A man walked onto the stage of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University Long Beach carrying a chair. He set it down in the center of a trio of women who were dancing to Moby’s Flower. He adjusted his pant legs as he sat; the women promptly dispersed. “It’s a cold morning in March when Sally meets Stu,” the man said. His name was Nadav Heyman, and he’d written, and would narrate, the words which constituted the bones of this piece.
But the story began before Heyman started speaking. In silence, the lights tauntingly un-dimmed to reveal a horizontal lineup of shadowy figures. A single woman treaded forward along the center axis of the stage, both arms slowly extending forward. Her hands gradually came into focus under the lights. The rest of the cast soon followed her lead, arranging themselves in a staggered formation that filled the space. Their small synchronous gestures were impressive, performed as they were in total silence. When the music began, the tempo picked up considerably, bringing with it fast crabwalks and rapidly changing spatial patterns.
I was immediately aware of the movement-language at play during Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY’s presentation of Sally Meets Stu. That style of movement-language, Gaga, originated with Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv where Danielle Agami, Ate9’s choreographer and Artistic Director, danced for 8 years. Like Andrea Miller’s of Gallim Dance in NYC–another example of a female-directed, Gaga-based company–Agami arguably maintains her voice within the evolving form. The buzz around Sally Meets Stu is further proof that this language lends itself to multiple distinct oeuvres within our field.
But, back to Sally and Stu. Multiple anecdotal “scenarios” are presented in which Sally meets Stu, they fall in love, and are married. (On the line, “Sally and Stu got married,” a woman was thrown from one man’s arms to another’s; this produced a laugh.) They buy a car, a dog, and a house. In the first version of the story, Stu begins staying out late, and Sally, suspecting him of cheating, has sex with John. Stu, it turns out, had been taking salsa lessons. In the third version, Sally is stabbed fourteen times in the neck. The fourth is comedically skipped for our benefit.
In one memorable scenario, Sally doesn’t meet Stu. She marries a guy she only kind of likes named Dan. Sally and Dan grow old together, and upon turning 70, Sally becomes diagnosed with Alzheimers–she starts calling Dan, Stu. As Heyman recited this part, a woman tentatively approached him. They began a timid partnering sequence together, which evolved as four more women joined them, one by one. They all moved slowly, in unison, as if the mediocre relationship being described were a conga line at a moderately fun party.
These alternate versions of the relationship, mirroring the choreographic technique of theme and variation, tugged at the delicacy between events as they do happen and events as they could have happened–or, indeed, could still happen. Existentially, the work seemed to warp reality into a rather vulnerable assembly of happenings, all held at the mercy of whim. There were moments in the choreography where I was especially reminded of this vulnerability. In one, a group of five women entered from stage left in a mesmerizing series of handstand-walks. The women were sure of themselves and the movements were well-executed, but the precariousness of the position and the way the women came down and up again like pendulums created a little feeling of nervousness in me.
The weaving of text within the dance was thoughtfully and expertly done. The words weren’t recorded over; they were spoken from stage and came from within the dance. Some sections of the choreography accompanied the words straightforwardly, other sections did not. Heyman moved within the group and apart from it–his excellent solo was easily one of my favorite moments and one of the cleanest, most accessible parts of the piece. He removed his clothes before beginning, as if he were decidedly stepping into the dance, shedding his role as narrator. Then, as if he were remembering or physicalizing the words in his head, his fingers began to move furiously in front of him, like typing. Several unusual but beautiful movements followed, and the section ended in perfect push-ups that began slowly and increased in speed as the lights faded. As it turns out, Heyman hadn’t danced before the creation of this work; he was a basketball player. This, I daresay, is the magic of Gaga.
Magical tricks aside, not everything about Sally meets Stu quite satisfied me. The ending was too eccentric, and the cinematic music accompanying it–Barry Sakharov’s Auchtak–was cliché. In various tableaux, a woman prepared actual food at a table held on either side by two men (later, a “dog” played by one of the women appeared underneath the table). A doo-wop singer belted silently with a microphone as backup dancers swayed to his imaginary beat. One dancer sat in a folding chair, popping peanuts and depositing their shells on the floor. Four more joined her later. This finale was literally and uncomfortably messy; yet, in its defense, it has stuck in my head. And Agami’s repetition and variation of her bizarre motifs was intelligent, even brave. To its credit, Sally Meets Stu was gloriously raw, and Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY and the language it embodies are sure to bring a fresh perspective to dance in Southern California.
Photo by Denise Leitner