Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Deborah Riley Dance Projects - Chew on This

Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
April 17, 2010

Our relationship with food is complex. There are weighty yet pertinent topics to be addressed: sustainability, hunger, obesity, greed. Though in the quest to give these serious issues their due attention, it is easy to forget the other end of food's spectrum: community, enjoyment, fun, celebration. In Chew on This, Deborah Riley Dance Projects succeeded in balancing both sides, without downplaying or emphasizing either. In addition, Riley did not attempt to solve any problems relating to food. Rather, through the interdisciplinary performance, she introduced various topics and let the audience sit with them. There were no conclusions or calls to actions, just ideas and information. An unresolved story, like this one, forces the audience to look at how the subject matter plays out in their own lives. A risky and vulnerable undertaking for a choreographer, but incredibly relevant.

A sense of inclusion was apparent as soon as you walked into the theater. Instead of the usual drawn curtain, the performance space was open and filled with dancers engaged in a picnicking scene; they were talking, snacking and interacting with each other and the guests. The audience was encouraged to partake of food tables set up at the front of the stage. It was a very relaxing and inviting environment where food was a soothing, calming presence.

The formal part of the program began unobtrusively while the house lights were still up and everyone was still chatting. The company members from Chew on This then led us through a plethora of emotion and action surrounding food. The first major group section integrated pieces of fruit into the choreography, where we saw the dancers treating each apple and orange with significant care and attention, as if the food held a sacred meaning for them. This section had a surprising end when the movement abruptly turned to grabbing, hoarding and hiding the food. It was interesting to see this place of respect spiral into one of selfishness. A subsequent segment featured short duets employing contact improvisation as the primary choreographic tool. Here the couples shared various points of weight in order to accomplish the steps, speaking to our mutual need in achieving common goals. One final variation revealed the dichotomy that often exists in the world of food. One couple performed a haunting, almost hopeless pas de deux surrounded by a circle of other dancers. The circle individuals were passing fruit back and forth to each other in the true spirit of sharing. While that was occurring, the two dancers in the middle were clearly excluded from partaking in this meal. They tried (several times) to break away from the circle and move to another space, but each time, they were followed and enveloped again. A brilliant juxtaposition of how we include only those we choose, without looking right in front of us at those in need.

Deborah Riley has created a brave composition where somber and lighthearted material can peacefully co-exist. Peter DiMuro even provided moments of true humor with his narrative interludes. Modern dance that tackles societal problems is so often jam-packed with angst, sometimes to the point that the importance of the issue gets lost. Balance is the key and Riley's Chew on This reflected a necessary parity.

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