American Dance Institute, Rockville, MD
September 11, 2015
According to New York City-based dance and video artist Jillian Peña, her inspirations include Russian ballet, psychoanalysis, queer theory, pop media, and spirituality. Her program note for Polly Pocket: Expansion Pack also states that her work is “primarily concerned with the confusion and desire between self and other, and focuses on the most complicated relationship we all have: that of the self to the self.” In some ways, it makes sense to use the rather regimented language of ballet to embark on an exploration of the self and other because learning ballet is all about learning to copy and conform. What young ballet dancer has not stood in a dance studio full of mirrors carefully trying to mold her body and her timing to others in front and behind her in a line at a barre?
Peña’s somewhat puzzling and erudite comments actually give an apt glimpse of what one may experience watching Polly Pocket. The work is confounding, strangely studious, and clearly centered on ideas about self-identity. It is also is the very antithesis of the short choreographic snippets one sees on popular television programs like So You Think You Can Dance.
Polly Pocket, which runs a little over an hour without an intermission, demands a high level of endurance from its dancers as well as its audience members. An on stage water cooler provides thirst quenching opportunities during brief breaks for the main performers Alexandra Albrecht and Andrew Champlin, who both received 2015 New York City Dance and Performance Bessie nominations for Outstanding Performer in the piece.
Polly Pocket shares its name with a toy that contains a small world hidden in a container the size of a makeup compact. Like the toy, the dance is full of surprises. The work begins in an entirely white space with a white knee-height barrier separating the audience from the dancers. The only adornments are a crystal chandelier hanging above and the aforementioned water cooler in a back corner (set and video by Peña and Chris Sellers). All the white provides for tall dark shadows that dance on the curtains along with the dancers (lighting design by Kathy Kaufmann).
At first, Albrecht and Champlin, arms around each other’s backs, move back and forth in tiny perfect ballet steps to a quiet accompaniment (music by Krzysztof Komeda, The Valerie Project, and Fripp & Eno). Again and again they repeat the same phrase, sticking side by side. They stare straight ahead like automatons and execute mirror image patterns with precision. Albrecht and Champlin are of a similar height, and their costumes (by Reid Bartelme), reminiscent of a court jester, are similar, too, although the placement of the pastel color blocks is different. Even their finger and toe nail polish matches, as does the tape around their bare feet.
After much repetition comes still more repetition, when the couple, in unison, say aloud “47, 46, 45….” Counting backward, they continue to dance basic ballet steps with pointed feet and erect spines, their hands brushing against each other as they move. Next, they chant numbers upwards from 61. The pair face each other and press their hands flat together and swirl them around as if stuck with glue. To faintly sinister-sounding elevator music of the kind Disney might have in the background of its haunted house ride, Albrecht and Champlin keep up their numeric chant, but when she falls to the floor and later rises, he repeats her counts and her steps out of sync.
In keeping with the spirit of naming the dance after a toy, Albrecht and Champlin play a host of other games. To the shout of “foreheads,” they touch their foreheads and clasp their hands together, then press their foreheads together while facing the floor, and play “pat-a-cake.” Champlin says “Alex” (Albrecht’s first name) over and over again rapidly as she dances a solo, but the more he says it, the less clear it becomes. The couple also engage in dialogue as they dance. When asked what she is looking for by Albrecht, Champlin announces that he does not want anything, he has it all. Nonetheless, he receives a gift of a video in the background of six images of himself dancing. Not to be outdone, Champlin’s gift to Albrecht is another dancer, Kyli Kleven, a mirror image that Champlin proclaims is “just right.”
After dancing with each other for a long time, mirroring every move, Albrecht and Kleven state they are ready for it to end, but they soon return to liking each other and declaring their twinning fun. Champlin combines with the women in a trio of more identical movement, more counting, and more repeating each other’s names. Finally, all this multiplies to an even greater degree when twelve more dancers join the cast, each leaping in a diagonal line across the stage and looping back again. The re-creating of selves goes on and on.
The dancing in Polly Pocket, it is more mechanical than joyous. The syntax of ballet in the piece is the mere structure through which Peña sets forth her artistic musings. Seeing ballet in this role was new for me, but despite the fact that I appreciate a great deal of contemporary art, I could not help feeling a little dissatisfied. I praise Polly Pocket‘s edginess, yet I would generally prefer to watch movement that lifts the soul. This was more like reading an essay than getting lost in the beauty that ballet can bring. Polly Pocket delivers deep thoughts, but not sublime dance.