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Zoe Bennett's "Distilled Vinegar" genuine despite its flaws

by Morgana Mellett
March 18, 2014
Dixon Place
258 Bowery, 2nd Floor
(btw Houston and Prince)
New York, NY 10012
212.219.0736
Zoe Bennett's contemporary dance-theater piece "Distilled Vinegar" weaved together the emotions and thoughts of young American women. Choreographed by Bennett in collaboration with its dancers, the work for ten women used contemporary dance and spoken word to tell a story of young women's shared feelings, fears, anxieties, hopes, friendships and their burgeoning sense of womanhood.

The work opened with the dancers standing with their dresses pulled up over their heads revealing bare stomachs and thighs along with shorts and sports bras.

One woman, with her face still covered by her dress, began to speak into a microphone. Her words mixed in well known song titles such as "Thank you for being a friend" and "I believe I can fly". Despite not being able to see her face it was clear that her speech was becoming more and more frenzied as her breathing became ragged and labored; her stomach muscles contracted and undulated with increased intensity. The group responded to her frantic speech by repeatedly throwing themselves to the floor like rag dolls or young children having a tantrum.

As the 30-minute piece unfolded the constant changes in music, movement and use of costume and lighting, kept the audience's attention from start to finish. The piece weaved back and forth between moments of hysteria, and anxiety to moments of tenderness between the dancers; a symbol of growing friendships. While many of the movements in the work were frantic and violent depicting a feeling of being out of control, others had the dancers moving in unison in soft, lyrical movements that seemed at home with their femininity.

As the piece built, a tall young woman moved out of the group to perform a solo. The others laid on their stomachs and propped themselves on their elbows like young girls on the beach or in the grass listening to a friend tell her story. It was a story of joy, hope and laughter. Perhaps a romance? This was a truly gorgeous solo both in composition and technicality. The dancer flowed and breathed through each high leg extension and luxurious back bend.

Then it was back to panic and confusion as the group threw itself around. One dancer again speaking into a microphone pouring her heart out. Unfortunately, it was difficult to hear her words other than the bold comment "Just because I have feelings doesn't mean I'm crazy!", which the rest of the performers repeated. The tension continued to build until the lights started dimmed, all the dancers laid down and a spotlight focused on a single pair, one laying on her back, the other shaking her leg as if trying to wake her.

Out of the shadows came the sounds of Chopin's "Nocturne" and a blue light came up.

We were now taken into a world of serenity with two girls being lifted slowly into the air by the others. Unfortunately this touching moment of support was not as effective as it could have be because of some awkward partnering between a few of the dancers.

The mood shifted again bringing the dancers into a cluster and staring directly at the audience with expressions of seduction and wickedness. One dancer broke away from the group and grabbed a microphone and shouted out a long speech. Here was where the piece shone. The words were simple but powerful as they expressed what so many young women have struggled with. A few sentences stood out in particular. "Let's crush the sentiment that we're untrustworthy rivals… Let's use our brilliant fire to ignite one another-stop snuffing each other out…True friendship is an incredible gift. Give it away… Let's be catalysts, not catty… I refuse. I refuse to be intimidated by any other person's life. I refuse to act like a child. I refuse to disrespect others. I refuse to treat anyone like anything less than a person." The other dancers who had been sitting in a circle listening jumped up, fashioned their dresses into capes and began running around like a bunch of little girls at a slumber party. "Distilled Vinegar" concluded the dancers all together arms interlocked. A lone figure then broke away from the group and declared, "Every morning when I wake up, I look in the mirror and say, 'Jenny Gram, today is your day!" before running back to the others and leaping into the arms.

While the work's movements and dialogue bordered on the cliche at times, the relatable story and the performers commitment to it came across as genuine, sweet and often humorous.

Photo © & courtesy of Al Richard

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