Mt. Tremper Arts Festival
Mt. Tremper, NY
July 24, 2010
Reviewed by Christopher Atamian
Will Rawls. Photo by John Paul Hennessy, Courtesy Mt. Tremper Arts Festival.
“An exaltation of larks. A gaggle of geese. A pod of whales. A bed of oysters. A charm of finches. A knot of snakes…”
On a warm and rainy July evening, dancer/choreographer Will Rawls and his two accompanists from The Plumes (Chris Kuklis on guitar, fx, and electronics; Mallory Glaser on vocals) stood in front of a bemused audience of about 50 and recited the names of animal groupings into their respective microphones: “A warren of rabbits…a herd of deer…a smack of jellyfish…” And so on for a good 10 minutes before Rawls launched into an athletic solo.
In this new work, Census, Rawls claimed to be exploring “how a unique and contemporary culture appears, evolves, unfolds and expires onstage.” His answer to this conundrum, it turns out, lay in a form of performative mysticism reminiscent of whirling dervishes—though Rawls didn’t so much whirl as writhe and contort his body, as he hurled himself across the floor. At times he squatted or kneeled in front of the audience—his expression focused, sweat pouring down his sides. Kuklis’ minimalist accompaniment complemented Rawls’ anguished presentation to a tee, while Glaser emitted deep, plaintive moans that recalled Bulgarian throat singing, Portuguese fado, and Arabic wailing songs.
Like Rawls, the Mt. Tremper Arts Festival (now in its third year) is somewhat new to the scene. Founders Matthew Pokoik and Aynsley Vandenbroucke have a winning formula on their hands. Instead of packing multiple performances into a few days, they host one event each Saturday and supplement it with a Friday night barbecue or after-dance discussion on their beautiful mountain lawn. The performances take place in a wooden barn that has been renovated and modernized in a spare, Scandinavian style. A welcome addition to Jacob’s Pillow and other established summer fests, Mt. Tremper is one part Catskill hippie, one part Williamsburg—and it works.
But back to Census. Elsewhere in his artist’s statement, Rawls avers that the piece is meant to “create new forms of folkloric expression based on nature, identity, playfulness and misinterpretation.” But the performance itself didn’t reflect this. As I interpreted it, Rawls was really exploring the dichotomy between community and individual life and—perhaps—the alienation that ensues from the latter.
As it stands, the first and second parts of the piece seemed almost wholly unrelated; Rawls needs to clarify and tighten his ideas. But he is young, ambitious, and talented, so one feels that his artistic voice will eventually mature. An hour into the piece, he still swerved, pushed, and ferociously grunted his way across the dance floor. Then as the light dimmed, through the sweat and pain etched on his visage, slowly but surely, a smile appeared.