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GIRL IN LATE AUGUST

The ensemble transforms into a mountain. Dancer Sara Caplan is the mountain climber. She stoically travels  this human trail ascending and descending gracefully. The many peaks and valleys formed by the connecting bodies of the other dancers  showcases their skill and quickness as they continuously assemble and reassemble the mountain range. They offer their backs, shoulders, arms and thighs as Caplan rises to the heavens and walks her way to finding the floor before climbing once more. This mountain range moves through the space at a very  slow pace. The structure builds itself over and over again with great care. The ensemble deftly combines their bodies to create steps and handrails for Sara to use as she walks this living trail. The highest  peak brings her close enough to the lofted ceiling of Yaw theater to extend an arm and perhaps tickle a ceiling beam. This section of Girl in Late August produced by the Coriolis PostBallet Dance Collective and choreographed by Madeleine Gregor is a powerful testament to the deep listening and strong connectivity of this ensemble of artists.

Photo by Jim Coleman.

This full length dance is made up of multiple movement vignettes peppered with solos featuring each cast member throughout. Everyone is on stage almost the whole time. While solos happen the rest of the ensemble remains involved in group actions like slow embraces and eating strawberries, creating a visual cacophony of a backdrop for the main action. Vases full of wheat create a nostalgic atmosphere that’s redoubled by the cast’s floral print dresses. A confrontational stripping reveals a variety of white underwear evoking a retro country aesthetic particular to this group of cis gendered women dancers. A plethora of pop music from the 1990s and 2000s serves a soft drag like sensibility throughout the piece. These moments felt steeped in cliches of what a “good girl” should be and what she should do to rebel against oppressive beauty standards and ways of connecting with other cis gendered women. The combination of a large group of women in floral print dresses dancing defiantly to an Alanis Morissette song about a break up delivers contemporary dance angst galore. Certain movement phrases pop up again and again throughout the dance: side leg extensions with pointed then flexed feet, flailing port a bras with hearts open, hands often grasping their faces and mouths, powerful attitude turns and intricate partnering and lifts (dancer Nicole Cardona was a standout in the partnering moments showcasing their great strength and fluidity.) It feels like a lyrical coming of age dance story for a group of cis women from a midwestern state working through their issues with conformity—fighting for independence by dancing together and processing masculine fetishization behind closed doors.  

Moments of poetry written and recited by Gregor pop up throughout. In her poetry I hear a desire for rebellion against cliches of beauty and womanhood and a questioning of what it means for a cis woman to reach and pass her “prime.” The group plays with structures and movements that I feel are a combination of set and improvised work. The choreographer seems to be questioning cliches about beauty and womanhood within the individual and collective moving body. Moving together it is easier to express a range of emotion, it is safer to make weird and ugly faces, it is easier to confront the gaze of the audience. The dancers attempt to move like wild flowers and wild animals. They dance emotionally to favorite pop and country songs and resist the domestication their particular experience seems to demand.

Photo by Jim Coleman.

Dressed in the floral prints that recall the 1990s, the ensemble looks like a David Lynchian Midwestern femme army. I imagine they are about to go pick flowers, make iced tea, and talk about their man problems. In one section the movement becomes completely gestural and focused in the arms and faces of the dancers. They begin circling one dancer. Everyone is laughing. But something sinister emerges. It becomes unclear if they are laughing at or with the dancer they are surrounding. Then the laughter turns to grimacing, faces of judgment or disgust. They circle the singled-out dancer, grasping their heads, snarling. It becomes clear this is a dance of mirroring as the singled-out dancer continues to try to conform to the group. The scene in the horror movie Midsommar comes to mind when a group of femmes is surrounding the lead character, copying her sounds and her sobbing en masse, driving her to an emotional breakdown. Is mirroring an effective way to understand the nuance of someone’s embodied experience? This section did not answer this for me but had me questioning the connection between conformity, empathy, and mockery. I thought of the cultish nature of gender performance for teenagers as they discover the way they want to present in the world by mimicking celebrities and trying on personas in private domestic spaces…a test for the many ways they might engage with their gender presentation in vulnerable public spaces.

This dance showcases Gregor’s poetic experiences of girlhood while inviting in the individual styles of the other dancers. Throughout this work I see the celebration of the sensations and realizations that embodiment practices can elicit when a group of dancers decides to explore their personal experience of gender together inside of a safe container held by the choreographer’s vision. In Gregor’s movement in particular I see an ecstatic rebellion against conservative conformity. In her quick and powerful movements, wildly free joints and gymnastic-like leaps I hear an exciting invitation for all humans to try being wild and free. In her dancing I hear a call to buck expectations of what “good girls” should sound and move like. Her passion to see her ideas play out with a collective of dancers adding their own flavor reminds me of how dance can be a doorway to liberation from conventional expectations. 

Photo by Jim Coleman.

An unsettling feeling remains with me even though this piece resists conformity. They all wear similar clothes, they are all cis-gendered, they all dance through the same movement phrases although peppered with various other structures. This work remains in the territory of the newly liberated teenager and doesn’t take us to the mature territory of radical self acceptance and community interconnectedness. It remains focused on questioning conformity and structures of cis-gendered collectivity. It is as though the dancers are skillfully feeling at the edges of their embodiment cages but not quite breaking free. Perhaps this is the first chapbook of dance poetry regarding this vision from Gregor and the second volume of this dance will continue the journey.  I look forward to seeing how Gregor and collaborators continue their process of questioning cis-gendered expectations and moving towards self discovery through dance.

 

Girl In Late August ran Dec 1-2 2023 at Yaw Theater. More on Coriolis Dance and Girl in Late August on their website.