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Feathered: White and Black - a work in development presented by Valerie Norman and VanDance at the Joyce SoHo

by Robert Abrams
January 12, 2003
Joyce Soho
155 Mercer Street
New York, NY 10012
212-431-9233

Feathered: White and Black - a work in development presented by Valerie Norman and VanDance at the Joyce SoHo

Joyce SoHo - a performance and rehearsal space at 115 Mercer Street, NYC 10012 / 212-431-9233

Review by Robert Abrams
January 12, 2003

Feathered: White and Black is a work in development by Valerie Norman's VanDance dance company. As is my usual critical bent, and as is especially appropriate for a work in development, this review should be taken primarily as formative evaluation. This review is based upon tonight's performance, as well as on Ms. Norman's program notes.

The work presented tonight uses Swan Lake, the classical ballet, as its point of departure. Swan Lake features a white swan in Act I, Odette, and a black swan in Act II, Odile. In a similar fashion, Feathered presents the white swan in its Act I, and the black swan in Act II. It was my understanding from the publicity materials I had received prior to the show, and from Ms. Norman's program notes, that Feathered was intended as a feminist reimagining of Swan Lake, so I was watching it with this in mind.

I will start by getting the explicitly summative evaluation portion of this review out of the way. That way Ms. Norman can read the rest of this review in a more relaxed frame of mind. Overall, I thought Feathered was an admirable sketch. By sketch in this context, I do not mean "sketch" as a diminutive of "scene". Rather, I mean sketch as in the kind of sketch a painter will often draw before starting in on a complex oil painting. The dancing was enjoyable to watch. The dancers showed off a mixture of talent and potential. The choreography had some interesting ideas and showed a certain boldness. Feathered is exactly the kind of show that the Joyce SoHo exists to support with its excellent performance space.

Act I of Feathered, White, is a series of movement studies investigating the essence of swan-ness. This act has, according to a brief conversation with Ms. Norman after the show, been in development longer than Act II, having been presented on its own previously at another venue. This week's presentation was the first full length presentation of Feathered (or of any of Ms. Norman's choreography for that matter).

White contains a lot of good movement ideas about swan-ness. Act I started with the dancers as dancers slowly getting into their swan characters. There were swans influenced by classical Indian dance. There were swans who took a feather from Busby Berkeley. There were windmill swans.

There was also a swans' night out. This consisted of mostly freestyle-looking dance, with a lot of the touch, step, touch, step even-timed solo dancing so prevalent in civilian nightclubs.

About half of Act I could be characterized as more ballet without shoes than modern dance. By this I mean that while overall the work was intended as modern dance, there were many passages that used steps and movement qualities characteristic of ballet, and which were implemented with plenty of talent and grace.

Act II of Feathered, Black, presents Odile as a sadistic nightclub owner (that's what it looked like to me, anyway). Where Act I was mostly ballet in style, Act II was much closer to Broadway style musical theatre. The opening sequence was a lip synced musical number, complete with Odile being carried around the stage by her black swan chorines (chorus girls to those of you who either aren't currently living in the 1920s or who haven't seen Chicago). At one point the chorines deftly flipped Odile over without dropping her. I thought the move was well done, and the rest of the audience seemed to think so too. The costumes in Act II were full length black lace and feather numbers somewhat reminiscent of the costumes in "Nine", the Broadway musical from the early 1980s or so.

Odile appeared to be in a great deal of agony. During one number she was dragging a chair around like a turtle who isn't convinced that its shell is such a good idea. She takes this agony out on her chorines by making them dance with one shoe on and one shoe off. Some of this mal-adjusted behavior may be a result of her trying to give up smoking. Odile kept pulling cigarettes out of her pocket and then throwing them away. Near the end of Act II, Odile murders her floor show one by one with a knife.

In the final scene, the lights come up on the entire cast lying naked on the floor. They rise, walk towards the audience revealing in a matter of fact sort of way that they are wearing nothing, and the lights fade to black.

If the current version of Feathered has a flaw, it is because it is not bold enough. Ms. Norman clearly has a point to make, but the mostly non-narrative format she has chosen may be too limiting. In some instances, the tease of narrative that is present only serves to confuse. For instance, what is the intended relation between Odette and Odile, especially given that Act II has more narrative elements than Act I? Why does Odile murder her staff? And why is the cast naked at the end? It is certainly a bold choice, and the dancers have nothing to be self-conscious about, and there are plausible reasons why such an ending might be chosen, but the reason behind the choice wasn't clear. If they are going to put themselves out there like that, they might as well have maximum conceptual impact.

