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Theater Trumps Dance in Gifts of War

Gifts of War, which debuted on September 25, at Velocity Dance Center, offered a creative, though somewhat underdeveloped artistic take on British playwright Fraser Grace’s original work. Though written as a monologue for a single actor, Seattle director Gin Hammond decided to expand on Grace’s work, using Gifts of War as a study in explorative collaboration, housing theater and dance alike in a blend of acting, lighting, and movement. However, perhaps because so much of the publicity focusing on dance, the work fell unexpectedly flat. It successfully utilized theater, but the movement was not developed to the same degree, making the dance feel like an afterthought rather than the forethought it was. Luckily, actor Ana Maria Campoy held the collaboration afloat with her wit, dynamic storytelling skills, and keen sense of human integrity. Her finely honed performance directly juxtaposed the piece’s movement phrases that did not clearly relate to the work as a whole. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, Gifts of War was based on a beautiful concept. Hammond and choreographer Rochelle Rapaszky worked to unite two worlds against an ironic backdrop of violence and interpersonal sabotage in the context of mythological subterfuge in ancient Greece.

 

Dancers in Rochelle Rapaszky's choreography for Gifts of War Photo by Lionel Flynn
Dancers in Rochelle Rapaszky’s choreography for Gifts of War
Photo by Lionel Flynn

As a combination of theater and dance, Gifts of War articulated a clear and complex storyline that engaged audience members in a way that movement alone most often cannot. Grace’s writing is gorgeously complex in its digressions though startlingly simple in its setting and ultimate plot twist. Set in the home of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, the wives of Troy’s heroic officers celebrate the conclusion of a decade-long war and the joyful inevitability of their husbands’ return. Nemesis (played by Campoy) observes the six other women, narrating the dark vulnerability of their behaviors, only to divulge rare bits of her own. The increasingly shallow frivolities of Penelope, Chloe, Clytemnestra, Barbara, Electra, and Fiona—played in this version by an equal number of professional dancers—flitted in and out as voiceless actors in Nemesis’ eager tale. Campoy is more than capable as a dramatist—so much so that the dancers’ non-verbal roles felt like nonessential accompanists to her escapades.

 

And Campoy was brilliant. Though she never fully engaged in dance, she managed to engross the space with the sort of poise, ease, and clarity that most dancers would kill for. Campoy made it look easy, natural, as if Nemesis was an extension of her ever-vivacious store of personality—a dual being unrestrained. Campoy was Nemesis and Nemesis was Campoy, or so it seemed, as the character alternately drifted or launched through the narrative with genuine energy. In this way, she gave life to the voices of all the characters, and not just her own. The dynamism, variability, and skill in Campoy’s performance were commendable, and ultimately carried the composition as a whole.

 

Actor Ana Maria Campoy with dancers in Gifts of War Photo by Lionel Flynn
Actor Ana Maria Campoy with dancers in Gifts of War
Photo by Lionel Flynn

Yet Gifts of War lacked choreographic efficacy. The work utilized dancers of clear technical talent, but they appeared stunted by the movement itself, disallowing any showcase of their nuanced capabilities. Long lines, pure form, and artistic creativity were all deeply apparent in their bodies, but the simplistic choreography seemed to override their skill rather than reveal it. Repetitive sequences where the dancers appeared as a babbling gaggle of women taking “selfies” and gesturing effeminately proved predictable, not to mention out of place with the work’s setting. In other instances, the dancers took to the stage with longer movement sequences, surrounding Campoy in a circular formation, turning and reaching into arabesque in a chain of repetitions or else forming duets with the actor, taunting her with sexual advances or providing solo work in accompaniment to her words.

 

It was clear that the dancers were capable of far more intricate work that could have demonstrated the sheer capacity of movement as an art form while maintaining integrity to the plot. Given more thoroughly developed movement, the dancers could have played a more compelling role in the work, but the choreography did not match the power of the already strong narrative. That said, while the dancing may have been intentionally understated or simplified due to the nature of Campoy’s monologue, even the opportunities to incorporate dance (such as the partnering section in the first act) lacked choreographic ease; the clearly talented movers appeared shape-y despite their attempts to move organically through the phrase work. Despite high-caliber dancers, Gifts of War succeeded more as a theatrical production than as dance one.

Gifts of War Photo by Lionel Flynn
Gifts of War
Photo by Lionel Flynn

 

Gifts of War may have missed the mark, but what it did bring was an exciting concept to the usually separate worlds of dance and play. Though musical theater is a genre of its own, contemporary dance techniques (as opposed to commercial ones) are often entirely absent from theatrical works. Gifts of War, however, united dance with pure stage production, reminding audiences that art is art regardless of its origin. The multi-genre exploration of war, loss, and stealth in Gifts of War succeeded as a creative collaboration, but needed more developed choreographic choices to support what is clearly a beautiful play. One can only hope that Hammond and Rapaszky will continue to work together to refine this vision of artistic symbiosis, as its potential is both intriguing and immense.

To read the SeattleDances preview of Gifts of War follow the link here. More information on the project available on the group’s Facebook page.