Terrace Theater, JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; October 29, 2013

Carmel Morgan

Susan Marshall & Company in "Play/Pause" Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Susan Marshall & Company in “Play/Pause”
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

Susan Marshall questions the value of program notes.  I imagine many choreographers find it difficult to come up with a blurb to stick in programs and have similarly conflicted feelings about doing so.  In a discussion that followed the performance of Marshall’s recent work “Play/Pause” at the Kennedy Center, she queried whether program notes are helpful or hurtful for her contemporary dance audience.  In this case, the program note authored by Marshall mentioned “feel-good” dancing (you know, the kind of dancing you do listening to pop music on the radio) as something that inspired her in the early stages of conceiving “Play/Pause.” An audience member commented that the program note intrigued him and resulted in his anticipating “feel-good” dance and music, but he didn’t experience much “feel-good” dance/music in “Play/Pause.”  I agree that the program note unfortunately made me expect something that wasn’t delivered. Consequently, I felt a little disappointed.  I, too, wanted to see a “feel-good” fusion piece that blended the kind of dance you do alone at home to a favorite band with more structured movement, and I wanted to see it accompanied by familiar music, not the rather intellectual score by David Lang.  “Play/Pause,” Marshall conceded, is not that piece.

While there were a handful of movements, like an easily recognizable step-touch sequence and some hand gestures from The Supremes, plus two brief canned songs with lyrics interspersed with Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang’s rock-based composition played live, the work as a whole, for me at least, retained an air of distance and mystery.  The six dancers in this hour-long piece (Christopher Adams, Ching-I Chang, Kristin Clotfelter, Luke Miller, Peter Simpson and Darrin M. Wright) moved in and around the space to the varying rhythms of three live musicians (Taylor Levine, Michael McCurdy, and James Moore).  The dancers sometimes added their own sounds.  At the beginning of the work, Chang, with a microphone in hand, stabbed at a large rectangular wooden board (set design by Andreea Minic) and dragged the mic across strips of black tape that had been dramatically pulled, ripped, and carefully placed there.  The noise, sort of a thump and whoosh, was strangely satisfying, even beautiful to my ears, but I thought the pair of elderly women seated in front of me might bolt for the exit.  They decided to stay.

Peter Simpson, whose resume seems filled more with theater than dance (he is a veteran performer of the Blue Man character), wore sneakers, danced less than the rest, and had some speaking lines.  For example, he asked, “What the Hell and I doing here?” and got out a “Thank you” at the end.  He also led the audience in some funny breathing exercises, and the laughter, as well as sound of the group’s syncopated breathing, was lovely to behold.

The dancers, in costumes by Diana Broussard, looked like rock musicians on break, hanging out in casual clothing.  The lighting design by Eric Southern sometimes illuminated the stage too  brightly for my taste (so bright that I could clearly read the notes I was taking!).  In my view, Lang’s music didn’t overwhelm the dancers, despite the sometimes high volume, but it didn’t seem to supply a lot of life to the dancers, either.  The musicians were tucked away at a far side of the stage, and although they certainly were fundamental to “Play/Pause,” I wished they’d been more interactive with the dancers.

I’m fan of Marshall, but this work didn’t thrill me like some of her past choreography.  Yet, she undoubtedly is a talent, and it’s her skill at storytelling that I love most.  She has an amazing ability to create short poignant vignettes.  In “Play/Pause,” Chang and Miller tugged at my emotions as they moved together.  As Chang attempted to drag the microphone across the tall wooden board, Miller stopped her, caught her as she fell backward, and took the mic from her.  In a smart duet, the mic circled and switched hands, reminding me of a couple arguing.

Marshall also has a knack for integrating props.  Stands with clear acrylic lighted rectangles atop them took over the final sections of “Play/Pause.”  Dancers stood in front of them, their faces eerily framed and glowing.  In another duet, troubled couple Chang and Miller repeated some of their seemingly angry communication.  With his face behind the stand, she covered his mouth and eyes with black tape, and she duplicated her thumps and tracings across the tape with the microphone.  Miller reached around and caressed Chang’s head, tousling her hair.  Chang subsequently became a puddle on the floor, in a fetal-type pose, and she hit her head with the microphone, producing sounds like a heart beat.  To close the work, all of the dancers stood in a line and breathed onto the surface in front of their faces so that the audience could see small clouds of condensation in front of them. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all, and the program notes were probably best avoided for guidance!