Are we a Fossil, and Of Facings @ Gibney Dance

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My interest in choreographer Molly Poerstel began in the fall of 2014 when I saw Stolen Grounds, presented as part of Gibney Dance’s DoublePlus series. The piece, a relentless duet, showcased an emerging choreographer’s penchant for explosiveness alongside a disciplined interest in musicality and composition. As I entered the same theater last Friday evening, I was looking forward to seeing how Poerstel’s work had evolved in the past year and a half. Over the course of the next hour, Poerstel’s latest offering, Are we a Fossil, and Of Facings, provided a pleasingly original take on the idea of evolution and decomposition as crucial tools of the contemporary dance maker.

The work, a trio bookended by a solo and an understated group dance, began with the choreographer herself. The lights dimmed, and Poerstel emerged from behind a black curtain. Clad in a spangled body stocking pulled down to reveal her breasts, she set to work, furiously drawing what looked like a choreographic map of the space on a rough wooden panel. Upon finishing, she used a hammer and nails to fashion the map into a rudimentary three-dimensional platform that she then carried offstage. I got the sense that this act of creation was a kinetic set design, drawing our attention to action rather than artifact as a framing device for the dance.

Slowly, Jennifer Kjos and Eleanor Smith, who had been still throughout Poerstel’s introduction, began to move in place. A prone Kjos appeared to channel energy first through her fingers before propelling herself across the floor by pushing with her legs. Meanwhile, Smith stood and raised her arms to shoulder height, then began rocking her hips back and forth in a figure eight pattern. She made a quarter turn and performed the same movement, then repeated this twice more, greeting the audience on all four sides with a cool stare. When Alice MacDonald entered and took up a deep fourth position plié, arms extending behind her with fingers flexed, she seemed to be granting the piece permission to begin.

Eventually, as the dancers assumed various positions around the room, a rough score began to emerge. Performing a series of syncopated turns and lunges, the three women moved across the space in gradually shifting patterns, drawing and redrawing their paths. When one suddenly took a new tack, later to be joined by the other two, I was reminded of Poerstel’s frantic yet precise drawing at the start of the piece. At one point, Smith supported herself on the mirror while she shifted weight from leg to leg, torso flipping its orientation as her handprints accumulated on the reflective glass— a fleeting trace of her efforts, undoubtedly wiped clean each evening after the performance.

The room’s haphazard arrangement of chairs, a nod to the piece’s titular “facings,” rendered portions of the audience visible (and audible—a man out of my sightline but seated nearby spent several minutes doggedly unwrapping a series of hard candies) from any angle. In choosing to orient—or disorient—the theater in this way, Poerstel invited her audience to join the performance, and at times I felt that I was there to provide encouragement to the toiling dancers. Faces, some familiar, some unknown, comprised the background of this dance, craning their necks to take in the action unfolding on all sides.

The work was at once tightly controlled and chaotic, the polish of the choreographer’s hand existing alongside and in equal measure to the rawness of the dancers’ performance. Just when the three women appeared to have broken the constraints of the score and were moving aimlessly throughout the space, they would suddenly coalesce into a clear unison that revealed a subtle mastery of a complex and diffuse rhythm. Poerstel seemed less concerned with uniformity than with attack, yet the movement rarely diverged from the lunge-turn motif and a few minor variations on this theme. While many choreographers are experimenting with exhaustive repetition of late, Poerstel’s approach in Are we a Fossil was less orthodox, with casual flourishes of the arms and torso frequently disrupting the rigor of the score. Fitful music by Dana Wachs, minimal and percussive at times and bright and bold at others, contributed to the piece’s distinctive texture. And the distressed-chic costumes designed by Jane MacDonald flew out behind the dancers in tattered streamers, suggesting an impending decay.

Twice over the course of the hour, a fourth dancer, Tara Sheena, leapt from backstage to perform a manège of stag leaps, first wearing only gray leggings, later fully naked. I struggled to make sense of Sheena’s presence in the piece; her role struck me as almost sacrificial, having given up the comforting shield of a costume in service of a vision that barely included her. But when Poerstel came onstage toward the end of the piece to take Sheena’s hand and process around the perimeter of the stage, she appeared to acknowledge the extent of her demands.

The group soon dissipated, and Sheena, Kjos, and Smith donned rehearsal clothes and lounged about the space. After Poerstel carefully pulled a painted tulle cape over MacDonald’s now bare torso, MacDonald staggered about in a reprise of her opening adagio. This final enigmatic episode reminded me again of Poerstel’s prologue, odd and unresolved yet purposeful. I also thought of the title of the piece, which is phrased as a question but lacks the proper punctuation. Ultimately, the piece was an inquiry, but one that stood alone and required no answer.

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