“Are things the same, or are they different?” George Staib ends his program notes with this question that the audience ruminates on as we view his work, fence. This evening-length work was created in collaboration with Sarah Hillmer and the dancers in Staib’s company, staibdance. Performed as a part of the Dance Alumni Showcase at the Boyer College for Art and Music, the work also featured a handful of Temple University Guest Artists.
The piece begins in a fog-filled theatre with sound already droning, composed by Ben Coleman. Hanging from the ceiling are a dozen or so pipes with jagged cuts at the ends, they resemble pipe organ pipes, or a fence, or a weapon. The program notes detail a stabbing that occurred at Staib’s Tehran American School, where two Americans were stabbed through a fence. We understand this as the basis for the work and can feel the tension in the theatre as we wait for the work to begin. On the stage appears dozens of little light circles. They wave and sway, moving closer and further from each other, like bugs, or ants, or maggots. Almost images appear in the dancing lights until eventually they disperse and disappear as the dancers enter one by one.
A diagonal of light appears in the space and the dancers begin to walk along this line. The light design is formative to the work, thanks to a collaboration with lighting designer Gregory Catellier. The dancers walk, then run, then dance into the space, building in intensity as the piece continues. Relationships emerge and fall away quickly, like the light circles who began the dancing. Dancers oscillate between looking for safety in others and looking out for themselves.
Eventually, one dancer crawls along this light line and it disappears as if it is absorbed into her.
A strong image emerges as a dancer starts moving and speaking as if they are being interrupted, or restricted. We hear bits and pieces of phrases like “look what you’ve done” and “they’re eating canaries”. They are straining to get the words out, though we can see the only thing holding them back is themself. Another dancer enters and this grows into a stunning and powerful duet full of movement and text that really grounds the work as a whole. The duet moves rapidly through images and ideas of dominance, sex, jazz music, family picnics, news reporters, weather, blood, and slow dancing. The performers are curious and confident and speak and move with such clarity, their commitment to the work and each other is undeniable.
The work as a whole encourages the audience to see themes and relationships in the dancing that tell the story. The clearest moments though come from the moments of stillness and lengthy relationships between two dancers. It is in these moments that we can really fall into the feeling of the work. The work points to larger issues of power struggles and socio-political relationships in the states. It is effective in its abstraction of concepts to explore the emotional implications of these relationships.
The work climaxes with a powerful dance section as the music swells. The group is traveling across the space with conviction as they seem to be searching for something together. Winding the work down is a duet that begins with a struggle for dominance and ends with warm caresses. Their symbiotic relationship is the most tender moment of the work. The final image is one dancer trying to lift themself onto the other dancer’s shoulders as if to see over the fence.