by Olivia Wood for The Dance Journal
On Saturday evening, January 29, Paige Phillips presented a forty-five-minute choreographic work performed by a trio of powerful movers: Celine McBride, Margot Electra Steinberg, and Mary-Carmen Webb.
The work began subtly, with Webb and Steinberg slumped against the stage right wall, beneath a set of red lights. Immediately, the lurid setting brought to mind a red-light district, which strongly supports the exploration of female sexuality through the movement.
Then, the dance began and the audience was swept into a world of fantastical creatures, unsettling laughter, bone-chilling screams, and of course witchcraft. The piece was separated into seven sections, the transitions between which were, at times, murky. Rather than making it disjointed, they allowed the piece to present a more cohesive narrative, one that presented a fall from grace and innocence, one that depicted a deeply-rooted torment.
For example, the juxtaposition between the upright and quasi-balletic movement sequences and the postmodern scuttling, lumbering, and stomping emphasized the dichotomous roles of women in society: the virgin and the seductress, the sheltered/imprisoned and the liberated.
Women’s liberation was depicted with a variety of images and movements throughout the piece. For instance, the dancers frequently broke the fourth wall by dancing between the aisles, approaching audience members, and even screaming, “I’m not a fucking swan!” and “pussy grabber.” (This last exclamation clearly criticizes the Trump administration and its tolerance of sexual assault.) Phillips’ choreography continued to push boundaries with the use of props. The dancers reached into their skirts and tossed handfuls of multi-colored glitter, which could be interpreted as a creative allusion to the loss of virginity and sexual expression. A recurring movement motif that corresponds to the aforementioned themes is a deep lunge in which the dancers bumped their pelvises while panting loudly.
The dancers also cackled loudly toward the end of the piece, adorned with black pointed hats, a sharp contrast from the rosy shirts and fluffy white tutus worn earlier. The peals of maniacal laughter resounded ominously in the space as the dancers darted frenetically, running and jumping. They seemed positively out of control as they took ownership of the space, committing to their witchy characters. This moment reinforced the prevalent idea in Renaissance art and in our contemporary society that a liberated woman is threatening.
Lamentably, Phillips’ choreography illustrates that women often play the role of the hunted rather than of the hunters. Her work also explores the victimization of women and critiques the sexual abuses that are being brought to light with such frequency of late. In the fourth piece, She had a passion for people who did things well, Webb performs a brief solo in which she pants, clutches her stomach and mouth as if in pain, writhes on the floor, and drags herself by the nape of her neck, murmuring, “not this time.” This fearful sequence is crowned by a blood-curdling shriek, and then a whispered apology which is perhaps the most frightening moment in Phillips’ politically-charged, macabre choreography because, as she so deftly illustrates, after all, that is said and done, women are still expected to defer to and apologize to the ones that hurt them.
Phillips’ work tantalizes and enraptures. And after an intense and thought-provoking journey, it leaves us alone in l’obscurité.