Monday, January 30, 2012

"So I Married Abraham Lincoln"

Photo: Pak Han
Paufve | Dance
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
January 29, 2012

Historical dance pieces are a tricky undertaking.  Often they turn out to be nothing more than a factual regurgitation, not much different than a television documentary.  Or, they can go too far in the opposite direction, where the dance is so obscure that the historical component gets completely lost.  The sweet spot is somewhere right in the middle, where a significant amount of the history is combined with creative translation.  Paufve | Dance has discovered that successful equation with, "So I Married Abraham Lincoln...".  The notion and construct of the 'First Lady' consumes Artistic Director Randee Paufve's newest work, with Mary Todd Lincoln as its primary example.  "So I Married Abraham Lincoln..." contrasts the emotional and physical realities of being human against public and personal expectation.  This dance is a comment on the difficult relationship between formality and truth.

The piece unfolded within four different spaces of the Dance Mission building - three short segments in the lobby and two different studios followed by the bulk of the work in the theater itself.  As the audience was escorted to and from each of these performance areas, we were choreographically descending into the complex mind and spirit of Mary Todd Lincoln.  The lobby portion, which was performed by members of Paufve | Dance's chorus, was very formal and public, both in presentation and movement style.  Next came the overture where we encountered the seven company dancers.  In their bodies and faces, a fractured and distant persona emerged - one that was clearly struggling to keep appearances while being pulled by the truth of the inner self.  The third scene represented the eerie, dark corners of the psyche; the parts that we keep hidden from everyone and everything; the thoughts that we wish weren't there; the inner demons that haunt us.  Lastly, we journeyed into Dance Mission's main theater to watch a clever and detailed narrative exploration of the First Ladies in general and Mary Todd Lincoln in particular.

We entered the theater and crossed the stage while the dance was already underway.  As we were seated, the performers began a 'supermodel' type introduction of their characters, repeating the names of all the First Ladies as they walked an imaginary runway.  The names were repeated throughout the work, which gave two opposing effects.  Saying the names over and over again both emphasized and normalized these women in our consciousness, which is typical of our relationship to those in the public eye - they are in the spotlight and under scrutiny, yet the constant images and stories also have an anesthetizing property.

Paufve delved into the idea of 'posing' from both an internal and external perspective.  In several instances, the dancers manipulated, pulled and posed each other in very specific and often uncomfortable stances.  These positions were intrusions, inflicted and infringed upon them by external forces.  In contrast, there were also sections of cluster pictures where the cast assembled in multiple frozen vignettes.  Here was internal posing and an attempt to convey an acceptable image.

Incorporating multiple locales into full-evening contemporary dance works is very hip right now and this theatrical tool was especially a propos for "So I Married Abraham Lincoln...".  Each new physical place emphasized how this dance was unpacking different emotional recesses of the human mind.  It was a fantastic addition to an already strong narrative.  But, moving the audience from place to place does bring with it a whole slew of logistical issues.  Of main concern was the inability to actually see what was happening in the first two spaces.  Views of the amazing choreography and brilliant dancing were obstructed because of too many people in too small a space at the same time; it was just too crowded.

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