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Raw Emotion in Marlo Martin’s tenSIDES

Written by Kaitlin McCarthy

Photo by Sarah Ellen Photography 
This weekend, April 27 and 28, 2012, badmarmar dance presented tenSIDES, the first evening length production from company director, Marlo Stafford-Martin. Seattle audiences have caught excerpts of tenSIDES at area dance events throughout the last six months, and finally Martin and her company were ready to show the culmination of their work.

Martin transformed Velocity’s Founders Theater by pulling back the wings and adding white flooring and a white backdrop. In sharp contrast, six black arm chairs and two dark doorways framed either side of upstage, giving the audience a glimpse into the other world from which Martin’s 10-woman cast emerged. The dancers, also dressed in white, open the evening length piece with a sextet full of the high impact dancing Martin fans have come to expect from her choreography, and it definitely set the mood for the rest of the show. Dives, high kicks, and drops to the floor are interspersed with slow motion gestures and smoldering glares that only build tension for the next kinesthetic explosion. Two or three dancers join in unison to only quickly part ways, and while at first the unison was a bit shaky, it becomes progressively more together throughout the night.

badmarmar dancers in tenSIDES
Photo by Joseph Lambert

The mood shifts, the chairs are re-arranged, and, like some idyllic memory, the audience is transported to a happy place. Dancers wait patiently, facing upstage in their chairs, while their smiling counterparts whisper in their ears and laugh silently with one another. It is a sweet moment that is interrupted when Gabriel Bruya enters. Dressed in black, she is isolated from the happiness, drowning in her own well of desperation. Bruya has several solos in tenSIDES, and in each she shifts seamlessly from slow to fast to stop, all while engaging her audience with a distinctly human presence.

The mood and chairs shift again, bringing an onslaught of traveling duets that mix low-flying phrase work, creative partnering, tender moments, and ring-ready fight moves. With each duet another dancer seems to emerge in black, until the entire cast is clad. The dancers continue deeper into the rabbit hole, encountering denial and detachment. Danica Bito and Christina Kennedy face off from either side of a line of chairs, like a confrontation with one’s self in the mirror. Later, long-limbed Jill Leversee throws her weight with breath-taking abandon in a duet with a passive, puppet-like Nadia Losonsky, who’s vacant eyes could swallow you whole, her wildness only temporarily contained.

Alex Goldstein in tenSIDES
Photo by Joseph Lambert 

Martin is clearly well versed in creating beautiful, dark, and captivating images. Lighting, designed by Dani Prados, is used skillfully to enhance these images. At one point, lights shine from behind the two doorways, casting two duets on stage in dramatic silhouette. Lighting is again used to great effect when Bruya and Michele O’Neill perform a stunning unison duet, trapped in their own light squares. The arm chairs are also used to define the space, the re-arrangement of which is incorporated fluidly into the choreography. The dancers are constantly jumping over, slumping into, and ricocheting off the chairs, never leaving the audience wondering about the purpose or necessity of the set. Where chairs and lighting set the space, music is used heavily to set the mood. The majority of the sound score is driving, minimalist, emotionally stirring strings. While it could be wondered how much of the mood is determined by the musical choices, Martin achieved a rare balance where the dancers are never overpowered by the sound. Even the solos seemed to match the energy, fervor, and emotional resonance of the music. With no dancer is this more true than the young Bito, who continues to astonish audiences with her boundless energy, dynamic performance, and soul-piercing gaze. In fact, all of “the badmarmarmians” come across as individual, relatable people, and also as fantastic dancers. Martin’s greatest power may be her ability to bring out each of her dancer’s strengths.

The only disappointment of the evening was the piece’s conclusion. While Martin’s goal may have been to pump up the volume to a climatic ending, the last section only seemed to extend a high-intensity monotone. The shifting group phrase-work was a structure used earlier in the piece, and, with its novelty gone, it failed to contain the emotional force intended. Perhaps a powerful ending could be found by changing the format entirely, for instance, ending with a theatrical element, or through investigating the other end of the spectrum: the power of simplicity.

While the piece never returned to that happy place, its emotional arc is felt as a journey. tenSIDES is an unrelenting, emotionally intense struggle where anguish reigns. The dancers do not form characters, and their relationships are purely symbolic, but these abstract protagonists incite the kind of kinesthetic and emotional empathy that makes dance such a moving experience.