PearsonWidrig and Sharon Mansur

February 17, 2011

PearsonWidrig DanceTheater and Sharon Mansur // Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center // University of Maryland College Park // February 17–18, 2011  // Reviewed by Emily Macel Theys


Tzveta Kassabova in PearsonWidrig’s
Drama. Photo by Zachary Z. Handler. Courtesy UMD.


Tzveta Kassabova moves as if her limbs are only loosely joined to her body. It’s as though every impetus to fling an arm, hurl her chest forward, or kick out a leg then reverse her torso, sending that leg into a high arabesque, is simply part of the way she moves. Her quirky, somewhat dark Tim Burton-esque movement quality is all her own. It’s no surprise that Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig used her improvisations as inspiration for Drama, which premiered last month.

The piece lived up to its title with the help of numerous scenic, lighting, and sound elements. But it was the choreography that felt most dramatic, with its over-the-top exaggerations, its cartoon-like and contortionist moments. While Kassabova was not the only performer, the others did not—could not—embody her style. Betty Skeen and Erin Lehua Brown (who, along with Kassabova, made up the core group of dancers) came close, bringing their own suppleness or sensitivity to the movement. But it was hard to shift your attention away from Kassabova each time she lurched into the space or dropped to the ground like a bag of rocks.

And there were rocks too, literally. A thick border of gravel lined the stage; the dancers carefully stepped over it when entering or exiting. (The set design was conceived by Pearson and Widrig with Ryan Knapp and Erin Glasspatrick.) At one point, a box that had hung from the rafters, slightly off-center–stage, gave way from the bottom and spewed out a heap of pebbles. Just when you were hoping the dancers would protect their feet, Kassabova throttled herself into the pile, curled into fetal position, and became one with the rocks, then continued to dance through them. You could hear her bones grinding against the gravel and the floor, a gruesome and painful experience, and yet she pulled off looking natural, even elegant.

One particularly stunning motif—dancers sitting, facing upstage, moving in and out of varied odalisque poses with an arm placed at the small of the back—recurred with larger and smaller groups. The performers created sensual, womanly shapes but with disconnected, somewhat deadpan facial expressions. Most of the time they looked at the floor or offstage, so that Kassabova’s one glance toward the audience sent an audible gasp through the house.

Adding another level of drama, the soundscore (by Lauren Burke) included live opertatic-style singing from Madeline Miskie, who moved around the theater—backstage, at the rear of the house, in the adjacent hallway, and eventually onstage—interrupting or infusing the performance with her voice.

The evening was shared with Sharon Mansur, whose cimmerian light meditated quietly on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi—finding beauty in the imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent. The set, by Felicia Glidden, was exquisite, with its hanging sculptures of wires and paper, lit by the soft glow of lanterns. While the movement was peaceful and pleasing to watch, it hit the same note the whole way through, rarely changing pacing, tone, or depth.


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