Marion Scott and Dancers
Highways Performance Space,
Santa Monica, California
October 12, 2001
Reviewed by Zan Dubin Scott
A full moon, softly chirping crickets, a distant, baying hound: Spirit Dances 5: Masks as Intermediaries set the mood immediately with sound and stagecraft. Former UCLA Dance Company choreographer Marion Scott directed the piece, in which eight dancers donned masks, in order to evoke spirits (according to the program notes, masks have been used this way ?since antiquity.’) The audience was asked to hold its applause until the very end, lest we disturb these elusive, invisible forces.
The dancers entered slowly, each carefully carrying a mask, clearly convinced of its mystical powers. Weaving their way about sensually, some almost appeared to be making love to these special objects as more strange animal sounds floated aloft. Finally, they laid the masks in the center of the floor and cleared the way for the mystical magic to start.
Unfortunately, no such magic ever took hold in Spirit Dances, despite the atmospheric opening. Except for a few all-too-brief moments, neither spirit nor flesh had the power to transport or possess. Nothing sent chills down the spine or invited the imagination to do a dance of its own. Nor again, with a few fleeting exceptions, were the masks put to maximum use; that is, to create effects that couldn’t have existed without them.
Scott delivered the first of eight improvised solos. Now 79, she unloosed her long gray hair and pulled on her mask, a lined white face with a large hook nose and pointy chin. She did a jerky walk and angrily shook her fists at the sky. Was she cursing the aging process? A leading dancer with the Tamaris-Nagrin Dance Company from 1955 to 1965, Scott was forced to stop dancing at the peak of her career after hip-replacement surgery. Soldiering on, she spent seventeen years as resident choreographer for UCLA’s troupe and studied masked dance and trance in Bali, Java, and Japan. Spirit Dances: 5, part of a series, is contextually similar to the handful of performances she has staged since.
Scott’s solo, however, was the briefest of all and left very little said before it was time for the next dancer, Kiha Lee, to take her turn. She, however, only broke the pleasantly atmospheric spell by using her time for more of a too-literal, loosely biographical sketch than an otherworldly conjuring. While capable of both graceful and masculine posturing, Lee told us of her deceased “auntie,” and the miserable life she led with her lying, cheating, drunk husband. Similarly, Craig Ng, meanwhile, delivered an in-your-face indictment of the “beautiful people” who want to ignore all the “ugliness . . . death and grief” in the world. His mask bore a misshapen mouth and protruding forehead.
Fortunately, more evocative moments followed. Roberta Wolin-Manker (the show’s producer) wore an animal-like mask but maneuvered two black robes far more provocatively. Cloaking herself in the cloth, she transformed herself into an Afghani woman, then writhed within her dark prison a la Lamentation. Coming only a month after the World Trade Center bombings, here was a palpable spirit, albeit oppressed and unsettling to be sure.
Robert Whidbee briefly ignited the stage with a physical prowess and personal charisma that the other performers lacked. His energetic reach, his rolls and leaps were visually and mentally refreshing, as was Mary Lee Sanders’s inventive presentation, in which she “gave birth” by squatting down and pulling a doglike mask out from beneath her bent legs.
Meanwhile, musician I Nyoman Wenten (with Andrew Werderitsch) maintained a highly imaginative score throughout the work, using a mix of voice, didgeridoo, percussion, and other instruments.
Ultimately, however, Spirit Dances: 5 didn’t add up to much. At the end, the dancers formed a conga line of sorts and paraded offstage. They looked like they were having fun. But is that enough?