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Ellis Wood’s “The Juggler of Our Ladies” an Engaging Life's Journey

by Bonnie Rosenstock
May 3, 2016
Joe's Pub
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10003
212-967-7555
A distinguished-looking snowy-haired woman in her seventh decade (Ellen Graff) appears in the audience, searching for her table. She comments on the space, finally finds her seat, in a corner near stage left. She settles in, begins to reminiscence. Except it’s not her life she’s recounting. It appears to be partly inspired by the life of Marni Thomas Wood, the mother of Ellis Wood, who choreographed the work entitled “The Juggler of Our Ladies” in collaboration with its performers. The DANCENOW presentation took place April 29, 2016 at New York's Joe’s Pub.

The dances depicting various phases in a woman’s life, from innocence, struggle, perseverance and discovery to self-actualization, were set to original music by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Graff’s running narrative (written by Fran Kirmser and Andrew Wnuk) fueled the dance sections (and vice versa), which were performed admirably by four generations of women ranging in age from 10 to 80. The youngest was Wood’s daughter, Stella Nakada, who danced briefly at the beginning. The oldest was Marni Thomas Wood, who took a turn at the end with Graff. In between, Wood and three fine dancers carried the engaging and intelligent show.

The first section featured a long, wobbly metal rod. The women were initially encircled by it, but then they took apart the individual pieces of it and fold them over into one mass. Then Graff declared, “It’s dangerous not to question,” as the remarkable Caitlyn Johansen got ensnared in a long black elastic tether and was pulled in all directions by Wood, Dexter Carlson and Emily McDaniel. She also struggled with the tether on her own. The emotional segment featured strong movements of determination and grit, accompanied by Roumain’s driving score. After Johansen extricated herself, she was spent, breathless and staggering as she reached out to the other women. Graff stood up and observed: “I recognize that girl. That was me. I left North Carolina and came here.”

There was a sea change of movement and music. Red balls were tossed onto the stage. “I could never drop the ball,” says Graff. The three dancers (Thomas Wood had three kids) tossed the balls to Wood, who dropped a few, I think accidentally, based on her facial reaction. The music at first was light with a steady repetitive tempo, and then electronic, staccato, rhythmic.

Another section featured movements that were down on the floor, then rose, then down and up, to squeaking violin and pleasant repetitive piano music. Finally Graff uttered “Congratulations, you made it. You’re here.” Then Thomas Wood carried onstage two of the short metal sticks, one red ball and the tether. Graff joined her, and they did a brief red ball duet. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” Graff says, metaphorically, as the two are long-time friends.

The coda at the end of the well-constructed hour-long piece was a short video in which each of the performers spoke directly into the camera about a personal struggle, challenge, frustration and ultimate triumph. Dexter Carlson finally owned her unusual first name, which caused her endless problems growing up. Wood talked about making the decision to walk away from a career in gymnastics because of a verbally abusive coach. The winsome Nakada related how she never asked for anything, but then was very determined about getting a puppy.

Wood, who is an accomplished, award-winning dancer and choreographer in her own right, comes from a dance dynasty. Both her mother and father, the late David Wood, were members of the Martha Graham Dance Company (as was Graff). That dynasty is in good hands.
Pictured L-R: Dexter Carlson, Stella Nakada, Caitlyn Johansen, Emily McDaniel

Pictured L-R: Dexter Carlson, Stella Nakada, Caitlyn Johansen, Emily McDaniel

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano


Pictured: Ellis Wood

Pictured: Ellis Wood

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano


Pictured L-R: Emily McDaniel, Ellis Wood, Caitlyn Johansen

Pictured L-R: Emily McDaniel, Ellis Wood, Caitlyn Johansen

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano


Pictured L-R: Marni Thomas Wood, Ellen Graff

Pictured L-R: Marni Thomas Wood, Ellen Graff

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano


Pictured L-R: Caitlyn Johansen, Ellis Wood, Dexter Carlson

Pictured L-R: Caitlyn Johansen, Ellis Wood, Dexter Carlson

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano


Pictured L-R: Dexter Carlson, Emily McDaniel, Caitlyn Johansen

Pictured L-R: Dexter Carlson, Emily McDaniel, Caitlyn Johansen

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano


Pictured L-R: Caitlyn Johansen, Emily McDaniel, Dexter Carlson

Pictured L-R: Caitlyn Johansen, Emily McDaniel, Dexter Carlson

Photo © & courtesy of Alessandro Graziano

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