by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
The Susan Rethorst-Group Motion collaboration THEN presented by Philadelphia Dance Projects, at the Arts Bank is a surreal, ponderous and intimate romp for five dancers. The piece starts ambitiously enough, with Lindsay Browning coming onstage moving planks of wood around the projected image of Gregory Holt. She speeds up snippets of Holt dancing then freeze his image and moves the long planks around his image, fragmenting him like a cubist painting. A suggestion, perhaps, that dance invites various levels of comprehension and is in fact, a different experience from various perspectives, past a mere entertainment.
Holt himself then enters, in a mustard-colored T and swagger of Jagger and in fact starts dancing to the Rolling Stones’ nihilistic anthem Gimmie Shelter. Rethorst hilariously blends Jagger’s cockiness to Holt’s inner Jagger variations and he eventually spazzes himself into a foot on foot hop, before collapsing to the floor.
In contrast, there follows a lengthy silent section with Lesya Popil posing like a deco-era classical statue. This intriguing motif eventually has the ensemble moving around like harem extras in silent film era. An allusion, perhaps, to Duncan or DeniShawn dancers who appeared in silent epics of the era creating a pioneering movement lexicon of dance and pantomime.
Rethorst allows silence for long stretches, very demanding for dancers and dance audiences. Some of the choreography seems more about the process. The troupe moves to a communal circle, touching each other at the temples. Holt and David Konyk hopscotch over Eleanor Goudie-Averill and Browning’s bodies, perilously, as they change limbs positions. Some sections reading as studio exercises of performer trust, more than finished creation.
Konyk grabs a partner and starts waltzing, but these pedestrian ballroom moves look all the more surreal. Browning mimes cutsey gestures to signal what might be behind some of the movements. Later, Browning flung herself into violent paroxysm on the floor, like someone trying to break to freedom. A mirror video of the writing body is projected on the live dancers and the imaging casts a grotesque, mysterious beauty. Averill and Popil’s limp bodies are propped up and their bare feet molded into various ballet positions.
The second chunk of music in THEN, is Danny Elfman’s theme music from the film Beetlejuice. The diabolical flavor of this music lends itself to witty passages of the ensemble dancing gloriously amok. These sections could have been expanded to the whole piece, Rethorst‘s dance mayhem is engaging and charming.
Other concepts are less successful. Dancers dragging each other around the stage; dancers reclined and playing with each other’s bodies like a kid’s game (or the choreographer playing games with dancers). Bodies are prone, one manipulating the limbs of the other or slapping their derrieres, then conking themselves in the head. A little goes a long way.
THEN has the feel of an unfinished draft with strong ideas colliding, and then fading to ponderousness. Rethorst’s auteurism is always present, but she doesn’t avoid some clichés of modernism. The dancers breaking into runs repeatedly, for instance, read by now, as filler.
The dark and stark Arts Bank stage is the perfect setting for the development of this piece, with inventive lighting and video design by Rethorst and Matt Sharp. Renee Kurz’s costumes of carnivale pants tasseled on the hem and amorphous bright-colored tops work very well. Rethorst’s choreography has a grab-bag feel, with memorable highlights within cryptic concepts. However under (or over) thought the material appears, there was no doubt that Rethorst builds vibrant creative trust and joyous energy with her dancers.