CHICAGO — Dancers, choreographers, and performance makers: Did you know that Joanna Read’s studio, Dovetail Studios (on the north side), transforms into a large, crisp, black box performance space complete with an LED grid, shins, and well-kept marley over sprung wood floors? Next time you are considering the same old haunts to self-produce your new show—because who isn’t self-producing these days?— consider this space. Just make sure to budget a couple of good tech people to help transform the space.
Cue (get it?) my plug for Jacob Snodgrass’s terrific lighting design in Read’s latest work, Lie Through My Skin. Read’s company, Same Planet Performance Project, debuted Skin this past weekend and with characteristic attention to detail, the stage, costumes (by Vin Reed), sound design (by Molly Berg, Stephen Vitiello, and David Tronzo), and cast were impeccably well-appointed.
And this piece is odd, in a good way. It is also sinister in a way that feels appropriate and cathartic given the multiple layers of cultural angst swarming around us these days. It is absurd and abstract even within its gauzy narrative (potentially) having to do with an exchange of dominance in male/female relationships. Whatever…
The dance begins with the men (Jacob Buerger and Michael O’Neill) on all fours. O’Neill is convulsing from his core while Buerger serves as a chariot for the two women (Jess Duffy and Michelle Giordanelli) who are straddling his back and enjoying the ride. They eventually get bored with their passivity and begin to take advantage of their sturdy base, deviating into contact-y movement that causes Buerger to start bucking. They get kicked into the space and the rest of the dance ensues.
The thing that is most striking about the composition of this piece is its pace. There are a number of moments in the work where the dancers pause, for longer then you might expect, and the space begins to thicken with heft. There are other moments when the dancers are still moving but the action is less urgent, more like molasses.
This may not sound particularly unique, but the thing is that Read is a master at rhythm. Her choreography in Skin is full of interesting physical accents and punctuations, with breaks in momentum in unexpected places. This rhythmic command is demonstrated most obviously in a section where the music cuts out and the dancers continue their complicated phrase work with beats executed so clearly in their bodies we could transcribe their notes to sheet music. So, her decision to vacillate between pulsating phrases and dense periods of amorphousness and relative inaction, prove an intentional time-keeping that makes this piece pretty unique.
That said, this work has its fair share of generic po-mo tropes like running in circles, random maniacal laughing, and woman-as-ragdoll lifts (can we collectively agree to just remove this lift from our vernacular, please?). But in general, Read’s movement vocabulary is well sprinkled with invention.
This is also kudos to the dancers—what a cast! Giordanelli is one of the best dancers in Chicago. There seems to be no technical skill she can’t execute and she does so with such ease that it makes you think she decided to just get off the couch and perform a dance that night. Actually, O’Neill has that quality too, and when the two of them duet (which happens a lot in Skin) their interpersonal charge is the epitome of “contemporary.” By which I mean, of the present. O’Neill is also the best at imbuing material with an underbelly of emotion—something sly or intentionally uncouth that makes me smile. In contrast, Duffy carries herself with a more traditional aloof, but she is a well-metered powerhouse. In this work, she flawlessly performs an incredibly challenging solo entirely on releve and, my God, she prevails. It took me a little longer to warm up to Buerger on stage, but eventually his statuesque presence developed into three-dimensions. Mid-show he performs a solo that snuck up on me as heartbreaking although I can’t explain exactly why. I’m looking forward to seeing more from this cast in the years to come.
Now, what to make of these costumes whose arms (on the women only) extend into long streamers of fabric that can either be used against them, straight-jacket style (in Giordanelli’s case), or as a weapon of intimidation (in Duffy’s case)? Given the word “lie” in the title, I did wonder if this was the costume version of Pinocchio’s unfortunate growing nose. Or was it a utilitarian device like something the Black Panther character Shuri might dream up? A dip into the program notes reveals that this piece began as an honest contemplation of shame: “People cast shame, governments sanction shame, religions perpetuate shame, and technology amplifies shame.” I’m not sure how to connect those dots especially since the dancers seemed to triumph, either by shedding or retracting, their extending “skins” in the end. I certainly witnessed displays of dominance and rebellion, resistance and support, ganging-up-on and standing strong on one’s own.
As I said, this piece is curious. It left me thinking that Read is really working out some new stuff here. This did not seem like a redressing of a company’s best laid tricks nor was it trying to be peculiar for the sake of shock value (whatever that’s worth). No, there was something else going on here; an artist continuing to push herself, her vision, her company, and maybe even the form, forward just a bit. Like those sleeves, inch by inch, she/we/it grows.
Same Planet Performance Project in “Lie Through My Skin” continues at 7 p.m., Friday through Sunday at Dovetail Studios, 2853 W. Montrose Ave. Tickets are $22 at (773) 550-6533 and same-planet.org.