Music Center at Strathmore, CityDance Studio Theater, Bethesda, MD; 16 April 2014Carmel Morgan
The most recent dance performance I attended, just before the Easter holiday when stores are brimming with chocolates and other sweets, was titled, “Trapped Happiness: A Dark Chocolate Fairy Tale.” The “tickets” to this full-length work were two York Peppermint Patties wrapped in shiny silver and handed to patrons as they moved through the will call line. I’m among only a few people, it seems, who doesn’t eat chocolate. I abstain for reasons unrelated to the taste of chocolate, which I like a lot, along with the rest of the world. Even when I was much younger and still ate chocolate, though, I didn’t like mixing anything with chocolate, especially mint.
So why this particular confection at this performance? A very good reason I learned afterward – when you step on them, they don’t hurt your feet. That’s right, the stage was littered with countless York Peppermint Patties. Australian-born choreographer and Resident Artist at CityDance Sarah J. Ewing explained that she tried out other candies, such as Hershey Kisses, but they were painful to step on, whereas the York Peppermint Patties squished gently underfoot.
I’ve seen stages covered in all sorts of objects lately. Ping pong balls, apples, cabbages, plastic cups, fake snow, and now chocolates. This apparent trend of dancing through a sea of props annoys me, I admit. So does the trend of beginning performances so that the dancing is already taking place as the audience walks into the theater, which happened here. As I entered the studio space, a casually clothed young man (Anthony Barbir) was slowly and carefully creating a labyrinth design with the same York Peppermint Patties we’d been given minutes earlier. He carried a bunch of patties in a pouch made from his upturned shirt, and he doled them out onto the floor like Johnny Appleseed. Eventually, Ewing, similarly dressed, began walking a path marked by the candies in measured steps, and she quietly observed his activities. Normally, there would be two strikes against Ewing’s “Trapped Happiness” to start off with (stage littered with objects, performance starts before you arrive), maybe even three strikes for featuring mint chocolate, but I’m glad to report that I got over my initial cringes.
Chocolate is a rich theme, pun intended. For better or worse, chocolate has an emotional connection to us all that’s pretty universal. One may associate chocolate with satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, depending on the circumstances. For example, chocolate may spur pleasant memories of youth, or memories of guilty overindulgence, or both. It’s not a neutral thing. In this respect, Ewing chose her theme wisely. As she pointed out in her program notes, it’s difficult to just be friends with chocolate. Our relationship to this “combination of cacao, sugar and milk” is complex, and “[e]verybody has a story about chocolate.”
In this case, “Trapped Happiness,” wasn’t plotted like a normal fairytale. As with a lot of contemporary dance, the performance was part theater and part dance, part loose narrative and part abstraction. Ewing juggled all of the elements, including the chocolates, admirably, although it was Barbir, the only other dancer in the piece, who had more fun with the candies, stuffing them into his mouth, whole and unwrapped, and pouring a box full of them over Ewing’s head. At one point, Barbir humorously barked out lines from an infomercial. He hawked happiness, which his chocolates promised to deliver. “Don’t you want to be happy, don’t you?” he yelled. Later, Ewing, with the handset of an old black phone complete with curly cord, bitterly complained about her chocolates not having lived up to the hype and unsuccessfully sought a refund, in a perfect bookend to Barbir’s earlier consumerist monologue.
Ewing and Barbir seemed to have an antagonistic relationship throughout much of the work. She pushed and shoved him. While he reveled in chocolate, she showed her disdain for his addiction and tried to block his candy consumption. I especially liked when Ewing and Barbir danced in unison. They repeatedly tugged on their lower limbs, pulling up a pant leg and heaving a thigh forward or grabbing a knee and stirring with it. They also kicked like raging bulls with bent knees and lower legs flying out behind them as if prepared to charge.
The sometimes jarring music, which included earsplitting techno blares not unlike an emergency response warning, also heightened the tension. The sound made when large brooms swept the chocolates across the stage, flinging them into piles, was much more pleasant, as were the songs that closed “Trapped Happiness,” including, appropriately, “We Want Everybody Happy,” by Foree “Guitar” Wells & The Walnut Street Blues Band, and “You Go Down Smooth,” by Lake Street Drive. The lighting design by Adam Bacigalupo was very well executed given the constraints of the studio theater. The silver wrappers of the patties at times looked like glimmering stars in a night sky, or they shimmered with an assortment of rainbow colors according to the mood of the work.
In a post-performance discussion, Ewing explained that the genesis of “Trapped Happiness” was an 8-minute piece about Hansel and Gretel (that probably explains the “dark” in the “dark chocolate fairy tale”). The sparring between Ewing and Barbir did seem sibling-like, as well as the joy they shared at the end of the piece, when they finally appeared to have achieved real happiness. It was a relief when their movement and faces finally opened up and elation spilled forth. They delightfully embodied the chocolate high one can experience when really letting go.