Group Dynamics in Whim’s Sensation

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It was January 20, 2017. While the mood on the streets may have been somber, inside the packed Cornish Playhouse, there was an air of delighted anticipation as the crowd of “Whimmers” took their seats in the audience for Whim W’him’s latest show, SENSATION.

Play-by-Play by Penny Saunders.
Play-by-Play by Penny Saunders. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art.

Opening was Penny Saunders’ new work, play-by-play: an idea, personified, which cast each of Whim W’him’s seven exquisite dancers as figments of a creator’s mind: The Idea, Doubt, Grace, Time, Passion, Folly, and Prudence. This familiar trope alluded to classical Greek mythology’s Muses and Graces and even to Pixar’s recent film, Inside Out, in which each character embodies a single emotional dimension of an individual’s psyche.

 

Saunders’ choreography utilized serieses of contorted gestures and Risky Business-eque running slides in socks. The gesture sections effectively connoted the angst and anguish often described by artists birthing brilliant new concepts, but the few partnering interactions lacked a level of emotional connection that the characters’ oppositional roles seemed to imply. A duet between Grace and Doubt, for instance, failed to add further context to the abstracted thematic elements of the piece. Although their technique was faultless and each dancer displayed near superhuman flexibility, their connection relied on the physics of their bodies and had an absence of emotional depth. Instead, the work’s dynamic shifts and emotional content were driven by evocative music featuring the cello by composers Dvořák, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, and Mozart.

 

Costuming by Val Mayse suggested a businesslike and homogenous look that lent a Kyliàn-style androgyny to play-by-play. Disappointingly, however, the masculine cut and heaviness of the dress pants’ fabric stifled the company’s female dancers, rather than allowing their feminine strengths to shine through the uniformity. The dancers’ footwear, the ubiquitous contemporary sock, also seemed to be a hindrance and may explain why their movements lacked a groundedness or width of stance that can be accomplished with the stability of bare feet or shoes.

 

The charismatic Justin Reiter portrayed The Idea, whose fluidity and fast-twitch sequential weight changes anchored the work. Both by design and as consequence of his supreme technical ability, Reiter’s performance was just a little bit extra, keeping him apart from the rest of the ensemble as he threaded in and out of unison. Rather than being elusive, The Idea remained present, if only the others would pay attention to it. In the work’s final moment, Doubt took The Idea by the shoulder as if to finally acknowledge its place in the family.

LINE DANCE by Larry Keigwin.
LINE DANCE by Larry Keigwin. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art.

New York-based choreographer Larry Keigwin debuted a new creation, Line Dance. To roving piano music by Philip Glass, the seven dancers smiled placidly through countless iterations of pedestrian linear formations. One dancer would end up facing a different way, or perhaps their line order would be slightly different. This construction smugly developed as if as a treat for audience members who were in on the joke. This polite romp exploring teamwork and how to find one’s place inside the group was full of the kind of naivete that precedes an adolescent discovery that conformity is a socially-constructed sham. Tory Peil’s role, on the other hand, signaled a slight breakdown of the social order when she clasped her hands across her neck, wiggling her fingers eerily, her gestures and white costuming suddenly calling to mind mental illness. Before this interesting development could evolve, however, the piece was over.

 

Closing the evening, Olivier Wevers’ Catch & Release featured Peil in a metallic golden ice skating dress created by Christine Joly de Lotbiniere as the individual once again at odds with the rest of the group. The work opened as each darkly-clad dancer brutally smashed into Peil as she tenuously attempted to find stable footing while supinating on the outsides of her feet. The piece progressed into a tragic love story while other dancers, or possibly fate, continually tore Peil and her paramours apart. Wevers’ work coalesced into the striking image of Peil’s past partners laid out as if in coffins. When she came near they rolled over stiffly and identically, calling to mind the deathly similarities of her previous relationships. Catch & Release ended on an uplifting note, however, when Peil journeyed back to her original position, with the other dancers again torpedoing toward her body precariously, but this time she was able to dodge their advances. She had learned how to stop being a victim.

Tori Peil in Olivier Wever's Catch and Release. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art.
Tori Peil in Olivier Wever’s Catch & Release. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art.

In reference to the current political climate, Artistic Director Olivier Wevers reminded the audience that coming together as a community to celebrate and witness art functions as a way of “not building walls, but tearing them down.” Once again, Whim W’him’s dancers’ gorgeous and limitless execution elevated the choreography to its world-class status. The three works on the program of this inauspicious date, January 20, did not contain explicit political themes, but instead reminded viewers that, even in times of instability and loss, there is still beauty in the world.

SENSATION, Part Two of the company’s SENSES season, was performed at the Cornish Playhouse on January 20-21. The program continues January 27-28. For more information please visit HERE.

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