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Technical Precision Reigns in Fire!

Written by Kaitlin McCarthy

Catherine Cabeen and Karena Birk in Fire!
Photo by Phil Cabeen
The airy High Priestess. The lush Empress Eve, the original femme fatale. When you woke up this morning, which one did you see in the mirror? Which one did you want to see?” A female voice muses over the loud speakers, opening Catherine Cabeen & Company’s new show, Fire! at On the Boards this past Thursday, January 17, 2013. The monologue is met with a solo by Cabeen: shuffling tarot cards and performing fluid nuanced movement among a landscape of metallic foil shapes. Fire! is the second of Cabeen’s works in a series dedicated to New Realist Artists, and this one draws inspiration from the life and career of Niki de Saint Phalle—rebel and multi-disciplinary artist famous for her colorful “Nana” sculptures and artwork involving women and weaponry.
Cabeen’s technicality is stunning and with her long dress, inwardly pointing elbows, and power stances, it is hard to miss the strong Graham influences. Five other dancers emerge from beneath the foil, and create counterpoint to Cabeen’s solo material as they weave in and out of duets and trios. These dancers are abstract—no relationships here. Their movements have a surgeon’s cold precision with each placement careful and controlled.
A number of striking images arise where Cabeen steps into a large circular loom and her dancers pull a blue woven tube around her body, then unwind the tube while simultaneously weaving a new one for Cabeen to wear again. Cabeen cradles a bundle of the same blue strand like a baby as her dancers disturbingly unravel the bundle by pulling on the strand’s end.
Halfway through the hour show, the cast changes from metallic unitards to colorful jumpsuits and the dancing becomes more linear. The music shifts from vaguely Classical to something more beat heavy. In contrast to the beginning, this half of the piece feels reminiscent of 80s era Modern dance. Perhaps meant to reflect the times in which Saint Phalle made work, it otherwise feels a little dated. Cabeen continues on her solo journey, which now includes more undulation, but the shift is not dramatic enough to be very remarkable. 
Whether intentional or not, split focus seems to be a theme for Cabeen’s work. There are almost always two or more disparate dances happening simultaneously, and often they are accompanied by attention-grabbing projections on the back wall. The lack of focus makes it hard for any one idea to develop, and leaves the audience without a strong emotional connection or take away. The duets and solos, while each beautiful to watch individually, are so controlled and placed that they only refer to their own choreographed quality. Saint Phalle’s work was innovative, risky, and wild. Teetering on the edge. Questioning gender norms. Cabeen’s new piece is a lovely display of technical and athletic dance, but audiences are left wondering: Where’s the passion? Where’s the fire?
Fire! continues this evening, Sunday, January 20, at On the Boards. Tickets are available here.