Monday, July 9, 2018

We Are Not Small Women

Catapult dancers in Michelle Miller's 2018 dance, "Skin"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos

At the start of Michelle Miller’s newest dance, “Skin,” a woman in a tight beige tank top and shorts enters the stage, followed closely by another dancer dressed in a demure skirt. They engage in not so much a duet as a struggle that’s probably familiar to many women of my generation, the Baby Boom.

'Sit like this', the skirted woman seems to instruct the other. 'Don’t splay your legs, for god’s sake! Tilt your head like this, so seductive. Smile. Smile. Smile.'

As I watched this push/pull unfold, I was reminded of my mother’s instructions to my teenage self: 'if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Comb your hair off your face. Look how much prettier you are when you’re smiling. Do this, not that. Be agreeable. Don't take up space.'

“Skin” was the last of four dances in the evening length program “I am not a small woman,” performed by Miller’s company, Catapult dance, at Seattle's Erickson Theater. Taken as a whole, the program was an athletic and intriguing exploration of the relationship between women and contemporary American cultural norms.

“I am not a small woman” opened with a 2003 work, “The Lottery,” created by former Seattle dancer/choreographer Amii Legendre. I saw this dance when it premiered 15 years ago; it was still just as resonant as it was then. Legendre writes in the program she was inspired both by the onset of the Iraq War and by Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of the same name. "The Lottery" was well paired in the program's first half with Miller’s “I am the Bully,” an abstract rumination on power dynamics.
 
Catapult dance company members in Michelle Miller's "I am not the bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
My favorite dance of the evening was “Resistance,” created in 2014 by Miller in collaboration with her cast. Like “Bully,” this dance explores power dynamics. Miller physically tethers pairs of dancers. As one woman pulls at her leash, she’s restrained by her partner/captor. But this physical restraint also allows some gravity-defying movements, akin to rock climbers who have spotters below them. 

Miller’s troupe of dancers are noticeably strong and technically adept. They seize her movements with what I can only describe as ferocity. Whether they are raising their fists into the air, yelling in unison, or trapped together inside the confines of a wooden box, “Resistance” offered a combination of movement and human interaction that was both engaging to watch and thought provoking when it ended.
 
Catapult Dance company members swing free in "Resistance"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
“I am not a small woman” tackles cultural questions that face women--and men--in 21st century America, but instead of getting mired in didactic literalism, Miller spins out from her starting ideas with fresh energy and intriguing movements. I am a sucker for very physical dance, I admit, but with this program Miller and her dancers offer more than gravity defiance and gee-whiz moments. Miller has drawn on her many years as a dancer, healer and martial artist to create a very distinctive aesthetic. I’m eager to see what she and Catapult offer in the future.

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