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Flash Review, 2-8: Face-off
Nugent & Matteson Find the Spaces in Between

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2006 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- I spent the very beginning of 2005 in Hanoi with Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson during a Mekong Project teaching residency at the Vietnam Dance College. At that time they showed a duet which has spent the last year growing in length and depth to become the full-evening "Fare Well." Officially, the work commissioned and presented by Danspace Project also credits its creation, in part, to creative residencies at the Center for New Dance Development, Dancenow/NYC's Silo Project and Dance New Amsterdam's Artist-in-Residency series. However, a glance through the page of acknowledgments in the program for this past weekend's Danspace Project performances reveals a much wider web of support behind this genuinely collaborative and innovatively beguiling duo.

"Fare Well" begins with lighting designer Garin Marschall illuminating the ceiling of the St. Mark's Church sanctuary to create a kind of white-out that serves to casually lull with a sense of informality. Sue Rees has designed a set of sheer curtains that surround the back part of the performance space, allowing us glimpses of 'offstage' activity and creating a scrim-like layering of what might be considered the 'performance space' and the 'other place.' We see Nugent and Matteson enter from behind the curtains, with Nugent stepping through and then pulling aside part of the fabric for Matteson to enter. There is a quick gaze between them and then they simply get going, initiating body contact, lifting one another with a hip or a shoulder and dropping easily to the floor.

Facing each other, their contact is intimate and easy. She holds his head with one hand while the other is low on her hip. The movement invention is whimsical, using pinpoint body contact in which chin quickly meets chin or forehead meets forehead. The difficulty once they separate, at times cantering past one another with a nodding head, keeps my focus on them both. I'm easily transfixed by Nugent's brighter, supple manner, though she and Matteson, each New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) award-winning dancers for David Dorfman, are equal matches and practiced partners who bounce off each other as if they were in a particle accelerator. They seem incapable of stillness, wearing their "Red Shoes" (rest in peace Moira) in their blood. They finish out a sequence continuously wriggling like a couple of toddlers whose synapses won't stop firing.

Hands raised, they walk in a curve away from one another taking a farewell, then reverse the walk, face each other and begin another departure and another retrograde to face off again. They stare at each other long enough for a few drops of sweat to hit the floor and then Nugent leaves. Matteson crumples slowly before gliding through the space with an introverted ease. The stage has darkened and his solo feels gentle, quiet and very alone until Nugent returns, nimbly skirting around him with a pixieish waving of her arms that brings the light back into the space and, I'll just presume, into his days.

I find myself somewhere towards the latter half of the piece missing the mischievousness I recall from this pair's first duets of a couple years back, but I'm also captivated by the maturing onstage relationship. "Fare Well" reveals a process of settling at work. This does not imply a 'settling for,' but rather a 'settling down,' an artistic digging in, a joining of roots and agreement towards an intertwined future growth. Generally the dance is devoid of literal, pantomimed and theatrical devices. So at times I find myself wondering if I am witnessing an emotional journey or simply watching two masterful bodies in motion. I question some of my readings, wondering how much interpersonal drama I might be imposing on a work without substantial overt cues.

But then there is a stunning and dramatic lighting cue that darkens the stage proper and brightens behind the curtain while Matteson and Nugent whisper at length as if they have pulled back the netting around an old-fashioned bed. The cue remains while they move through a soft, sleepy, shuffling floor pattern and I can almost hear an infant cooing quietly in repose. Then they begin a study in crawling, each moving differently, the styles varying the way they do among developing infants; knees are pulled in tightly for short small spurts, or a leg gets dragged along for a tripod crawl. (They are expert observers in early locomotion, having just watched their nine-month old daughter take some of her first crawls across the hardwood floor of St. Mark's Church.)

I am most satisfied when these bodies are in contact as if they were separate parts of a set forged from the same furnace. But it is in the spaces in between that the personal content reveals itself. The two performers maintain awareness across significant distances and through the enclosing and separating fabric several times. In the end, the two now walk a similar parallel path until Jennifer turns and sits and Paul stands with his back to her for a long time before the lights dim. And so, in the repeated departures and returns I realize I am watching the ebb and flow of a life, or really of a life together, inviting a quick contemplation of how a couple of acclaimed dancers and highly sought-after teachers would manage to actually build a family around such a sporadic, gypsy life.

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