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September 02, 2011

Dance Review: No Boundaries in 'Critical State'

Lauren Stagnitti photo_3 Even if you're spending your weekend volunteering on the Irene clean-up, you'll need to take a break at some point. Head up to Morrisville for an unusual interactive evening with some of the area's most exciting performers.   

Polly Motley, a dancer and choreographer based in Stowe, premiered a work-in-progress of her "Critical State" a year ago. This time, the multimedia performance — including a constantly shifting landscape of sound, video, dance and performance art — feels richer and more sure of itself.

The venue, River Arts, is an intimate two-story building that feels more like someone's home than an art center. But Motley and her collaborators — five dancers, one composer, four video artists, one lighting designer — essentially transform it into a mixed-media fun house. The performance runs for three hours, but the action ebbs and flows, swelling in one room until a sound — or live video footage — from another draws the focus elsewhere.

It's best to take it in small spurts, says Motley. She suggests watching for a while, then heading into the elevator shaft, which is outfitted as a private dance station, complete with a disco ball and two fully loaded iPods with headphones. 

In the kitchen, pots and pans, each filled with a few inches of water, are arranged on the floor around an island. From a speaker tucked into a vase comes the plink-plink-plonk of dripping water. In the adjacent room, Molly Davies operates a control board while Philip Roy films Steve Paxton reciting a story to the throbbing of electronic music. 

I follow the sound of feet stomping upstairs, through a stairwell hung with incandescent bulbs, their filaments exposed like tiny flames. In the main room, Ellen Smith Ahern dances, alternating from graceful gestures to repeated kicks. It looks as if she's trying to break free from her long, papery, bustled skirt. Stacy Spence, who has unstrapped himself from a hiking backpack, is all feminine hip sways between fierce stomps of his steel-toed boots.

Between the two dancers runs a canal of glass vessels — vases, pitchers, cups and bowls — some filled with water and live goldfish. Later Diane Madden, in an angelic white dress, walks the path of the glass canal, stopping here and there to lift a string of lights with her toes and place a bulb into a vase.

Sean Clute and Pauline Jennings film them, weaving slowly through obstacles with their cameras. Stefan Jacobs keeps his eyes on the lights, adding a strip here, dimming a few there.

Suddenly, someone with a deep, aggressive voice is singing downstairs. I give in to my curiosity and make my way down. Joyce Lim is standing on the kitchen island in a kimono belting an angry-sounding song (in Japanese?) and stomping her feet. 

It's easy, at first, to feel overwhelmed. Which dancer should I watch? What's going on downstairs? Am I missing something? It's difficult to tell who is part of the performance, who makes up the crew and who is just there to watch. Which, of course, is part of the point. Motley's goal is simple: She wants to see how "media, performance, audience and environment affect each other."

Luckily the River Arts building is full of nooks and crannies, and Motley and her crew have turned many of them into perfect little hideaways for those feeling overstimulated. A doorway leading to a back stairwell, for example, is draped in a sheet of white strings, onto which video footage of a waterfall is projected. I thread my fingers through the glowing strings and step into the darkened stairwell. Looking back through the strings, I watch Madden and Motley in silhouette, helping each other with a costume change. For a moment, it feels as if I'm a member of the cast, waiting in the wings for my entrance. 

The action shifts to the upstairs room again, so I follow. Spence is strapped into his backpack again, guiding an imaginary team of fellow trekkers through the terrain, which includes a few other dancers doing their own thing. "Shift a little to the right," he advises his phantom trekkers. "Watch out for that beam." 

Near the end of the night, Smith Ahern, in a billowing, floor-length black dress, ties her feet with ace bandages to two cinderblocks. She's the only one performing upstairs now, and it's a relief. The music, too, is suddenly more conventional. The surging electronic sounds of earlier in the evening have given way to a pop-y piano-and-guitar tune. It sounds like something you'd hear in a romantic comedy during the sappy morning-after montage. Smith Ahern makes it startlingly beautiful. 

She cannot move her feet, so she dances from the hips up. We watch her build up the courage — and strength — to attempt to move her concrete-bound feet. And then we see her struggle, sliding the blocks slightly forward, then losing her command of them and slipping back. She finally falls to the floor, her feet still strapped down, a small rock in each hand. 

It's hard not to clap when she finishes, but no one does. 

I head to the stairs to leave and find Motley sprawled on her back, head first, on the steps, pulling herself down. When she gives up halfway, she looks like a murder victim. I decide to take the other stairs.

After a few hours in Motley's 'Critical State,' I start to see performance all around me, even after I've left. On the drive home, I pass through Waterbury, where at 9 p.m., the road crews are hard at work making repairs under bright lamps. The pavement is lit up like a stage.  

"Critical State," a multimedia performance installation by Polly Motley, at River Arts in Morrisville. Friday & Saturday, September 2 & 3, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. $20 or by donation. Info, 888-1261,

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