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Undone: androgyne, gender and humanism
Choreography and Direction: Stephanie Nugent
Highways Performance Space, Santa Monica, June 10-12, 2011 –

Los Angeles choreographer Stephanie Nugent presented new versions of several works in a three-day run at Highways Performance Space earlier this month. The Nugent Dance company—four women and four men—performed three varied, athletic, fresh, and valuable original works. Southern California dancers are perhaps most familiar with Nugent, a member of the dance faculty at CalArts, through her Hourglass concerts, during which audience members are invited to participate in the hour-long improvisational performance with a live music ensemble.

Nugent’s compositions are informed by the history of dance, but they do not pretend to be surveys. Many of her creative decisions come from her deep knowledge of Contact Improvisation, the dance practice developed in the 1970s by Steve Paxton. Nugent is very active in CI as a teacher and performer and has taken this essentially improvisational form and miraculously re-imagined it as composed movement without sacrificing its immediacy.

CI was mostly evident in the final work of the evening, Undone, in which the whole company participated. There was an extended duet between Toussaint Jeanlouis and Adam Wile in which they seemed to meet in distrust, sparring and challenging one another. But the combativeness soon abated—after a few more minutes the lifespan of a relationship was depicted through various forms of contact and movement. They demonstrated tenderness with one hand touching the other’s shoulder, disagreement in martial arts throws, running play, good-natured roughhousing, and much more. The entire range of confrontation was explored—and whether or not that was a stated intention, we could not help but imagine the narrow range served by contact in our own everyday lives. We use touch to seduce, to oppose, to convince. But these gifted performers have much to teach us about how contact can convey more than we think. And as if to demonstrate that very learning, the entire company soon experimented with the same types of contact we saw in the duet: gentle, aggressive, provocative, and passive. Some of their encounters consisted merely, and touchingly, of one mover helping another accomplish some result. The entire dance was accompanied by So Percussion’s “February,” a soothing stream of vibraphone tones which sometimes worked in extreme juxtaposition with the proceedings and other times dissolved into the movement.

Passions, the second work on the program, involved four men, a woman, a cart on wheels, ramps, and a lot of lemons. A sole dancer, Louie Cornejo, began by grating lemons. After sequences in which lemons were rolled down the ramp towards the front of the stage, the four men ended up with a cart that they pushed around in various playful and sometimes forceful ways. Eventually a woman, Kerrie Schroeder, appeared and became interested in the cart and the other dancers. When she stood atop the cart, making her nine feet tall, she took in the men’s attention with some satisfaction. The silence was shattered by one of the men yelling “Hey!” Then one by one the other men yelled the same word in a scattered fugue of mob agreement. She ended up being dragged around as she held onto the cart, then suspended herself from the legs while the cart was being propelled around the stage. When the cart paused, we saw her deftly reattach to a different part of the vehicle; once a new direction was established, she trailed the cart like a flag in the wind. This sort of jerky bombast is familiar from cartoons–but there was genuine risk here and we sensed it. The inevitability of natural forces changing the rules we live by is one theme; the unrelenting triumph of the isolated latecomer over those ever-changing rules is another. Passions compels us to view actions and reactions as natural events severed from intention, open to interpretations ranging from humor to horror.

The eight members of Nugent Dance are more than dancers: they are actors with their bodies, communicating to the audience as they themselves appear to be engaged in a genuine dialogue with each other. Props, spoken text, lighting, and virtuoso movements are all in the Nugent Dance mix, but there is much more here than a variety of materials: Nugent has created unique works of theatrical dance that, while being thoroughly entertaining, offer instant and profound insights into human relationships.


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