The Joffrey II Ballet Company used to spend every summer in Iowa City, Iowa. My mother, a talented dancer in her youth, would take me to see as many performances as possible. I loved it even though sometimes I would think, “There’s a message here and I’m not sure I’m getting it.” It’s art, tho, right? You bring to it your own experience and interpretations, so we don’t have to “get it.” Some hard core modern dance purists would say, There is no “getting it.” But get this, Hope Salas Productions and Smashworks Dance Company brought a genius informative element to their collaborative work, FEMPIRE, at The Tank last night as part of the Third Annual LadyFest. I was deeply moved by the combination of French Clown, Dot (Hope Salas) directed by Justin Cimino, and Ashley McQueen’s choreographed dance team’s expressions of truth in the feminist experience.
As women, we have scratched and clawed out some independence in our Western culture. We have found choice in places where there was none as recently as the year we were born. We are threatened by setbacks daily. And we are rising victorious in select arenas. Wait! Don’t run away screaming. We know you’re tired of this. Let’s have a little fun and look at this through the eyes of an innocent, our clown; the one who does not know that it is inappropriate to say that the emperor wears no clothes; the one who has not yet cut her silver thread to the divine. Suffer the little children unto me, sayeth the Lord. Okay, I’m getting carried away with the genius here.
The show opens with a wedding. Dot (Salas, so aptly christened Hope) stumbles to the altar deedle deedle dumpling style with one red pump on her right foot and lipstick applied hastily with hair in the disarray of a child running into the kitchen for kisses
and breakfast at dawn. The groom does not show, but his seed has already been sewn and our heroine finds herself mothering a newborn on her own. The prop serving as infant is an innocent lamb, Salas give us heartbreak and physical comedy to illustrate the instant unexpected loss of independence so many women still struggle through in an economy that should support the nurturing of the next generation and the care of the women raising them. She looks to the patriarchy for help to no avail and so dreams of angels, messengers – yes, sisters – to come to her aid. And they do come with their own experiences to share and insights to offer. The flow is gorgeously seamless between clowning and dance.
In one dance segment illustrating our common female history, there are three brides dancing on the stage with folding chairs that constantly misbehave, menace with dangerous balancing acts, and embarrass clanging to the floor, yet these brides must make room for these space holders and keep them tightly by their sides. At one point a dancer, Sarah Starkweather, has two chairs encircling her body through the opening between seats and backs, leaving her arms and legs free but twisting with fierce strength required to support this “freedom.” My whole body empathized with the bruising determination these movements required. It was exhilarating. Beautiful. Finally, chairs and gowns are thrown and peeled away, leaving raw seasoned women whom Dot regards with awe because they are, indeed, awesome.
And it gets better and better. The sisters dance their frustrations, their oppression, their love of their bodies and their open clever minds. The clown soaks it in, imitates what she sees, bringing child-like optimism and compassion. Salas plays a small ukulele singing a familiar song to call in love, which is interrupted several times by symbols of machismo until the lights go out on her slender frame and in a still small voice she cries, “What the fuck?” Yes; this is how it feels until we find our tribe and our voices come together to loudly declare, “NOT TRUE!” when told that we are no one until someone loves us. There is a wonderful game show sequence that begins very playfully with marvelous cross dressing and sexual ambiguity among the characters until a man is made victim of his own socialization in a society that still draws a hard line on gender norms. My eyes got wet for all the men I love navigating these unspoken rules and the women forbidden to lead the way to freedom and smash punishing norms. Smashworks . . . what a perfect name for these powerful sisters. McQueen’s company is tightly precise and fearless.
The sisters-in-arms love is sealed by a cleansing rain when Dot is drawn into the coven to be loved because she is someone with something to contribute – uninhibited joy which can barely be contained. Salas leads the celebration of new possibility coaxing a smile from McQueen. Yes, we are social animals. We will figure this out together. We will rise with our senses of humor intact. You have one more night to see this, People! Get your tickets now for Friday, August 23rd at 7pm .
FEMPIRE A work in progress, Smashworks Dance Company in collaboration with Justin Cimino and Hope Salas, Hotel New Work Artist in Residency, presented by TheaterLab NYC.
WITH Hope Salas (Dot), Justin Cimino, Paris Cullen, Manon Hallay, Madeleine Meyer, Ashley McQueen, Louisa Pancoast, Sarah Starkweather.
Justin Cimono, Ashley McQueen, Hope Salas – Artistic Direction; Ashley McQueen in collaboration with dancers, Choreography and Concept; Clown Pieces and Character of “Dot” conceived, devised by Hope Salas directed by Justin Cimino; Lighting and design, Byan Russell; Music – James Brown, Zap Mama, Ben Fehr & Liam Cutler, Dean Martin, ONUKA, Deep Watch, Voigt & Voigt, Dolly Parton, The Carpenters, Van McCoy, Renee Dominique, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
One performance left, August 23, 2019 at 7 pm at The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, New York, NY. Running time: 50 minutes.