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Dance With A Sense Of Humor

January 19, 2009

Contemporary dance / physical theatre has a reputation for taking itself a little too seriously. The performers' appearance and movements might look comical to audience members -- it's hard not to laugh at a dance troupe that walks on stage wearing green, furry leotards and phallic head-dresses and then proceeds to do the moonwalk -- but the artists themselves are, all too often, a frightfully earnest bunch, hellbent on their Important Mission of delivering Great Art.

So it's always refreshing to come across dance companies who have a bit of a sense of humor about what they do; who are able to make a serious point through comedy, or are open to the deeply unfashionable idea that dance can simply be entertaining. Last night, the mixed-bag of offerings by female dance and physical theatre artists at the ninth annual Women on the Way Festival (WOW) provided several intriguing insights into the relationship between humor and dance.

1. A combination of bold physicality and humor in a dance piece can deliver a pungent message

SoShe's Performance Collective (pictured left in impressively silly style, cavorting in party dresses on a log) contributed the lion's share of last night's program. The works on offer veered between a range of moods and styles, solos and group works. The strongest piece of the entire evening was the finale, Standard Procedure, which struck me as a hilarious satirical piece about the difficulties of living in a world of red tape, rules, regulations and other irritating forms of bureaucracy. Kerri Myers' choreography was frenetic and earth-bound. The dancers twisted themselves into knots of frustration, kicking bits of colored tape around the floor. The costumes were comical. The dancers wore helmets on their heads and "harnesses" made from colorful ribbons across their chests with red bicycle lights in the middle. Every now and again, the dancers would "lock horns" by butting their helmets against each other. They looked like the children of over-protective parents, a mood which was further underscored by the innocent sounds of the peppy Linda Scott song that accompanied the movement at one point. Without rubbing our noses in the message, Myers and her cohorts entertained us and engaged our brains with a fresh take on environmental constraints.

2. Attempting to make a dance piece funny doesn't necessarily make the audience laugh.

Less successful on the comedic front was Judge Not, a piece contrasting opposing opinions regarding pregnancy, co-written and performed by SoShe's Julie Wolfrum and Alison Yoder. Yoder and Wolfrum strode on stage wearing goggles and long black coats. The coats eventually came off to reveal brightly-colored work-out gear. The dancers kvetched about the treatment of pregnant women in public situations e.g. the issue of getting seats on public transportation, and then jigged about like a latterday Salt 'N' Pepper, doing 80s-style disco and hip-hop steps. The artists seemed to want to couch serious points about public perceptions regarding pregnancy in funny physical language, but the effect was rather obvious and sophomoric.

3. In a mixed program of serious and silly works, the silly ones are often the most memorable.

Alongside SoShe's Standard Procedure, another engaging work in the evening was The Virgin Sea by the Laura Arrington Dance Company. This Pirates of the Caribbeanesque physical theatre piece was packed with dreamlike whimsy and broad humor. Arrington and her dancers conveyed the vaguest outlines of a story about a shipwrecked sailor, a pirate and a parrot through live songs and strong physical motifs. The contrast between the work's erotic, ethereal side and its vaudevillian sense of fun made it come alive. The performers blared out salty ditties about sailing on the ocean. A riff composed of an attitude-inspired port-de-bras and Yoga-infused "Warrior Two" pose suggested a billowing sail. A prostate, open-mouthed posture embodied a human being washed up on a distant shore. Colorful gumballs cascaded all over the performance space throughout the work. Sometimes the dancers ravenously filled their cheeks with them, and then found themselves almost unable to move, let alone dance with their jaws locked in the business of trying to chew. Meanwhile a performer hopped about the stage with a furry parrot hat on his head, perhaps in search of a shoulder to perch on. The piece was rather gimmicky in a way, but the strength of its comedy, powerful sense of ensemble and unusualness of its imagery created a strong emotional impact on the viewer. I, for one, felt like I was being tossed about on the ocean waves for the duration of the piece. The sum effect was rather like reading nonsense verses by Hillaire Beloc or Edward Lear's Gromboolian Poems ("The Owl and The Pussycat" perhaps.) It was both a wonderful and disorienting feeling.

Elsewhere in the program, various heady, "issues"-based and/or autobiographical solos and earth-motherly group pieces by the SoShe lot came and went. But the rest of the works on show, though thoughtfully executed and not lacking in moments of physical flair and emotional appeal, paled in comparison to The Virgin Sea and Standard Procedure. The chief ingredient they lacked, I thought, was a healthy dose of the absurd.

Produced by Footloose, the WOW Festival runs through February 1 at Shotwell Studios in The Mission and The Garage Artspace in SOMA.

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