It’s not often that choreographers or even dance companies can splurge on elaborate theatrical sets. Enter Washington Ensemble Theater, ready to catalyze some symbiosis with reSET. When the company is wrapping up a show, The Ensemble invites dancers to make pieces on its sets before striking. This season, curators Mark Haim, Babette Pendleton, and Ensemble Co-Artistic Director Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir put together a 2-show run of works by contemporary tour de force Markeith Wiley and burlesque VIP Lily Verlaine using a set of The Ensemble’s production The Things Are Against Us. reSET ran May 19-20 at 12th Avenue Arts.
Designer Julia Welch’s set for Things, a comedic horror play, is an expressionistic haunted house of sorts, with window frames hung from the ceilings on crooked angles and creaky wooden floors and doors. Both Verlaine and Wiley took the spooky theme and ran with it. Wiley opened the show with an eerily meditative zombie macabre (think: A Haunted House meets The Royal Tenenbaums meets The Walking Dead).
Three performers—Wiley, Laura Aschoff, and Erin McCarthy, wearing bathrobes and zombie makeup—slowly rose from a red chaise lounge and wooden chest. What followed was a series of kooky interactions between the dead-like characters and the set. McCarthy swung and shook creaky doors and balcony railings; Aschoff apathetically ate potato chips on a rocking chair (sometimes also feeding McCarthy); Wiley limped around and pushed the hanging window frames, causing them to swing hauntingly. In a recurring motif, the characters leaned on each other, tongues out and cheek-to-cheek, while moving across the space, over the chaise lounge and up the stairway platform—as though simultaneously trying to support and devour each other.
Despite the deliberately slow development of the work, eccentric gestures (crushing and throwing potato chips, a sudden snicker or flirtatious gaze) or shifts in the music (from a pulsing rhythm to a slowed-down version of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”) always managed to retain viewers in Wiley’s world. He pulls you into a daydream—or in this case, a dysfunctional nightmare—and once in, his choreography keeps you on your toes to guess what the mischievous zombies will be up to next. Wiley has a knack of capturing attention just as you think you’re about to lose it.
In contrast to Wiley, Verlaine’s work followed a more linear and literal story—a reimagined version of popular Romantic ballet Giselle. The story starts with Thomas Phelan and Lara Seefeldt (current and former Whim W’him dancers, respectively), both of whom have worked previously with Verlaine on burlesque productions. They stumbled into the old house, madly in love, and started dusting off the creaky furniture. Little did they know, the house was haunted with Wilis, a group of supernatural women clad in white slip dresses and smudged leotards who dance men to death. Seefeldt and Phelan danced, ate, and made love, all while surrounded by the Wilis.
The Wilis’ interaction with the couple was undoubtedly the most intelligently choreographed segment of Verlaine’s work, with the Wilis assisting actions like Seefeldt feeding Phelan chocolates without the pair ever taking notice of the woman sitting in between them. It produced a striking ghostly feel to great effect. As in the love-making scene, Phelan and Seefeldt energetically reached toward each other repeatedly but the Wilis, sitting between and covering the couple’s heads with their clothes, were actually the ones satisfying the pair. After seeing an orgy-like sight between Phelan and the Wilis in the set’s bathtub, Seefeldt died, presumably of a broken heart as Giselle’s character did in the original ballet. Her spirit proceeded to join the Wilis’ clan, ready to plague the next unsuspecting couple to dare enter. Verlaine’s risqué and clever reconstruction makes an already familiar story exciting.
Minor quibble though: Verlaine knows how to construct dances that are emotionally visceral and erotic through a seamless blend of ballet and burlesque techniques. While most of the dancing fit this bill, there were two moments during the more risqué sections where suddenly recognizable ballet vocabulary, like unison arabesques or a penché, appeared out of nowhere. While fitting with the Giselle idea, it distracted from the emotional arc of the dance simply because it felt inorganic and uncalled for.
The potent combination of (and marvelous contrast between) Wiley and Verlaine’s aesthetics made this round of reSET accessible to audiences with different tastes. Each artist’s take on The Ensemble’s eerie set was theatrical in its own way, and proved a welcome variation on both artists’ broad repertoire. Once again, another symbiosis accomplished.
For more information on reSET and The Ensemble’s other programs, visit their website.