Those Hot, Hungry, Haunted Women of MELT
When I dance, I must be above all, hungry.” So said Mary Wigman in the 1920s. It could also be said of Noémie Lafrance’s dancers in MELT. Hungry, tired, and thirsty. They created a mood I will never forget.
Eight exhausted women are suspended on a wall between the FDR Drive and the Salt Pile, which is the humongous white boulder that supplies the city with ice-busting salt. We are underneath the Manhattan Bridge, and when a subway train thunders overhead, we can look up and see it speeding by in the dark. The eight dancers have the kind of stark facial expression of Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression-era photograph, “Migrant Mother.” The women are in the strangest of circumstances, and yet, like all of us, they get used to it. Pinned to the wall, strapped to a seat, lathered with beeswax that shi nes in the lights, they lean forward, dangling their legs gently. Will this ever end?, they seem to be thinking. All movement is fairly slow, punctuated by sudden tips and collapses. They stretch out an arm, draw their legs up in a squat, or nod out, overcome by fatigue. Each woman is at the end of her rope, maybe like someone tied to the railroad tracks. The roar of the subway trains overhead is joined by recorded roars and scrapes (sound by Erin McGonigle). We are immersed in an environment that captures our attention completely.
As with Descent (2003), Lafrance’s Bessie Award–winning piece in the Clocktower that heralded her as a brilliant choreographer, the cast is all women. They are feminine and sensual, but prettiness does not enter into it. There’s beauty in their natural movement, evoking a host of images. When they twist to touch the wall, their fingers examined the texture of the wall. Maybe those fingers have found something.
Though these sounds and sights are so New York, this “dance installation” has also been done in Montreal, Copenhagen, and São Paulo. Lafrance says in her program notes that all she needs for MELT is a wall. But her imagination creates a sense of place that is overpowering. For half an hour, you feel as glued to that NYC spot as the women are to the wall.
Seldom have I felt so riveted by a site-specific piece. In fact, I can count only five in the past. Meredith Monk’s Vessel in three places in SoHo. Joanna Haigood’s Invisible Wings at Jacob’s Pillow. Sham Mosher’s crazed blue man under a tree at Wave Hill. Tamar Rogoff’s Demeter’s Daughter sprawling throughout the Lower East Side. And of course, Noémie Lafrance’s own poetic Descent down the spiral staircase at the Clocktower.
The minimal movement of MELT allows us to be immersed in the place and mood. And to observe the details. One woman would reach out to the side, while another cringed. All at once most of them would tip recklessly way over to the side, while one or two others would turn their head away. Or, all at once, the lights would blast bright (lighting by Thomas Dunn) and the dancers would undulate their arms like baby birds trying to take off.
When the lights dimmed enough for us to know it was over, we applauded. And then, instead of climbing down from their perches, the dancers leaned forward and dangled their legs just as they did in the beginning. This might be a cycle that goes on and on…like some kind of unbroken spell.
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Photo by Shaul Schwarz, courtesy Sensproduction