writers on dancing


Dancing Our Emptiness

"How Did We Get Here?"
Mary Armentrout Dance Theater
Counterpulse Performance Space
San Francisco, California
November 11, 2005

by Charlotte Shoemaker
copyright ©2005 by Charlotte Shoemaker

Mary Armentrout's dance-theater takes place in the fertile ground where dance, performance, imagery, theater, music, social commentary and personal idiosyncrasies all meet. I first saw her work several years ago and have been drawn since then to her wit, her inventive and unconventional movement and imagery, and her skill at going beneath the surface to the collective insecurity and awkwardness that we so often hide. I see her individual performances as building blocks in the same cumulative piece, which chronicles our indecision and vulnerability. Here is the latest and largest installment, focusing specifically on the endless cycles of craving, perfected by American consumer culture.

"How Did We Get Here?" begins with a stage floor dense with the stuff we buy and throw away. Some of it is even suspended from the ceiling. Two walls are filled with a projection of an old wooden house, a hill and trees. Two singers (Merlin Coleman, the composer, and Dina Emerson) dressed as Emily Dickinson enter singing "America The Beautiful" to a dirge-like piano accompaniment. After they have left the stage two dancers enter crawling on their hands and knees, prostrate themselves on the floor and then crawl backwards going behind the curtain from which they emerged. Then three of them enter inspecting their toes, flapping their hands. Eventually there are four of them dancing their parallel existences (April Taylor, Malinda Hackett, Natalie Greene and Armentrout). They often repeat each other's motions such as swimming or draping themselves over chairs or sliding under them. They recline on the floor and slowly rotate one leg, tracing a circle, as if in the sand in a moment of slight boredom after too many days with a magazine at the beach.

These women are all variations of the same persona—one who has no center, who tells herself and us that she is happy but she so obviously isn't. She is driven to wanting something but has no idea what that might be. So she stretches reaches and grabs. This cracker, pair of shoes, coat, date, partner will "make her happy" but it never does so she drops it/him/her and moves back to the ennui of what/who do I want. What out there will "make me whole? Am I doing something wrong? Is this all there is?

In the midst of all this angst there is also a lot of laughter. Some of it is our uncomfortable identification with the characters' musings; some of it is relief that we aren't the only ones who stumble in these particular ways. Some of it is a response to the silliness of songs about Bisquick and about hamburger. Some of it is sheer enjoyment. Taylor performs an increasingly zany number (to Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz"). She is the slinky siren in high heels, the athlete in sneakers, the tough broad in platforms, the ballerina and so on, alternating personalities and foot gear at an increasingly dizzying rate. Finally she just throws shoes in all directions singing what is now "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a new pair of shoes?" This shifts into: "Buy me. Buy me." The balloon deflates and she is small, quiet and alone at the back of the stage amidst the chaos she had so frantically created.

After a dance of come close/go away—Fred and Ginger gone awry as they each fall down repeatedly, Armentrout's "husband/partner" leaves abruptly (to the tune of "You Always Hurt the One You Love"). Armentrout grasps an armful of stuffed animals from the detritus around her. She drops them, repeats the cycle and then settles on one large bear. She holds and pets it, and then scrunches it up until it becomes an amorphous gray wad. After dumping it with jerky, intentionally awkward movements, she picks up a small brand new white bear and a pair of scissors. First she cuts off the tag and label, then with great concentration she gives it a "hair cut," then slowly trims the ears off, then a foot and we sit mesmerized, knowing she won't stop here. The mute horror of this "gentle" violence is stunning.

Each performer gets a star turn. Hackett is continually frustrated in her efforts to reach and possess the consumer products, which are hanging from the ceiling. Even when she stands on a chair and jumps they are beyond reach. She emerges triumphantly towards the end of the evening with long handled pruning shears only to discover that once she has the various things, she no longer wants them. Greene leaps, literally, from man to man to woman in search of instant romance only to knock each person over when s/he turns out to be different from her.

These vignettes are, for the most part, individually delightful. The slow methodical accumulation of these various repetitions and forms of "not enough" could be tightened however. After a while the repetition of the same honed down message becomes tedious. The quicksilver vulnerability and scrambling of Armentrout's earlier work shifts in this piece into more of a continuous tone, one which makes its point very clearly but at the expense of her previous flashes of lightening. Perhaps though this says as much about my initial delight, which I am taking for granted as I look for the next surprise. As I examined my own feelings of not enough, I realized that I was back in the piece, just like the four women. I was questioning my response and asking myself what is enough, so perhaps this performance was far more effective than I'd realized. Hadn't Armentrout achieved exactly what she set out to do? (And what might she do if a tiny portion of our culture's vast expenditure were channeled into the arts? What if production money was made available to explore the video's potential so that it could go beyond being an apt stage set and interact more with the dancers as it so skillfully does with the singers at the end of the piece. What if they could all rehearse more and get paid more—or at all?) Before going to sleep I could also see too clearly that I "had to have some ice cream" which didn't satisfy me so I rather guiltily "needed some potato chips"—not Armentrout's ever present Ritz crackers, but close enough.

After so much repeated folly, a thread of forgiveness and ultimately hope emerges at the end of "How Did We Get Here?". One of the singers had already begun to sing that "they don't know when enough is enough" as the other continues the refrain of "America the Beautiful." They move down from their perch above the audience and harmonize amidst the mess on stage. Then they disappear and re-emerge as ghost images in the projection of the old house from the beginning of the piece gently playing catch and telling us that "experience is enough." "Any moment is always enough." "It is so simple"—and so elusive, so true. We are left in the silence aswe began.

"How Did We Get Here?" will be performed again this weekend, November 18 and 19. Call (510) 845 8604 for reservations.      

Volume 3, No. 42
November 14, 2005

copyright ©2005 Charlotte Shoemaker



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last updated on November 14, 2005