To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance of Supernatural Wife by Big Dance Theater. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Big Dance Theater’s Supernatural Wife is at once a paired down and embellished retelling of Alkestis by Euripides. Greek Tragedy with capital letters, indeed. And yet, in its way, and for all its technological bigness, this piece retains what I imagine to be its essence: intimacy, sincerity, and even a little innocence.
Alkestis is the name of King Admetos’ wife, who volunteers to die in her husband’s stead. In the midst of being claimed by Death, she makes clear the condition that her husband may not remarry. Through a convoluted yet sort of sweet set of circumstances, Alkestis is rescued from Hades and returned to her grieving husband. What begins as deliberately overwrought pageantry for the king morphs into wracked mourning. Full body stances that in previous scenes were brilliantly yet comically delivered become layered with true feeling. The cartoon becomes a character. There is a happy ending of sorts, but it is also complicated.
In the beginning a huge round section of floor that has the appearance of marble tile defines and characterizes the stage space, leaving the rest neutrally black. Six chairs filled by the six performers are evenly spaced around the circumference. Participation (complicity) is equally distributed.
A dance ensues, a big dance. Two men take to their boot-clad feet. They jog in place in tandem for a few steps but quickly advance into complicated gestural choreography. The jog/stomp is never far away as the legs too get more advanced. All performers join, and the effect is that of a rite, a ritual, a wild dance of sacrilegious proportions. Torsos are mostly upright. Often the arms are held tightly down or broadly overhead, reminiscent of Irish step dancing. Something is afoot.
The story unfolds using devices like performers speaking melodramatically into mics while another reads the stage directions. The king is played by a woman and our heroine, also not devoid of gimmicks (like fast-talking wise-cracking), reveals herself to be movingly transparent. She and the king embody sincere love and grief and self-reflection. In other words, the stuff of Greek Tragedy.
Big Dance Theater, though co-directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, works collaboratively. You can tell, both by the breadth of ideas and the performers’ investment in them. It is as though every notion gets equal play, but instead of feeling like too many cooks the effect is more like a great cultural gathering. It is a bazaar, a market, an Oriental rug, colorful and contextually self-contained.
This group has firm footing in both the dance and theater worlds. It retains the best virtues of each while shedding what might be superfluous. And in the retention and the shedding, something new is revealed, a new way of storytelling and also of abstract dancing that is loaded with context and meaning. Add to these technology and song, and the result is a singular approach to making new work. It is referential in that it is telling an old story and yet its path to getting there is newly forged.
Respective disciplines blur boundaries. Scenes are conveyed through dance-chant-acting hybrids. New and stunningly imagistic models are enacted and propel the story forward. The players never lose sight of the content or trajectory even as they are tampering with the means by which these are conveyed.
My viewing was in such good hands. A story older than dirt became relevant and somehow timely. Alkestis’ dancing solo at the end was sublime in its complexity, conveying the complicated and subtle nature of a happy ending. She was, after all, still alone, as we all are, even when sitting so close.