couch, asthey crawl and roll about, their movements similar to the first act, only slower.
I admire MGM’s aim to question the “aesthetics of produced dance,” and I find their story of starting in a one-car garage in San Francisco and touring at informal venues to be rather amusing. I like how they demonstrate a peculiar, messy, and esoteric DIY aesthetic—a free-for-all dance-in-your-underwear feel. However, I couldn’t get over their smug aura, their self-mythologizing rock star sense of pride that the performance is somehow breaking new ground or subverting dance-world norms. For me, the backstory is only as believable as their performance, and in MGM’s case they still have a lot of convincing to do.
CHRISTINE HOU is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn, New York.