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Letter from New York, 1-24: Disengage the Disconnect
Shick's Schtick Lost without a Translation

By April Biggs
Copyright 2008 April Biggs

NEW YORK -- Saturday, January 12: Vicky Shick's "Plum House (a Cartoon)" stirs even in its pre-show darkness at Dance Theater Workshop. The hub of the piece is a barebones wooden frame house poised upstage right. Like a doorless outhouse with transparent walls, the beams loom and a bald light bulb with a yellow oval in its pear-shaped belly hangs center. The solitude of the house draws the eye to the stark black space everywhere else on stage.

The bulb dims and the strumming of Flamenco rhythms is heard in the dark. As the stage lights come up, we gaze upon the backs of five dancers in a marching line on stage right. One by one they enter through the side of the house, each rendering a unique gestural repertoire beneath the light bulb. Their costumes loosely associate with leopard print, sooty black and a skirt theme -- but the colorless attire is uninviting and draws me into a malaise that never quite stops coming. One dancer, Derry Swan, is clad in a black tank and black pants with a tiny neon purple string sewn around the waistline and trailing down a pant leg. I expect some intriguing use of the neon in the dark, but alas it never happens. After the idiosyncratic doorway ditties, each dancer eventually makes her way downstage to glom the audience with a blank face while executing hip circles. I feel like I'm waiting. By this point, my mind has averted itself to the sound score by Elise Kermani. I doubt this is Shick's intention as the score is mostly atmospheric, but it helps to keep me from drifting out of the blackbox all together. Herein lies one of my biggest pet peeves with the current modus operandi of modern dance. How much work is an audience member expected to do?

Writing for DanceView Times in 2005, Nancy Dalva called Shick "a dancer's dancer." Exactly. As a dancer, I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. I am going against all iconic worship of Vicky Shick here, but her choreography in "Plum House," for the most part, is in a language too specific to dance -- gestural but not pedestrian -- and has all the earmarks of current downtown dance trends: the eyes wandering the air and looking full of wonderment at nothing in particular; a sharp gesture that suddenly undulates and releases into another gesture; abundant silences filled with disconnected vignettes; and that aggravating audible, seemingly involuntary, breathing twitch -- Diane Madden demonstrates this in a short solo. The most memorable and engaging points in the piece come when the dancers join forces, whether occupying the same ten-foot space or moving in unison. They form a line at times, causing each of their vagaries to incarnate something louder and stronger. If they are to represent a family in a strange house, if they are to represent disconnection, we only see this when they stand together. Before this, their characters seem almost clandestine. I long to see them threadbare.

So, why PLUM House? I keep asking myself, What is so distinct about this house? What defines it as plum? I have yet to find an answer. I notice that when the performers visit the house, physical contact, rarely seen in the work at all, crops up between them. At one such point, Perrine Ploneis and Laurel Tentindo occupy the house and the other three women cluster behind it. Ploneis and Tentindo become a bit playful, seeming like two young sisters or friends amusing themselves without supervision. They mimic one another, exchange weight, parley with each other's negative space and then, in a comic moment, lunge and with arms fully extended make their hands look like claws preparing to attack. Juliette Mapp's character develops slight shape when she takes control of the group, snapping her fingers, clapping her hands and pointing them in one direction or another. But for the most part, "Plum House" is too cerebral and calculated, each movement a letter of a word of a sentence spoken over and over yet never translated.

Shick makes a cameo at one point -- in bells no less -- perhaps as a matriarchal ghost. But even her own display of her movement sheds no light. The atmospheric elements allocate our minds more than the dance. The music hops about from Spanish guitar to a Judy Garland-esque voice, stopping off at ticking clocks, crickets, Chopin and "La Vie en Rose" along the way. The desolate, separate, yet perhaps safe wooden house created by Barbara Kilpatrick haunts the periphery at all times. Aside from the obvious indication of domesticity and family, though, I am left with a disconnect from the disconnect. I do not care much about the characters, the dancers, or the plight of the piece since such importance is far suppressed by the work's gestural privacy.

The conclusion of "Plum House" parallels its beginning. The flamenco music cues the women to march stage right again, repeating their quirky entrances. As the house bulb dims over Mapp and Shick dancing arm in arm beneath it, Tentindo disappears alone upstage right, Ploneis and Swan gather together downstage right and Madden spins center stage. Just then I see something curious and almost unbelievable: Madden smiles, the first I witness all evening, as her face becomes shadow.

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