***Disclosure: One of the choreographers in this show, Kaitlin McCarthy, is a staff member of SeattleDances. Kaitlin was not the editor assigned to this review and the opinions presented are entirely that of the writer.***
The attractive blonde detective Nancy Drew gazes out into the room with wide eyes full of both fear and curiosity. An audio clip played prior to her entrance reveals that she has come to the offices of an architecture firm to investigate the strange happenings that have been reported. As the detective cautiously treads through the room, it is clear that a mysterious entity is also present. A door opens independently of an operator. Drew is then led through a series of bodily reactions that display the wrath of the supernatural entity. The room’s intensity increases with every tense, sudden reaction as this convincing performance directs the audience’s focus to the invisible force. The detective eventually exits through another mysteriously opened door, terrified but determined to continue the investigation later.
This solo work, Nancy Drew and the Phantom of Marvin & Fayne, is choreographed and performed by Kaitlin McCarthy as part of reSET 2019, a show organized by Washington Ensemble Theater that allows select choreographers to create and perform pieces on the extensive theatrical sets of its mainstage productions. This program is performed on the set of B by Guillermo Calderón. The square room with one missing wall is equipped with cabinets, couch, rug, coffee table and kitchen furniture, all of which are a monotone white.
The initial scene of this piece replays several times. While the actions of the supernatural presence remain the same, a different Nancy Drew walks through the door in each scene. Each version of the detective is distinct in personality and movement vocabulary, but played by the same dancer. One is a sassy character with a jazzy style. The next embodies a classical, balletic approach. A third version enters timidly in the darkness, using a flashlight to search the space, and a fourth Nancy Drew is playfully sexualized, satirizing the character with a version that just can’t seem to keep her clothes on. McCarthy employs great versatility with each alteration in character.
The mood of the piece switches between comical and eerie so often that it is impossible to be bored. The viewer is given enough information to be invested in the story, but not enough to know exactly what will happen next. In the end, McCarthy emerges as a nude, monstrous presence and reenacts the scene from the perspective of the mysterious force. Bathed in bright green lighting and subtle smoke, McCarthy seems shockingly inhuman as she slinks through the space. She manages to surprise the viewer with her unsettling presence, even though by now we have learned the patterns of her vicious actions.
McCarthy delivers a thought-provoking performance that is both fondly humorous and stunningly creepy. Her decision to perform the role of each version of Nancy Drew as well as the ghostly presence leaves the viewer to question whether any of these roles are, in fact, separate. Possibly, each role is entirely distinct and expertly performed by the same person. Or perhaps the differentiations are merely extremes of a single self, which deteriorates until it is finally unveiled to have been simultaneously the victim and the cause of these strange happenings.
The second work of the night is created by Cameo Lethem, in collaboration with dancers Charmaine Butcher, Maya Tacon, and Molly Levy. The piece is titled Dolly, named after its sound score from Steve Reich’s video opera, Three Tales. According to the artist, the opera “reflects on the growth and implications of technology during the 20th century.” Lethem’s choreography follows this technological theme by presenting robotic dancers in conjunction with Reich’s audio. While the sound speaks of humans as gene-driven machines, the dancers inhabit the space with sharp, inhuman gazes.
This piece introduces a world of stark contrasts. The lighting is overwhelmingly bright, resembling a fluorescent scientific lab.The full-body black costumes and black gloves are a particularly striking juxtaposition to the white space. The dancers’ makeup further emphasizes aesthetic contrast, featuring bold contour and light eyes that enhance their mechanical presence.
Through their unwavering commitment to technological embodiment, the dancers maintain the intensity of the work at every moment. Smooth contemporary choreography is frequently interrupted by sharp changes in focus. The dancers skillfully appear and disappear. It is easy to become lost in the powerful stage presence of each individual. The choreography remains unique to every dancer but the trio often matches up in quality and dynamic, a pleasing compositional choice.
As the work progresses, the dancers begin to express turmoil through full-bodied internal movements, and the set mirrors this change. The dancers rearrange the furniture in a disheveled fashion and angular black cutouts fall behind the square holes in the wall, creating the illusion that the windows are breaking. Reich’s climatic score enhances this crisis, and the piece ends abruptly. Lethem’s work successfully creates a captivating, heightened environment, the mechanical humanity turned on its side.
reSET is an important window into what dance can be when offered an elaborate technical space. Both Lethem and McCarthy’s pieces demonstrated how the extensive set greatly enhanced the works’ creative possibilities. For more information on Washington Ensemble Theater’s reSET, please visit HERE.