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In the corner of the courtyard, rough and cold, three dancers move among boxy plywood figures. With nylons covering their faces and binding the rest of their bodies, the dancers become neutral-colored blank slates, like art mannequin figures. Sometimes the dancers pull at the nylon that seals them off from the world, sometimes they lay face down on the concrete, sometimes they try to move the wooden figures. I feel like they are investigating the differences of what animates us, what constrains us, and what pain teaches us. I am reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Klara and the Sun, that explores what it is to be human through the relationship of an AI robot and a girl. The courtyard performance, called 7 Forms, is a site-specific piece that greets audiences as they enter to see the Cornish Dance Capstone Concert at Cornish Playhouse. 

Photo by Joseph Lambert

Once inside the lobby, edgy, dystopian music snakes around five black vinyl squares taped to the floor. Upon each square, dancers clad in black underwear and tank tops shiver on their knees dribbling spittle out of their mouths. I feel I am witnessing people delving deep, baring their souls, being with pain, retching shame and embracing the parts of themselves that are unacceptable. A poem on a leaflet written by the dancers—Alelia Matson, Erilin Souza, Lola Louis Mahaney, Kai Leigh Roach, and Sylvia Schatz-Allison—articulates philosophy behind this work: 

Swell the Belly

Invites you to sit with us,
Come on down and sit with us,
Be with
We don’t know what it’ll do to you,
But we know it’s distinct down here
Seat yourself
Seek and push and consume and repeat and repeat and repeat

Rip it back
Rip it back
Rip it back
For Beauty is Gore, and Pleasure is Guilt and Worship and Shame.  

Photo by Joseph Lambert

I think about why the work, by Sylvia Schatz-Allison, is called swell the belly. Maybe because your gut can be a locus of power if you can tune into it. As spit pools on the vinyl, I turn toward the theater. Once seated, a video plays on an onstage TV, featuring video of a family napping and clips of the 7 Forms courtyard piece. A dancer, DaeZhane Day, is lying with their back to us on the stage. Day choreographed 7 Forms as well as the first stage work, To love you is…they dance a beautifully grounded solo of falling and rising to a spoken word soundtrack that includes these lines:

We say falling in love. We don’t say rising into love… There is a curious tie between the fall and creation…Taking this ghastly risk is the condition of there being life…The moment you enter into any kind of human relationship, what an act of faith…

These words by Alan Watts (reprised by K.I.D) speak of the risk of any human relationship, and underscore the exploration of humanity happening with the nylon-covered figures in the courtyard outside.  

The “ghastly risk” of living is graphically illustrated in the next piece, Affirmations, choreographed by Vanessa Fontaine. Clowns in rainbow socks walk in pairs, arm in arm, chatting to each other as they crisscross the stage. One clown, singled out by their large red nose, smiles and tries to get the attention of the others. Their smile turns to a scream as they are bullied and cruelly cast out of the ruthless, Mean Girl-like pack. Eventually, that clown is somehow accepted by the others, and another is ostracized.The red-nosed clown then helps the newly ostracized off the floor and hugs them, ending the piece with the hope that empathy can bring. 

Photo by Joseph Lambert

A program highlight is post intermission, The Eccentric Anecdote of a Uropygi choreographed by Summer Briggs-Williams. The curtain rises to reveal performer Armani Barrett seated at a table with a large old-fashioned microphone and a red solo cup. They are doing a podcast, “Enigmatic Entertainment,” in which they delightfully, comically respond to a letter from a fan. Barrett has wonderful timing and has the audience laughing at their cleverness. The curtain drops and Iverson Harding appears on the apron of the stage in a sharp, white jacket, spats, and tap shoes. Harding is a performer to watch. They command the stage in a Savion-Glover style, so smooth and furious, their taps get hot to the touch! At one point, they bounce down into the splits and ask the audience member across from them to help them up as they say “looks like me in a few years.” The man could very well have been Harding’s father. At any rate, they give each other a heart-warming embrace. 

Other works on the program included choreographer Andrew McShea’s Right is Alright, Wrong is to Belong in which dancer Dee DeCola ripples in a wonderfully grounded way to music by Moin, featuring spoken words “I think I went too far,” echoing the themes of self-exploration in many works on the program. In What…? by Gabriela Ross, three dancers wearing angel-like capes weave through the audience and theatrical fog to meet onstage where they twist into formations and slap their legs. In Insentience, choreographed by Natalie Johnson and Nicole Hennington, Johnson stretches and pulls along the back concrete wall while a poem flashes on the screen, reiterating the Zeitgeist of the evening—the pain and beauty of being human, being in relationship, and stretching beyond limits. Time’s Up, choreographed by Alexandra Pelzer, set to the mesmerizing Interstellar movie score, Tick-Tock by Hans Zimmer is an epic, sweeping piece. As the thirteen dancers flock like birds, and wave across the stage, their skin shimmering, it is emotional witnessing this next generation of performers. 

Photo by Joseph Lambert

A particularly apropos work for the Capstone Concert is a piece titled Énouement. Dressed in layered white tunics, dancer Madison Steele falls into hinges, suspends attitude turns, and floats their arms. When I look up the definition of the title, “the bitter-sweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self,” I think of how appropriate the sentiment is for Steele and the other seniors performing and choreographing this program as they leave the creative breeding ground of Cornish College. Similarly, I notice at intermission the swell the belly dancers have progressed to hands and knees, and as I leave the theater, they are standing—symbolic of the journey of the senior Cornish dance students ready to launch into the professional world having questioned and examined their creative depths and humanity. 


Performed at the Cornish Playhouse March 1 and 2, 2024.