Heather Kravas’s “The Green Surround” at PS122

Heather Kravas's "The Green Surround." Photo by Ryan Jensen.

Entering the downstairs theater at PS122 for Heather Kravas’s The Green Surround (through May 7; tickets $20), the nine dancers who perform the piece are already arranged against the stage-right wall. Costumed as classic starlets manqué–sunglasses, scarves, and seemingly nondescript white dresses that nevertheless command attention–the crew maintains a chilly composure, all pouty red lips and unseen stares, at once reserved and outré, a wall of impenetrable glamour that asks to be looked at even as it begs for privacy. But once the show starts, the company doffs the head gear, clumps center-stage, and begins to repeat ad infinitum, “boot lick” and “lick boot.” The carefully constructed appearance of the feminine mystique is thus quickly revealed as the act of supplication it really is, a coy play for attention constructed from so many movies, the blatant intent of the costume ensemble made explicit and thus deflated.

What unfolds from there is an implacably paced and painstakingly deliberate exploration of how women are encouraged to pursue the expectation of physical and aesthetic perfection. Heavily referencing classical dance as a stepping off point for what it reveals about idealization of the feminine, Kravas runs her company through the gauntlet, forcing the dancers through a series of ever more ridiculous–and even dehumanizing–processes of synchronization in pursuit of an ideal, while letting bits of personality and individuality bleed through the cracks.

Kravas understands the simple logic that making her audience look at something for an extended period of time allows meaning to unfold and blossom, as the audience finds itself reconsidering what it sees. (In fact, the only sense I can make out of the name of the piece is  a reference to “color contrast effects,” a perception issue that arises in human psychology an example of which is that if you place a neutral gray shape in the middle of green field [the “green surround”] the dot will appear reddish–in other words that context can reveal meaning, a rather nice evocation of the show’s modus operadi. Either that or Kravas is talking about a golf course.) This isn’t a fast-paced show, nor a conventionally entertaining one (which isn’t to say it doesn’t have plenty of humor). Heavy on tableaux and repetition, Kravas is constantly asking her dancers to engage the audience through strong presence to force them to consider the demands placed on women in how to behave and present themselves as represented in the images presented.

In one long sequence, the company lines up along the back wall like a corps de ballet, but proceeds to warm up by running through a series of suggestive hip roles before assuming the fourth position pose; it’s a clever little montage that directly links a certain type of erotic movement to ballet. Both, after all, are performative acts based on an idealized female form: the one an outgrowth of European courtly manners, the other based on porn, kink, popular dance, and the like. It viciously prods us to wonder why we could actually see balletic movement as somehow more wholesome than stripper moves.

In fact, evoking the eroticization of women’s bodies through contrasting images is a motif that runs throughout the piece. Towards the end, black tulle skirts become mourning veils even as the dancers strip. At another point, a naked dancer on all fours, having presented her backside in a movement not unlike a cat in heat, makes an animal sound. It’s not sexy; it elicited a healthy laugh from the audience, acknowledging the ridiculous and demeaning nature of a pose I’ve actually seen used elsewhere and been troubled by.

It would be wrong, though, to see The Green Surround exclusively in erotic terms. Beyond just the idea of women as object of the erotic gaze, it explores issues of decorum, the public versus private self, and also group behavior. Throughout, Kravas reveals a herd mentality at play, where social convention and peer pressure enforces the set of standards she’s toying with and taking down. Again, classical dance serves to reveal part of the process. In one long sequence, the dancers are forced to parade to an evenly counted time, eight of them marching out of the theater and returning as their count neared 400. The ninth dancer who remained, in the most radical, individualistic break from the monotony of undifferentiated social ego mass, performs a solo by stomping around the stage in heavy boots. The complete lack of rhythm, the intensity of the pounding on the floor, stands is stark contrast to the graceful but bland sameness achieved through perfectly following the rhythm.

Certain elements struck me as a bit predictable. Donning heels is a well-worn metaphor in explorations of feminine identity and subjugation to a sexist ideal, as is the use of combat boots for contrast. (For a long time, the combat boot thing was a calling card of Pacific NW dance, where Kravas got her start in Seattle; I couldn’t help but read it as a nod.) But overall, I was impressed by Kravas’s careful construction and thoughtful analysis. This is a smart piece of dance that carefully balances engaging its audience with placing heavy demands on them, and reveals its riches slowly.

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