I've noticed a mini-trend in this year’s Playlist Fringe blogging: writers who aren't usually into dance rationalizing their reactions to dance performances. I did it when I wrote about Random Acts of BODYTALK. My colleagues Paul and Lisa both did it in their respective reviews of Gray Matter and Fixed in One Long Gaze.
We all made more or less the same case – we don’t watch a lot of dance, we’re word people who don’t know how to process a wordless performance, we basically have no idea what we’re talking about but we know we enjoyed the show. They’re all genuine sentiments, but I found myself wondering why we feel compelled to slap these disclaimers on our dance reviews. Are we worried that we’ll say the wrong thing and be called out as frauds? Are we pre-emptively apologizing to the artists in case we misinterpret their work? Or are we just stroking our critical egos with some manufactured self-deprecation?
I’ve done a lot of music criticism in my time. When I’ve been called on to write about an unfamiliar artist or genre, I don’t usually feel a need to lay out my lack of knowledge as an apology to my audience. Instead, I look for aspects of the music that I can recognize and relate to, then use that connection to contextualize the larger work. That allows me to write an honest, invested review born out of the only experience I have to offer, my own. Whether or not I “get” it is beside the point. I don’t believe any work of art has a single, cut-and-dried meaning for its audience to take away. Since criticism by its nature is subjective to the critic’s experience, I wonder if these disclaimers aren’t counterproductive.
So let me launch this dance review by saying I loved the hell out of A Woman’s Works, no qualifiers necessary. I didn’t set out to see dance at all on Thursday, actually. I got a late start, so I decided just to drive over to the West Bank and hit whatever theater I could park nearest. West Bank parking is never a pleasant scene, but at 10pm on a weeknight things tend to be a little more manageable. I snagged a space a couple of blocks from the Southern and strolled in with no idea what I was going to see.
Even once the dancers took the stage, I was still a little unclear on the whole “what am I seeing?” point. A Woman’s Works opened on a dozen women in tights and baggy blouses complete with face-covering hoods. The dancers’ only distinguishing characteristics were the neon pink and blue prosthetics cupping their buttocks. Their routine, unsurprisingly, was a celebration of the booty, complete with modified twerking and a Black Joe Lewis score. Fun, somewhat surreal stuff, but I wasn’t sure I was up for an hour of dance in that vein.
And I didn’t have to be, as the show’s tone took several dramatic and effective shifts in its exploration of womanhood. The routines ranged from the tender fragility of Karen Gullickson and Kara Motta’s “Sacred Feminine” duet to the wounded ferocity of Karen L. Charles’ choreography on “Childless Mother” – some of the moves in Jennifer James’ solo actually made me sit up and gasp out loud. Taken as a whole, the women’s movements ran me through the emotional gamut – celebration, mourning, pride, shame, lust, revulsion, even terror – one routine opened with three dancers facing away from the audience and convulsing on the floor before slithering backwards across the stage in a scene that could have been straight out of a Korean horror movie.
A Woman’s Works wasn’t a Fringe experience I expected to have, but it was an extraordinarily rewarding one, possibly my favorite show of the fest thus far. From the striking choreography to the dancers’ bold personalities to Karin Olson’s breathtaking lighting design, this performance floored me. Whether or not I “know” dance matters very little. This show moved me with its artistry and left me with images that I’ll remember for a long while. That’s a hallmark of exceptional art, no disclaimers necessary.