MaryGrace Phillips: {stairs}

I originally dismissed {stairs}, a dance piece by MaryGrace Phillips, simply because it was to be staged at the B Complex, which has a concrete floor. I really feel that we should all avoid patronizing artists and organizations that produce dance works on hard surfaces: it’s terrible for the dancers but, even if they’ve managed to receive that rare education on dance safety, they often are not in a position to turn down the opportunity. Earlier this week, however, I realized that she is a Work Room resident and, thus, would almost definitely have access to the Lucky Penny’s portable dance floor and so I felt much more comfortable attending. I really wish that an organization would form around the issue of dancer safety that can certify performances as meeting basic safety criteria: I’d feel a lot better about going to alternative venue performances if such a thing existed.

The set design for the piece was simple but effective: scaffolding was covered in white paper and set up in tiers, like giant stairs, and were back-lit so that they were blue. The dance floor was set in front of them, with audience seating downstage and towards stage right. For the four women dancers, the costuming consisted of fitted, cobalt blue pants with matching halter tops that each had different strap designs but were otherwise bare on the back. The one man dancer wore a cobalt blue, velvet hakama and no top. They were lit mostly by blue lights, occasionally with some violet or amber thrown in.

The piece began with two dancers sitting upon different stairs, behaving not unlike bored-looking cats by stretching and lounging alone on their respective steps. They were soon joined on another step by Phillips, who seemed more like a bored human as she fluttered her legs and swept her arms around as though making carpet art. The scene that they created reminded me of the idle moments that I would sit on the carpeted stairs at the only townhome apartment that I lived in while in college and I found myself interpreting the entire piece in this vein: as a series of movements reflecting the idle thoughts and behaviors of someone who is bored at home and unmotivated to break away from their idleness.

In front of the stairs, the remaining two dancers entered. One walked forward a few steps and then bowed, as though in devotion, and then walked forward some before going down again, this time as though to take a nap, before getting up and repeating the cycle. Two of the dancers on the stairs went down and joined them and began performing with them while Phillips remained on the bottom step. Eventually all five were on the ground. The choreography was somewhat repetitive, with one or two of the dancers doing something a little more kinetic and a little less repetitive than the others throughout the piece. The work ended with one dancer on the uppermost step lowering an orange to another, who began to eat it as though idly getting a snack just for the sake of doing something when bored.

The piece had a consistent flow and, except at the beginning and end, never had moments that seemed to break the work into separate scenes. Although one segment flowed congruously into next, the latter was never really predicated on the former. While this made sense with a theme of idleness, it didn’t make for a strong main-stage production but, rather, felt more like an installation. It would have worked perfectly as something going on at a gala or gallery opening, where observers might not watch the entire thing but come in and out of it over the course of its 45 minute duration. Also, given its brief length, I think that it would have been appropriate for Phillips to try to share the venue and production costs with another artist.

It wasn’t a dull evening’s entertainment but I think that I ultimately feel that it was only almost good. I found myself waiting for a moment where some hidden intricacies came together in what would perhaps not be so much a climax but a moment of conceptual realization the way that Patton White’s work does. It didn’t need a point so much as a few moments of focus where the audience’s attention could hang a mark on their memories. Some better music would have helped a lot, as well: the minimalist, electronic sound design by Jared Kelley and Erin Palovick lent a pretension of mystery to a work that I never felt was particularly mysterious. I think that some of Satie’s music for solo piano would have been appropriate and might have inspired Phillips to provide more definition to the work. The lighting, too, could have been less blue and more amber, like living trapped with nothing but memories in a hallway lit indirectly by an uncomfortably warm afternoon sun streaming through windows onto the floor in another room. Then again, this is all predicated on my interpretation of the piece that could be nowhere near what was intended by the artist.

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