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CityDance Ensemble

Shakespeare's Sonnets - 'So Foul a Lie,' 'Falling,' 'Broken Prayers,' 'On a Train Heading South'

by Carmel Morgan

March 7, 2008 - The Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC

On March 7, 2008, the CityDance Ensemble premiered works centered upon Shakespeare's Sonnets. The theme was apropos of its venue, the Lansburgh Theater, which is home to Washington DC's renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company. The ensemble also performed a consciousness-raising work about global warming. Artistic Director Paul Gordon Emerson indicated that there's a link between Shakespeare's Sonnets and the melting of the polar ice caps: self-absorption.

Emerson's duet, the aptly titled "Falling," based on Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 115, was the best executed piece of the evening. Dancers Bruno Augusto and Kathryn Pilkington athletically battled, alternately tumbling atop one another and pushing each other away. The jazzy vocals of Amikaeyla Gaston and the lively instrumental music of Matt Jones contributed to the tension of the dance. The couple, in simple black costumes, engaged in a series of rolls and lifts in a horizontal strip of smoky light at the front of the stage. At times, one or both would vanish completely, disappearing between wide black panels of curtain behind them, not unlike a wall of scrubbing fringe at a car wash. The effect was startling - hands and feet magically slipped into nothingness.

Two additional works inspired by the Sonnets were frustratingly enigmatic. First was "So Foul a Lie," choreographed by Christopher K. Morgan, the company's rehearsal director. Morgan's work, according to the program notes, grappled with homosexual love and mortality, and included text from Shakespeare's Sonnets Nos. 15, 18, 20, 22, 73, 152 and Prospero's Epilogue from "The Tempest," performed by Gary Sloan. The work strangely began even before the house lights went down and all of the patrons were seated. Two men contemplated a long, white scroll of paper, which hung from ceiling to floor. Sloan, with a jacket draped over his shoulder, painted illegible strokes on it. Once the lights went out and came back on again, the other dancer lovingly traced the writing with his finger.

The costumes for the dancers, which were designed by Morgan and Kyle L. Lang, consisted of wide hoop skirts in muted shades of gray, blue, and lavender. The men went shirtless, the women wore bustiers. Underneath, all wore tight gray underwear and a ghostly white slip, whose wire frame created the bell shape of their skirts. The costumes were fabulous and versatile. During various parts of the piece, the items served different purposes. Ribbons on the skirts permitted them to be hiked up and secured in the front, revealing the dancers' long bare legs. The inner slip, flipped inside out, made an amusing upside-down lampshade under which dancers' identities were hidden.

The music ranged from the classical clinkings of Vivaldi to the more modern, experimental sounds of Pan Sonic and The Books, which provided techno thumps. Further scrolls of paper streamed down, making an occasional thwack.

Dancers encircled their heads and thighs with clasped hands. They approached for a kiss and then fell away. Couples did slow barrel rolls, appendages extended in the air as they swept over each other's backs. Individuals slithered, scooting their bodies low across the stage.

Much of the movement went beyond flirtation and was overtly sexual. Jason Garcia Ignacio, especially, was almost uncomfortably steamy, coyly smiling and disrobing as he brazenly beckoned lovers. A female dancer stood with her back to the audience, bare-chested, as another dancer painted long black ink squiggles on her arms and the back of one leg.

Unfortunately, there was too much going on in this piece to sort out much meaning. Instead, although visually interesting, "So Foul a Lie" was as incoherent as the writing on the scrolls.

"Broken Prayers," choreographed by Ja'Malik, was even more inscrutable. The work was inspired by passages from Shakespeare's Sonnets Nos. 1-17; however, it failed in translation. If there was too much going on in "So Foul a Lie," this was doubly true of "Broken Prayers."

The costumes, by John Coskunses, reflected multiple personalities. Some dancers were clad in black and red baby dollish dresses, with large rosettes and velvet undergarments, while others wore glittering gold or shades of gray. The music fluctuated between Arvo Part's mystical tolling bells and chants to Franz Schubert's popular moving melody "Ave Maria." Then there were showers of rose petals, crimson and white. Bedlam prevailed.

The dancers appeared lost, and the choreography seemed aimless. There was a lengthy duet between Ignacio and the lovely Wai Shan Lau, but it didn't seem connected to the rest of the work. The dancers repeated an insipid gesture. Their arms drooped, limp at the wrists and elbows, creating a sagging shrug. This odd and unbecoming gesture, with its accompanying vacuous visages, defined the piece.

The evening closed with "On a Train Heading South," a work choreographed by Brenda Way of San Francisco's ODC/Dance in 2005. The star of this piece was the set and lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols. Several blocks of ice hung from metal chains in a broad arc high above the back of the stage. The ice blocks were fashioned in such a way, at an angle, that they intermittently dripped beads of water that struck the stage, bursting up from the floor and puncturing the air. The effect of the multiple falling drops was like radio static. The thawing ice, which reflected changing light like prisms, and its sonorous splatter were both beautiful and distracting.

Delphina Parenti danced the "Cassandra" role. She warned others about the dangers of global warming, but no one seemed to take heed of her pleas. There were quirky, comic elements to this piece. A flock continually crossed the stage, ignoring Parenti. They trotted mindlessly behind a succession of ridiculous figures - a cowboy (surely President Bush), a male in baggy jeans, a dancer flaunting Monica Lewinsky's blue dress. A trio of women flippantly kicked their legs and flicked their hands, willfully oblivious to the natural destruction in their presence.

Near the end of "Heading South," a devastated Parenti dissolved into a heap. The efforts of this harbinger of truth literally fell flat. On her knees, she slowly caressed the floor with her fingers, showing perhaps both love for the earth and deep sadness over its future. The choreography, however, was not a strong as the powerful message it portrayed.

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