RoseAnne Spradlin’s “beginning of something” at the Chocolate Factory

Quite honestly, the most mystifying moment of RoseAnne Spradlin‘s beginning of something, which opened at the Chocolate Factory Wednesday night (through May 21; tickets $15) is the very first one. Shortly after 8, the house opened and the audience began filing into the theater, where the seating had been arranged on three sides of a raised platform that filled most of the theater’s space. On the edge of it near the doors, dancer Rebecca Serrell Cyr was seated, naked, playing a bass. I really have no idea what to make of that particular detail, but it certainly set the stage for what was to come.

What followed was an athletic, aggressive, occasionally moving if ultimately not entirely satisfying 50 minutes of dance performance. Thematically, beginning of something shares some common ground, interestingly enough, with Heather Kravas’s The Green Surround last week at PS 122, but in the end it’s decidedly its own beast.

Once the audience was seated, Cyr set the bass aside, paced across the stage, and donned a silvery beaded headdress and epaulets, then began stomping back and forth down the platform like a model on a runway: deadpan expression, strong walk, stop, pose, flip, turn, walk away. One by one, the other three dancers (Natalie Green, Molly Poerstel, and Rebecca Wender) joined her onstage in varying stages of undress. Clothes were taken on and off, different poses tried as each, to her rhythm, does the runway walk back and forth, zigzagging across the platform until (or at least, I only noticed it at this point) the audience realizes that they’re stopping to pose and examine their reflections in mirrors mounted on the walls over the audience’s heads.

Overall, the entire piece is constantly shifting through about three separate modes: the runway walks, which then give way to a series of lifts and extensions borrowed from traditional dance, and then finally to a complete breakdown of posture and pretense that, at a couple different moments, leaves one or more dancers sobbing on the floor. This progression repeats several times throughout.

I wouldn’t want to put forward any concrete interpretation, because I’m not confident enough in any to stand by one, but there’s an undeniable logic to the piece. The runway model walks set up a fake exterior in terms of facial expression and posture; it’s the appearance of a false sort of femininity that requires a lot of effort, which seems to be realized in part through the use of traditional dance moves. The mask of effortlessness the runway walk puts forward starts to seem anything but effortless once the dancers start holding up a forward kick with their hands and turning in place on one foot in quarter-turns. And once the posture and technique disappears in the final sequence, we’re exposed to a tragic sense of personal isolation hidden behind the demands of formalism.

It’s a fascinating and uncomfortable thing to watch, since it forces you as an audience member to be aware of how you’re looking at women’s bodies. At it’s heart, I saw beginning of something as a passionately ironic defense of the dignity of women’s bodies, showing as it does the way in which we’re scripted to look at them as objects, only to be forced to experience the body later on, in the moments of formal breakdown, as a real, actual, emotive thing. But I’m a man, so maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on that.

Whatever the case, for the power certain moments achieve, about two thirds of the way through it started to drag a bit. I wouldn’t accuse of it not developing as it progresses, but the repetition is so heavy and extended that it’s hard for me not to feel like I watched the same thing happen a few too many times. But that’s just my response. This is the first time I’ve seen Spradlin’s work, but based on the few video clips I tracked down online, it seems like she’s moving in new directions and exploring new territory, compared to a work like Survive Cycle (2006), suggesting that this is an artist experimenting with form and process, always risky but important in the long run.

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