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REVIEW: Thirdbird’s The whole time in the meanwhile

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by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Part thought-provoking Panopticon, part self-indulgent foible, Thirdbird’s The whole time in the meanwhile, conceived and directed by 2012 Pew Fellow Meg Foley, painted an unexpected picture upon the blank canvas of Christ Church Neighborhood House on Thursday evening.

We are told to leave our bags and coats, to walk, to sit, to suck on a butterscotch candy, to form a line and lie down on the floor.  It’s a show that as much about the audience—all thirty of us—as it is about the performers.  The dancers (Foley, and Christina Gesualdi, Magdan San Millan and Annie Wilson) distribute folding chairs and guide the audience to two spaces on either side of the large, open room.  They kneel, they babble, they frolic like Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” and they dance over us as we watch from below, lying on the hard, wood floor.

It takes a while for the “real” dancing to begin.  Lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, dressed in a long green and black gown, first opens the shades that cover the four windows on the right side of the theater.  In all the shows that I’ve seen at Christ Church, this is the first time I’ve noticed those windows.

Musician Chris Forsyth then tosses a plastic shaker egg across the floor, waits for it to fall still then walks to retrieve it like a baby playing dropsy with no mother to retrieve the toy.  He repeats the process again and again—it’s infuriating, laughable and yet somehow endearing.  Is this dance?  And if not, why not?

He tells a story about his guitar.  For a moment, with the dancers in their bold polka dots and Foley kneeling on the floor, head and arm thrown back with flamenco-esque bravura, it feels like a tablao, but the tableau fades away as quickly as it came and again we’re on the move.

Performances such as these are difficult to interpret—let alone evaluate.  Foley’s solos reveal a truly gifted dancer, who manages to synthesize a number of movement styles through precise articulations and isolations of her limbs.  She melts, she freezes and she wiggles all the while keeping her eyes pinned on Forsyth who has returned to the microphone with his shaker eggs for an improvised duet between dancer and musician.

Gesualdi, San Millan and Wilson are all capable enough, and although the choreography does little to showcase their abilities, they do a good job of getting the audience to play along.  Doxsee washes the space in a rainbow of hues and becomes part of the dance as she manipulates colored gels and gobos with her hands.

But there’s no discernable plot, little in the way of theme, no virtuosity, no high-flying feats or acrobatics and no proscenium to tell you what’s part of the show and what’s not.  I find instead that I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m tired of standing for so long and the blast of warm air at the top of the stairs behind the theater is making me sleepy.  I’m irritated by the acoustics—the soundscape is intentionally impossible to decipher at times, too loud at others—but amused by the return of the eggs and the way that the quartet of dancers trace circles across the floor that echo the thick black marks on the wood.

This—if Foley’s program notes are to be believed— is the entire point.  She’s invited us to notice time passing, to experience shifting, to interact not just physically with the dancers and the space but with ourselves.  And, for better or worse, we do.

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist.  She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company.  Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.

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