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Love is in the air: Susan Marshall & Company’s The Kiss.

Everyday Horrors
By Mae G. Banner

Susan Marshall & Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 6

Susan Marshall knows too much about us. Her dances, always intriguing, sometimes repellent, are filled with repetitive movements from daily life. Like a minimalist composer, Marshall restates these tiny moves over and over, varying them by an eyelash, just enough so that, if you’re watching closely, you see those little touches edging closer and closer toward outright violence. She is a very scary choreographer—the more so, because she’s clearly holding up a mirror to our most uncivilized behavior.

Marshall and her company of seven, whom she always acknowledges as collaborators in the choreography, presented a world premiere, Cloudless, at Jacob’s Pillow last week. Set to a mix of music by Philip Glass, Georges Bizet, and David Byrne, Cloudless was the unsettling heart of the concert, which opened with the dreamlike Kiss (1987) and closed with an end-of-the-world melee, Other Stories (2003).

Cloudless began with a solo by Petra van Noort in a loose old T-shirt and tight capris. She picked at her body with twitchy hands or shook her fingers vigorously as if trying to get rid of something nasty. Gradually, these fidgets smoothed out into an oddly poetic “eentsie-beentsie spider” move as van Noort performed spiraling turns on her bare toes, until she seemed to decide to keep that awful something in her hands after all.

Luke Miller, a tall, boyish fellow, then attempted a ballet sequence, but crashed repeatedly onto his back, his legs splayed out. He tried and tried again to get the formal movements right, but was thwarted by interruptions in the form of other dancers. Over and over, Miller would drag or push the offending bodies back out. Over and over, they returned, one by one, then in multiples, so that Miller could never keep up with them. His efforts to clear the stage became a losing battle. As to the audience, we became trained to watch the wings furtively, anticipating the next unwelcome entrance. So, we became part of Miller’s doomed project.

The final quartet, Book, was most chilling. Two young men, Miller and Poulson, sat side by side at a library table, slowly turning the pages of a huge dictionary. Wright brought in a giant industrial floor fan; then, he and Kristin Hollinsworth and Wright stood quietly behind the seated men. The fan whipped the book’s pages, faster and faster. The two boys (they soon became schoolboys and brothers in the story I constructed) found their lives running out of control, though they tried to hold down the flipping pages.

The boys’ moves gradually became more like arm wrestling, more like serious fighting, while the parents (of course, they were the parents) would favor one boy or another with a light kiss on the head. The mother watched with wary eyes as the boys got a shade rougher, but no one did anything to stop what finally might be Cain’s murder of Abel in the first dysfunctional family. The dance ended, unresolved.

Violence is always imminent in Mars hall’s dances, but we never quite get there. This attenuated choreography, with its minimal changes, keeps our eyes riveted, keeps us wondering and worrying about what will happen next. Marshall’s open- endedness is scarier than actual violence because it makes you feel like an abused wife or kid waiting for their husband or their dad to hit them.

Other Stories brought out the whole ensemble in a series of quick blackouts that became increasingly surreal. There was a woman laid out on a table top, her bare midriff wrenching and contracting. Was it an operating table? Was she a Frankenstein’s monster being brought to life? And, those two glamorous, stony-faced women who danced from side to side and facing us—were they trying to hide something horrible going on behind their sleekly-costumed bodies?

Was anyone in charge? No. Everyone flew about in the semi-dark, sometimes pierced by two industrial lamps hung from the ceiling. They ran, dove, yelped, rolled and slid across the stage. I thought of an abandoned garden, a few bright flowers overrun with weeds, and some of them were poison.

Marshall has a remarkable fix on what is worst in us, so her dances are not cathartic or uplifting, but leave the viewer feeling punished. One exception: The Kiss, in which two lovers harnessed into ropes hanging from the celing turned and banked, flew past each other and flew into each other’s embrace. This swooping, soaring dance, performed by Hollinsworth and Miller to music of Arvo Part, looks like love feels.

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