Sunday, September 19, 2010

"The Woman Invisible to Herself" - Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

Photo by Ian Winters
The Biscuit Factory - Oakland, CA
September 18, 2010

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater's "The Woman Invisible to Herself" is a must see for anyone who is intrigued by experimental postmodernism yet still longs for meaning and a story.  With this site-specific work, Armentrout shows that she is committed and pulled towards post-modern ideals yet still holds a strong desire to make dance that is about something.  The concept was a unique exploration of identity, in which assumptions were challenged, inconsistencies revealed and parameters re-defined.  And, what made the piece so clear and cohesive was the equal partnering of the narrative alongside three major tenets of postmodernism: non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art.    

The multi-room dance introduced us to different aspects of Armentrout's being, including those portions that identify as Asian (which she is not) and as a gay man (which she is also not).  There were numerous examples of non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art, though the following three moments of "The Woman Invisible to Herself" were particularly noteworthy.  First, in an attempt to breakdown pre-conceived notions - of what it means to be a performer, the role of the audience and the relationship between these two groups - conversing, connecting and communicating with the audience was encouraged.  Both Armentrout and Frances Rosario were clearly going off a script with their text, not improvising.  Though it really felt that they were talking to us during the performance, not at us.  Second, unusual performing spaces permeated this piece.  We saw dance outside between vans, on the roof, in a hallway, and my favorite, in a reflection.  As five of us crammed into a tiny viewing space, we watched the introduction of Armentrout's different personas in a broken mirror.  The five minute musing was, quite literally, a glimpse into the fragmented parts of her psyche.  Last, the movement choices were very relatable.  There was much formalized modern dance vocabulary, but it was combined with movements everyone knows and does: sitting, standing, walking and running.

Most post-modern choreographers would be satisfied with a piece that showcased 'the big three' (non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art) but, not Armentrout and her dancers.  They worked diligently to inject the narrative of internal discovery into every segment of "The Woman Invisible to Herself" and it was this concept that transformed the post-modern vision into art.  The tension of identity was present in all of the vignettes, though the outdoor offerings specifically drove this message home.  Nol Simonse's solo was all about self-protection as he clung to the perimeter of the building; lying on the ground, hanging from the ledge, balancing on the stairs.  His side attitude fed into a high parallel super-passé that was enveloped by a deep upper body curve - a strong image of self-preservation.  Natalie Greene's frenetic variation illustrated how quickly and easily our purpose can be blindsided by our own thoughts.  Greene would start facing one direction and then her body would throw itself backwards or sideways in space, taking her away from her chosen trajectory.  On the roof, all the fragmented parts of the self came back together in a statement of support and acknowledgement.  Motifs from Simonse and Greene's dances returned, with everyone taking on the off balance attitudes (to the front, side and back) as well as the running forward and being thrown back in space.  We also witnessed a very intimate moment where the four dancers mirrored each other's choreography.  They may have appeared to be dancing in unison, though, a closer look revealed that we were watching a learning and internalization of each other's physical language.  The audience was privy to a very personal and vulnerable instant of discovery, exploration and the marriage of different states of being.          

My only wish for this work is that the second act be re-thought, edited and perhaps absorbed into the first half of the performance.  The roof scene was the final portion of Act I and its ending should have been the finale of the entire piece.  On a beautiful horizon,  four dancers swirled on distant rooftops amidst the city landscape and the sunset.  The information and movement in the second half was interesting, though maybe a bit of a let-down after that amazing final image we saw on the roof. 

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