Capital Fringe Festival
'Fare Well - The End of the World As We Know It!'
by Carmel Morgan
July 19, 2008 -- The Forum at the Harman Center for the Arts, Washington, DC
Say the name “Maida Withers” among the DC dance crowd and heads will nod, faces smile. All would agree that the seventy-plus-year-old George Washington University professor is a cultural institution in DC. She has taught countless dancers and moved audiences the world over with her daring vision and style.
Withers’ solo piece “Fare Well – The End of the World As We Know It!” is part of a larger work set to premiere in 2009. In this new piece, Withers collaborates with several other artists: David McAleavey and Alex Caldiero – poetry, Steve Hilmy – music, and Ayo Okunseinde – multimedia. “Fare Well” speaks volumes, even without the poetry scattered throughout the work. It explores the conclusion of creation myths known as “end time.”
The stage – the floor covered in a white tarp, with a white screen hanging at the back – first looks like a frosty wasteland. Withers, too, is clothed all in white. Her long skirt, which has a deep cut up the side, shows off her powerful legs. She coughs and shakes, spitting words and syllables, which echo in an almost-hiccup: “What would it be like in a world where there are no repetitions – where every action is performed only once?” She repeats lines as her body tugs forward and back. Her choking, scratchy voice and jerking body set an eerie tone, bolstered by Hilmy’s dark, dramatic, metallic crashes and peaceful but prodding musical waves. A kaleidoscope of colors eventually appears on the screen behind Withers – primarily golds and greens. Then patterns made up of trees and animals and landscapes are added.
Withers warns of impending environmental ruin, a weighty message. “Fare Well” is thus a modern Greek-style tragedy, delivered by a warrior goddess in an updated version of a classic toga. Withers occasionally grunts and groans. Her arms sweep and cradle. Hands twist and weave knots, then wildly grab at the floor. Withers fills the wide space, often dancing on a diagonal. She moves from a crawl to standing tall, with a finger circling high in the air. Her shadow dances among the images on the screen.
After an ominous black-out, Withers reappears in sunglasses, a fur coat, and boots, every bit the cocky movie-star. It’s sunset at the end of the world. “It’s not my fault,” she says. Yet later, having shed her outerwear, her mouth gapes open, and she looks like a disaster victim. “Ice cliffs must fall . . . you must change . . . icebergs must vanish” she says in a daze. She walks backwards, hands clasped behind her back. Next her arms reach up imploringly, but her head is down, as if performing a dejected prayer.
After ice comes fire. Wielding a large water jug, Withers tells a tale of thirst and devastation. She bemoans, “I do not recognize my earth, my country. . .” “This story is told only once,” she cautions as the large jug of water rolls away.
Withers may be less surefooted than a younger dancer (the tarp turned out to be quite slippery, although some stagehands attempted to hold it taut), but she oozes mature self-assurance. She literally throws herself into her roles (and her rolls – she sported a large leg bruise). Above all, Withers, a remarkable dancer and choreographer, makes you think. I left her performance with unanswered questions and also an intense desire to go about answering them.