Back in June I experienced the insightful artistry of creative women outside of my usual medium. Striking Figures (subtitle: A Collection of Dances About Women) was a collaborative contemporary performance jointly produced by Harper Continuum Dance Theatre and Red Desert Dance Ensemble. It’s aim: to explore and to affirm the experiences of women everywhere, celebrating personal relationships, community and belonging, and the growth afforded by challenges and perseverance.
The performance, one of two given, took place on a Monday evening soaked by torrential rain at Medicine Show, an intimate black-box theater where I wouldn’t have expected one in Hell’s Kitchen. The first half of the program was choreographed by Cathy Allen, artistic director of Red Desert Dance Ensemble, based in Las Vegas. Collectively titled Not Far From the Tree, these dances were inspired by the vast and varied complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. In program notes, Allen offered that the work was:
…inspired by a conversation with a friend about the communication struggles with her daughter… [T]his is a work in progress; much like the rest of my life, a compilation of small snippets of conflicting memories. Maybe you relate to a few of them.
I was surprised and moved by how close to home some of them resonated.
Performed by a young ensemble in jewel tones, the pieces brought a fresh, modern perspective to a subject both personal and universal. “Fix this…change this…what’s wrong?” the first, lone dancer asked of the silence surrounding her, alternating between gestures of earnest striving, rejection, evasion and resignation. At times, pairs of dancers moved together in endeavors that seemed part exploratory and part combative struggle — always evolving, journeying, in tandem, Other times, a solo dancer broke out in a moment of blissful liberation, or of frustration voiced aloud.
An apple — later, multiple apples — appeared immediately as a prop and touchpoint of catharsis and fascination. It came from a tree, sure; but whether held aloft and gazed at with consternation, rolled across the stage towards dancers of the opposite gender, or bitten from precociously, I felt they served as a powerful, curious symbol of sexuality, maybe, or of innocence, or of youth.
Moments of sweetness illustrated the more straightforward aspects of the parent-child bond. Dancers, for example, caught everyone by surprise when they reached into the audience to choose participants who they led on stage. The self-conscious recruits perfectly embodied tentative, developing young people as the nimble dancers moved about, instructing and positioning them in various postures and movements.
The second half of Striking Figures brought a perceptible change of style, away from lyrical narrative and more toward the conceptual. Heather Harper, founder and artistic director of Harper Continuum Dance Theatre, was the choreographer for these. I caught up with her the week after the show in our shared Harlem neighborhood. She explained her approach as personal and honest, citing health issues as one inspiration. The dances, she said, “explore what it means to be a strong woman — the struggles, the beauty, the pieces and parts. And being comfortable with other women, embracing one another.” The titles of the pieces spoke to this: Grit, Agent of Change, Closing Doors, Becoming.
Harper not only radiates exuberance when speaking of her company, which is a one-woman operation, it also permeates her choreography. She devises visceral jumps for female dancers usually performed by men; she builds in moments of improvisation, preferring to work with artists comfortable enough to contribute to the concept.
In Equipoise, I saw two dancers in an intense duet moving around a central question: “Can I trust you?,” Harper explained. In one of her — and the dancers’ — favorite moments, the dancers abruptly collapse at the end, signifying what she calls “how exhausting it is to be a woman!”
I also observed in both halves of the performance that men had a consistent presence throughout, one that was supportive and engaging, not illustrative of a harsh division between genders. This observation Harper confirmed, asking “Why not celebrate the beautiful men who embrace strong women?”
If you do that with artistry and integrity, then you can build community — one evident from the eager, close-knit group gathered for the show. “I work hard to bring people together through dance, even if dance is not really their thing,” Harper said, adding that she favors site-specific work such as High Project (2010), which involved a dancer and two abstract painters at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. It allows, she says, “different levels of involvement — people can discuss their experiences and stream live, or move around freely.”
One solo work of Harper’s grabbed my attention and never let go. Called Phenomenal and memorably danced by Jordan Norton, it’s coupled powerful rising, climbing movements with hard, consummate falling, all gripped with expressive energy. I was thrilled — but somehow unsurprised — when the dance was not set to music, but to Maya Angelou’s anthemic poem Phenomenal Woman. The strength and beauty of the master’s words, radical and vital, radiated through Harper’s choreography.
The closing piece, Inscription, united the company, bringing to a resonant close what Harper described as “a kaleidoscope of intersecting shapes and images.” I was grateful to spend the evening steeped in a reflective performance. It proved a validating testament to women in both content and creation.