On April 27th, I headed to Alphabet City for General Mischief Dance Theater’s Rascals with Altitude. The company, self-described as “dedicated to reinforcing the power that joy and laughter have in communicating ideas,” aims at “engaging audiences emotionally, socially, and physically.” Though I found it strange that such an open-hearted bunch would self-identify as rascals, I went with it.
That day’s program consisted of five pieces. First was “Hardball,” a duet playing off the Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees baseball rivalry. Hearkening back to the production’s title, the performers were airborne for most of this piece. With harnesses around their pelvises that attached on either side to long springs covered with fabric, Emily S. Vartanian and Dare Harlow used the strength of their arms and legs to swing, invert, rotate, and bounce through the air. Though initially fun to watch, the movements grew repetitive and boring. I would have liked to see greater emphasis on showmanship; clearer, more precise facial and hand gestures; and attention to details like stage make-up and neat hair.
“Buzz” followed, a quintet illustrating a day-in-the-life of a young person in New York City. Though the scope of this concept is very limited, this dance included one of the most engaging moments of the entire production, when the light of 5 iPhone screens looped and curved in the air across the otherwise pitch-black stage, the hands holding them unseen. It was a great idea, one that I wish had been given more time in rehearsal (the unison movement phrases did not always read as such) and in the piece overall—patterns of light are more stimulating and widely accessible than a thinly developed look at twenty-somethings living in NYC.
Next, Dare Harlow and Quincie Hydock performed their co-creation “Role Play,” a duet that addressed social pressures placed on girls and women. I respect their intention to make choreography about serious sociocultural issues. Yet, this piece left me unsatisfied, both in terms of its choreography and its treatment of the subject matter. I think “Role Play,” would benefit if refocused. Do Harlow and Hydock want to make us laugh, make us think, show us how well they dance, joke around with music, or tell us a story? I don’t know, and I’m not sure they do either.
Fourth up was “Air Time,” pretty much a repeat of “Hardball.” Instead of the earlier rivalry theme, this duet was ornamented with other dancers running between, rolling below, or yelling words of encouragement at the airborne performers. I saw little purpose to this piece besides giving another person the chance to showcase her skill using the flight apparatus.
Closing the program was “Suite Shel,” a series of dances inspired by the poems of Shel Silverstein. Two moments of this work did justice to the whimsy and beauty of Silverstein’s poetry, the first being Susie Williams’s aerial performance in “Web,” which was mesmerizing. Wearing a black unitard, she twisted, turned, climbed up, and slid down a brown rope, elegantly evoking the image of a spider spinning its web. I couldn’t help but wonder why the choreographer chose a dark-colored, thick rope to signify the spider’s thread, but Ms. Williams’ exquisite performance made up for that peculiarity. The second moment of note in “Suite Shel” was a group dance called “Shoes” in which the dancers borrowed audience members’ shoes, placed them on their hands, and danced as if their hands were a second pair of feet. Though the piece was slow to start and its content largely underdeveloped, it closed with perhaps the funniest moment of the whole program, when the dancers formed a can-can kickline by moving just their arms and shoe-covered hands. Why not make a whole dance based on that concept, and invest in (or just collect) some shoes of the company’s own?
Rascals with Altitude made me reflect both on how much I love the idea of encouraging active audience engagement during a show, and also how challenging it is to do that successfully. General Mischief Dance Theater has the right idea in committing to make audience participation part of their performances, but they still have work to do when it comes to incorporating this element effectively and efficiently. I hope that they no longer pit the audience against the performers. I relate to, admire, and value the performing artists that I go to see. Why would I want to berate, bewilder, or threaten those same artists? Encouraging that sort of relationship between artist and audience flies in the face of common sense and business sense. Plus, for me at least, it just isn’t fun to do.
I look forward to seeing what the members of General Mischief Dance Theater come up with as they continue to gain experience as a performing arts ensemble.