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Grit in the tEEth, Make/Believe shows its mettle

Written by Christin Call
Teeth in Make/Believe. Photo by Partick Weishampel.
Last year tEEth, the Portland-based performance project, took home the $10,000 winning prize at On the Board’s A.W.A.R.D.! Festival. This year they’ve returned to On the Boards to present Make/Believe March 1 through 3, 2012 and share with Seattle what that funding, along with ten months of improvisation in the studio, a choreographer with tremendous stamina, four dancers (two from Seattle) with equal stamina, a pile of microphones and cables, a composer with looping pedals and voice distortion, and a lighting designer with a razor-edge eye can produce. 
Choreographer Angelle Hebert creates striking images almost in the vein of tableaux vivants, as if she intends for us to “chew before swallowing” the full effect. She gives the jaw, tongue, lips, and teeth the same expressive value as what the arms, legs, and torso of dancers are usually given, and as plastic as the mouth can be, the way tEEth uses these values imbues the work with a density of subtext and narrative that takes time to digest in full. In the opening sequence of all four dancers, who never leave the stage, they crouch and flick their paws like heraldic creatures guarding a gateway into a deranged realm that is playful, absurd, unintelligible, and traumatic. And they do this while giggling into microphones held like dog bones in the mouths of the two male dancers.
One of the main themes of Make/Believe is all the possible mechanisms used to mask, control, and hide internal dialogue from one’s self and others. The actual voice inevitably comes into play, and the score by Phillip Kraft seamlessly moves with Hebert’s movement in manipulating the dancers’ voices through octave changes, distortion, and looping that at several points compounds to such an intense level, there is no discernible voice left, only white noise. The choreography does the same over and over again with ingenuity. There is a section in which the dancers gag each other with their hands, legs, feet, with their fingers waggling in each other’s mouths, even their mouths against each other like blow fish. What is being said is not as important as the person’s irrepressible need to say it. 
In a simple, stake-in-the-heart duet where the dialogue is coherent, dancer Noel Plemmons advances on dancer Molly Sides while telling her to stop smothering him. In response she pushes him away pleading to let her get closer. As one dancer speaks the other mouths the words back like a mirror, not only putting both the dancers’ actions and words at odds, but suggesting that there may be no original or true intention at all, just a kind of feedback loop of inner confusion manifesting in opaque words and actions. 
The idea of pairs relating to each other as simulacra—neither is the originator nor the copier—is highlighted in a duet between Shannon Stewart and Philip Elson.  Holding Stewart in a compact shape on his thighs facing outward, he appears at first to have the position of power. He moves her limp arms to his face, and as she pulls and prods his face into grotesque shapes she mirrors them in her own face without seeing his. Who is really controlling whom in this scenario? 
Stewart was a clear stand-out in this incredibly expressive cast of dancers. Her antics included a full gamut of robotic parading, ghastly grins, and full-force dancing. In the meat of the work she performed a brilliant and lengthy solo with her head wrapped in an exorbitant amount of microphone cord.
tEEth delivers powerful, complex work with Make/Believe. All of its components come from a place of how to utilize the disturbing and the exaggeratedly grotesque as a way of disruption from normal viewing process. Taken out of normal mode, one can renew and deepen experience. The stories tEEth tells about our hidden vulnerabilities, desires, and needs are, in a way, “made up” but are also entirely believable.