The Naked Stark’s engaging informal events

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal | Photo: JH Kertis Photography

The Naked Stark is a troupe that regularly presents dance works in progress throughout the year, billed by artistic director Katherine Kiefer Stark as ‘A Series of Informal Events.’  ‘Event 3’ commenced this past weekend in the airy 2nd floor of the Mascher Space Cooperative in Northern Liberties.   Choreographer-dancers Meredith Stapleton, Antonia Z Brown and Stark showed the latest versions of developing dance pieces – possibly ripe for change, or not – before they are completed.  The informal, near two-hour evening of dance and audience interaction commenced with the choreographers facing the audience and inviting comments after each piece.

Showing unfinished work carries many risks, but it is also an opportunity to gauge reaction with different audiences outside of a hot house studio environment.  These dancemakers and the dancers were game for the process.  First up was Stapleton’s ‘Radio Dance’ scored to a live NPR feed that the choreographer was operating from her laptop.  The wood floor studio space with industrial columns has a cool loft atmosphere perfect for this lengthy work.  This version cast 13 women of disparate dance skills that worked well for this amorphous, large scale dance mosaic.

They were moving to NPR radio host Terry Gross’s interview with rap artist Jay-Z about his being the first rap artist to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Jay-Z music came on in short clips between all the talk, with focus on his family, rough neighborhood and the music business.  As always happens on NPR, there were frequent PSAs and show promos. Stapleton explained that her initial impulse occurred when she found herself moving, or dancing, to NPR and wondered if it was unconscious.

The dancers sometimes seem like they are reacting to the words (or vocal rhythms) but just as frequently seemed in their own zone, just moving. Part of this was the point. Impossible to catch all the movement scenarios occurring simultaneously. As the ensemble scrambles, a few examples, like Ren Williams in a smoldering solo line to a Jay-Z song fragment, were cinematic. A piano passage abruptly floods over the broadcast, with dancers surging forward and dropping to a supple group formation.

During the first half of the lengthy piece, Stapleton noted later, the movement was mostly improvisation, with some key times and spatial cues.  Stapleton’s transitional phrasing and ensemble unison built in more during the second part of the broadcast.  Meditative sections that suddenly accelerate to movement chaos and dancing amok looked purposeful and focused throughout.  Stapleton’s fusion of movement styles and improv is adventurous, but all along builds “Radio Dance” with ensemble synergy. ‘Radio Dance’ already strikes as a wellspring of spontaneous and concrete ideas, executed with polished focus and esprit by these dancers.

Next, Antonia Z  Brown choreographed the an ‘as yet to be titled’ duet for dancers Hillary Pearson & Ren Williams set to a cinematic rock ballad called ‘Sun Drop’ by Philly based band Vita and the Woolf,  The electronica orchestral suggested a torrent as the dancer’s upper bodies moved in circular patterns, then intense mirroring, and choreography with different finishing moves that had them sweep over the floor with some modern balletics, sudden slides and drops, with precision and expressing emotion, as they are suddenly clasping each other to Vita’s blazing vocal.

The closer was Stark’s ‘Power Suite’, a quartet with Sean Thomas Boyt, Marisa Illingworth, Stapleton and Stark, scored to cinematic synth music by Loscil and Burkhard Dallwitz.  ‘Power Suite’ is a section of Stark’s 12 part dance opus that will premiere next year.  This scene is a wry comedy about squirrelly dancer superheroes, where audience members were invited to select from a pile of garments – a cape, mask, Speedo, a red tie and other garb that might suggest their characters.  As they dress backstage, they yell ‘Go Music’ and storm on and fly into action. Agitated clusters and some dance editorial about petrified postmodern vernacular.  The pondering choreographic standby of dancers breaking to running in circles, before they regroup to a next real passage, was used a vault for physical comedy.

At one point Stark plays the very hands on choreographer moving and molding Boyt’s body around as if he were a mannequin. Stark and Illingworth punch at the air, reach for flight as they inch down in scrappy plies, and Illingworth tires and melts into a collapsed lotus position. Boyt locks into a Graham-esque frozen penche extension, before Stapleton takes over with arabesque positions then snaps her fingers and the other dancers scramble under her like human puzzle pieces.  Soon they end up in a hilarious tussle on the floor this side of the World Wrestling Federation outtake and out of the slab of dancers Meredith is lifted in balletic triumph.

Stark writes on the Naked Stark website that her choreographic goal is to “create a unique world for each work with a specific physicality, energy, sense of time and place, and use of space.”  Each of these works fulfilled that mission even in their unfinished form and this bodes well for Naked Stark’s ambitious series, however informal.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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