Review: Group Motion’s Spiel Uhr: New Voices

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal | Photo credit: Ian Douglas

As the Community Education Center transitions to its new era, it is still the dance home of Group Motion and last weekend co- artistic director Manfred Fischbeck presented ‘Spiel Uhr: New Voices,’ a twice yearly choreographic showcase.  Fischbeck’s curatorial wisdom is evident in the distinctly different individual aesthetics by this collective “new on the dance scene” in Philadelphia, with choreographies by Meredith Pellon, Juliet Bernstein and Breyanna Maples, all senior dance majors at the University of the Arts and a piece by Paige Phillips, who has been in Philadelphia for a year after working abroad.

Meredith Pellon’s ‘The Heart isn’t even that red’ is inspired by her interest in surgery.  The theme, figuratively and literally, depicting the heart being pulled out of the body and examined.  With dancers Canyon Carroll, Lily Mello, Liv Morrow and Pellon in attitude line, set to orchestral and choral music by Nico Muhly and William Basinski.  The dancers move in abstract phrases, they halt in rococo poses (reflective of the music), with bodies bowed with hands extended in rococo positions. The lights go out unexpectedly and come up on the group writhing on the floor, with bunched up red fabric that cupped in their hands or dropping between them. They interact with each other expressing physical and emotional impulses of the heart. This quartet, seemed too tentative at key moments, the choreography more in their heads than their bodies, but midway through, they settled and had more of ensemble pulse, even as the piece seemed to run out of choreographic ideas. The symbolism more meditative than heavy handed, with the ending circling back to the original configuration, with a new twist of the heartstrings.

“I am/I am not” a solo choreographed and danced by Juliet Bernstein, dressed in athletic gray togs and red socks, begins with Bernstein in stylized (dancy) running. Fragments of her own ‘sound score’ a roiling electronica soundfield with poet Maya Angelo’s voice floating in reciting from her famous manifesto ‘And Still I Rise’ about a black women’s empowerment in a racist, sexist world. Bernstein doesn’t make her moves literal to the theme or the text, but it is conveyed as she twists her body in knots or eloquently, flies over the floor, leaps with arms straight out. Bernstein has dramatic presence and precision, with steely postmodern technique.

Breyanna Maples’ “Hello, this is Me” is an arresting duet danced by Jon Baldwin and Chanel Howard.  Industrial sounds engulf the theater as they dance slo-mo phrases- sliding from robotics to liquid physicality, deconstructed paroxysm, forward and reverse motion- articulations of neo-break vocabulary.  They suddenly lunge forward, Baldwin flies into a sinuous layout and they land on the on the ground in a reclined dance with Howard hovering over Baldwin’s body. The score stops and they dance in unison during the silence. They are eventually facing each other, expressing angst and understanding.  Maples’ choreography is inventive and gives these dancers a lot to work with in lean, expressive movement and acting.

Paige Phillips has been in Philadelphia for a year, previously based in Bangkok, Thailand.  Phillips presented scenes from her 45-minute piece ‘Après moi, l’obscurité (After me, the darkness). Celine McBride, her face hidden in a silver wig and elegant black lace top, piques over upstage in moves reminiscent of the two-dimensional angularity of Nijinsky’s Faun. Meanwhile Margot Electra Steinberg and Mary-Carmen Webb, in pink and gold skirts, loitering against the wall with dance intent. McBride’s solo becomes more aggressive, with free dance as she sweeps over the stage and flies to the wings.  Webb and Steinberg start their playful, mischievous duet, and McBride joins them.

Soon the trio appear in voluminous old ballet style tulle as composer Camille Saint-Saens’ “Dying Swan” music is heard and the women are locking arms like rebel ‘Cygnets’ escaped from Swan Lake. These aren’t just pissed ballerinas for comique effect, this is a dance satire and scathing polemic. Not only does Webb proclaim “I’m not a fucking swan,” she contemptuously shouts out that most infamous line by the president about grabbing women by the genitals.

They take off the tulle and don it around their necks, put on dunce hats and they not only are positioned as phallic weaponry, they hilariously duel with them. Soon they are rolling around making bull noises and as Dance Journal writer Olivia Wood points out deftly, in her previous review of the full work, these ballerinas are not about to be preyed on, despite their sexist roles onstage or off.  Phillips comic inventiveness and the overarching satirical mayhem continues to intrigue, and without doubt these pieced together excerpts make you want to see the entire piece.

Manfred Fischbeck and Brigitta Herrmann are about to observe Group Motion’s 50th year anniversary and as much of a milestone as that is for any contemporary dance company, Fischbeck doesn’t find it particularly extraordinary, commenting simply “yes, artists must continue to do what we do,” he said smiling as the audience filed in and some new voices and the muses are heard.

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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