If Ms. Norman intends to further develop Feathered as a commentary on and a counter-story to the norms presented in the original Swan Lake, here are a few turning points I would consider.

Odette and Odile are supposed to be two separate people, but they are played by the same dancer. If the boundary between story and dance is thin, perhaps the separate characters of Odette and Odile become infused with the essence of the dancer who portrays them. If this happens, then when Sigfried falls for Odile thinking she is Odette, he has in fact pledged his love to Odette (since they are the same person). As such, he has fulfilled the terms of the evil magician's spell, so therefore all Odette has to do to break the spell is to realize that it has already been broken and act as such.

Even if Odette and Odile are separate people, since Sigfried chose Odette to be his bride, and since Odile encouraged this misunderstanding, at no time did Sigfried love anyone other than Odette, so the terms of the spell have been met. Plus, Odette could take Odile to court for identity theft.

If Odette is a princess, and if she returns to human form every night, surely somewhere in her kingdom there is a good magician, and surely she has the resources to find him and hire him (or her) to cast a counter-spell to cancel out the evil magician's spell?

Or take Swan Lake at face value. Suppose that there really is no way to break the curse given the mistake Sigfried made. Sigfried and Odette jump into the lake together to die. But did they really die? Maybe they have been swimming around the lake all of this time just waiting for Ms. Norman to come along and tell the rest of their story.

Maybe Odile isn't such a bad person after all. Maybe if she could just stop smoking, she would escape her dependence on the evil magician and could find a way to redress the wrong she did to Odette (now there would be a timely parable for the dance world).

To move Feathered towards its next incarnation, I would have Ms. Norman clarify her main point. I would then have her rebuild the dance using a strong narrative that expresses that main point. I would have her follow her existing instincts to be radical and daring. To this end, I would lose the lip syncing at the start of Act II and replace it either by having Odile actually sing the number, or sing the number on top of the recording. If the dancer who portrays Odile doesn't have the best voice, work that element into the character. I would also try changing the venue or the media in which the work is presented just to help break her affections for her own work. For instance, try choreographing Feathered for film rather than for the stage. This approach appears to have worked very well for Hit and Run, and it might work here too.

Think about the relation of the nightclub in Act I and the nightclub in Act II. And while even-timed touch-step freestyle can be contextually appropriate, try playing with some rhythmically appropriate social dance. In the Act I nightclub, Hustle, Cha-cha and West Coast Swing would all be appropriate, but Hustle or West Coast might be better choices than Cha-cha since these dances tend to have a lyrical quality that is a better match with ballet than Cha-cha. The freestyle vs. structured social dance element could even be a way to create some dramatic tension.

In the program notes, Ms. Norman wrote that "by exploring both extremes of the white and black swan, I hope to dispel the myths that purport for women and present a true womanhood free from the constraints of power." She has set herself a task as difficult as it is worthwhile. This review is offered less as a set of directives for improvement, and more as an imperfect mirror to see her own work from a new perspective. If she sees something useful and incorporates it, great. Invite me to the next version. If she rejects all of the ideas and does something else, that's fine too. I still want to be invited to the next version.

Speaking of mirrors, this suggests a completely different direction in which Ms. Norman could take Feathered. She could place a mirror/window in the middle of the stage, maybe one of those mirrors that changes its opacity in response to an electric current. She could keep the idea of the White and Black swans as non-narrative presentations, but move away from using them as representations of Odette and Odile. Suppose that the white and black swans are representations of the same woman, and that the dance allows each to see both themselves and the other through the mirror?

And finally one more thought. Why is the "black" swan bad? After all, one of Ms. Norman's dancers is African-American. Playing on the cultural conflict themes that could develop out of this would also allow Ms. Norman to contrast ballet forms with African dance forms. This might make for a very interesting work regardless of whether she chose to go in a narrative or non-narrative direction.

I am going to stop here because if I am not careful, I am going to look out my window and see the sun rising. My basic advice to Ms. Norman is to keep sketching. You have a good start on a promising choreographic idea. With more work and willing collaborators, you could end up with a series of very different, but equally valid, Feathereds on your way to a finished major work.

Feathered was choreographed by Valerie Norman. Costumes by Oana Botez-Ban. Lighting by Lucrecia Briceño. Sound design by Joe Davi. Set design by Ai Hayatsu. Stage management by Meg Breznik. The dancers included Gabriella Barnstone, Hannah Emmerich, Christina May, Valerie Norman and Tamara Riewe.

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