Antonio Somera Jr. has Meredith Sallee by her legs as he whips her upper body around the floor. Sallee is swinging wildly, out of control. She reaches with clawing hands to catch hold of the ground, scrambling to get away as he drags her back in. The violent, hard-to-watch image of her limber, fluid body tossing back and forth is undercut by Sallee gasping, “More…higher…faster.” Only minutes later, Sallee storms around the balcony of ACT’s Bullitt Cabaret, each deft and hard-hitting motion afflicting dancer Ainesh Madan in an attack of seemingly supernatural powers. This is in the thick of KT Niehoff’s A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light, and the question becomes: who has the power?
At the beginning, the audience mingles in the large, open space as the band plays and blue velvet-clad “Showgirls” titter and flit through the space. They welcome audience members and simultaneously perform a distinct disingenuousness. Directed lights illuminate one part of the space, drawing crowds toward it as the first vignette emerges: Ty Vennewitz, in a sequined top hat, plays ringleader to a stumbling Zoe Scofield, whose exaggerated teeters, collapsible body, and bleary gaze portray inebriation past the point of agency. She gropes into the audience again and again, but Vennewitz steers her back to the spotlight.
Soon, another part of the space is lit and the audience’s attention is diverted elsewhere. This is the format of the evening: crossfaded spotlights that shift crowds across the space, hungry for the next dance. A duet between Sallee and Patrick Kilbane is precise, sexual, insect-like. They interlock limbs and torsos in an ever-shifting floor duet of praying mantises. Other vignettes are rhythmic with quick lunges and fast footwork, engaging with the driving energy of the band. Amy Turner Clem performs a controlled solo of grounded floorwork and balancing limbs that reach and unfurl with mounting tension.
Molly Sides, billed as “Lead Showgirl,” saunters glamorously in and out, every once in awhile a shudder or glitch in her movement interrupting her leisurely exposition. She is often captivated by her own image in the many large round mirrors hung throughout the cabaret. At one point she passes out, sprawled languidly on the stairs before a male dancer carries her into the light. It recalls the earlier image of Scofield and Vennewitz, but in this case Sides collects herself and sings a lonely song that begins with the repeated words: “I’m way above you.”
The characters of each of the lead dancers in “The Coven” are clearly distinctive from one another, but the arc of each is too entangled, too complex, to pick out a clear narrative. What is clear is that the path of each descends into chaos. Vignettes overlap more and more towards the end of the show, culminating in a cacophony of fervor and neurosis. The lights blink out, The Coven vanishes, and then, just as fast, the lights, band, and showgirls pop into a celebratory dance number as if this were all normal.
The Showgirl chorus is present throughout, slinking into the shadows, bored and apathetic. Or strutting about with a sort of forced, smug smile. They dress and undress The Coven, holding ornamented coats up expectantly. At first, their role seems servile—the proletarian just outside the spotlight. But they are the only ones who seem to come away unscathed. Always glittering, never vulnerable, it seems as if they might be the puppeteers in this strange world.
The costumes are worth noting. Each one was a unique blend of natural and unnatural elements: rhinestones and branches, feathers and faux fur, tulle poufs and birds nests. The members of The Coven each had an elaborately crafted overcoat (conceptualized and constructed by Niehoff and Ricki Mason), that was displayed before the show and donned before and after dancing. The dichotomy was also reflected in the quality; chintzy items often undercut an otherwise curated ensemble, adding to the lingering confusion of real and not real. Perhaps it is these ever-shifting realities that make Glimmer so unsettling. When power is in constant and contradictory flux, it’s hard to know who to root for, what the truth is, or if it’s all just show. Glimmer gives us a glimpse into this dark underbelly of showmanship, and then pulls the wool over our eyes with a sparkle, a light cue, a new distraction.
A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light continues this weekend, November 12-14. Tickets are available at ACT’s website. More information about KT Niehoff can be found on her website.