High Powered Play: NobleMotion Dance Enters Their 15th Season with PowerPlay

Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in the audience of the Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, scribbling notes in the dark as I watched Program B of that year’s Big Range Dance Festival. My review of that evening was one of my earliest dance writings for Dance Source Houston.

All these years later, I found myself again sitting in the dark, scribbling notes (I’ve gotten used to this, actually), this time at MATCH’s Matchbox 2, again charged with writing a review for DSH. The connection between these two events is NobleMotion Dance, one of the companies on that Program B, which was their debut in Houston. This time, the program is called PowerPlay and marks the start of the company’s fifteenth season.

To have a history with a company like this—and I’ve written about NobleMotion a few times since that Big Range review—is a privilege for a writer, but I’ll try not to make this too much “insider baseball” (pun intended).

PowerPlay opened with “Section 6,” which felt like the most “NobleMotiony” piece of the evening. Choreographers Andy and Dionne Noble have stated from the start that they were interested in technology and that showed from some of their earliest collaborations with light artists Jeremy Choate and David J. Deveau. Here, the collaborator is Jeremy Stewart who uses artificial intelligence in his design process.

For “Section 6,” ten audience members were selected (or maybe in my case, pre-selected) to shed shoes and come onstage, guided by the dancers. As implied, I was selected and directed to stand in a green rectangle of light projected on the floor. Per the title, there were six sections to the piece and so we were moved about the stage six times, each time to a newly appearing green shape on the floor. The plot of the piece was that each section was an “upgrade” toward a “lifetime of eternal bliss.”

The slightly new agey, spiritual-improvement-through-technology angle (which I took to be mostly tongue-in-cheek) was beside the point for me. Being up close to the dancers like that gave me new perspective on the dynamic athleticism that I noted from the start with the Nobles’ choreography. As the designs on the floor shifted back and forth between fluid, almost oily pools of color to pulsating pixels, shrinking and expanding, our guides leapt and kicked, fell and rose around us in virtuosic displays of muscular movement. Occasionally, as if to tell us they were artificially intelligent creatures, the dancers would pause, standing upright and drop their heads, similar to what you may have seen in sci-fi movies about androids who “go to sleep.”

I must mention the costuming by Barry Doss and Sophie Tiede. I want to describe them as Merce Cunningham unitards meets Jack Kirby super-hero costumes. Each had a silver, glittery collar, with highlights of the same material all over the costume, but that’s where uniformity ended. Every costume’s pattern was unique. The main colors were orange and a light blue with other colors in mostly straight-lined geometric shapes. Like a Cunningham leotard, they both accentuate and slightly abstract the human bodies in front of us, the patterns not always corresponding to the body’s natural lines.

The final section—indeed, section six—had the audience participants lying on our backs in a large green rectangle. Our guide knelt beside us, first gesturing over us, then placing one hand firmly on one of our shoulders. In this position, I could see nothing but the dancer kneeling to my right and the lights above me, but it was a nice, calming way to end the piece—even if I doubt my upgrade to eternal bliss.

The second piece, “Half-Told Stories,” was the quietest piece of the evening. The pre-show press materials told us that it was based on the four women in the cast and their stories of influential women in their lives. These stories influenced the music and projections by Badie Khaleghian. I don’t believe this information was crucial for being drawn into the piece. The projections were largely swirling smoke patterns that shifted in color throughout—purple, magenta, yellow, grey—which played on the dancers’ loose, white shirts and pants. One extended section had a deep red and black circle projected on the floor with a white central “target,” in which a soloist danced. Another time, the projections created a diagonal strip on the floor to define the performance space. All of it, the colors and shapes, helped define the shifting moods throughout.

Two images repeated in the choreography. One was the four dancers holding hands and walking the space, bringing to mind children playing a game or else holding onto each other for safety. The other image found the four dancers sitting on the floor, backs to each other in what I called a “four leaf clover” in my notes. Both images supported the tender, liquid movement for most of the piece. When there was more agitated choreography, usually in short bursts, it stood out, letting us know there was more to these lives than delicate emotions.

Speaking of delicate emotions, a favorite section found the four dancers crossing the stage in a spinning canon, falling behind and catching up to one another.

At one point I wrote in my notes it all felt like a shared memory or dream.

These feelings took a darker turn toward the end. The projections took on a more architectural arrangement on the back wall, with the images now being disjointed but more representational images rather than the abstract swirling smoke. Perhaps my farm boy history influenced me when I felt we were in a barn at night. The projection shifted to a window pane with rain hitting it, but the image had been tinted red which gave me an uneasy association with blood. The movement briefly becomes more staccato but then melts back into tenderness again. The soundtrack, which had been abstract, occasionally industrial, became more musical with what I guess is a woodwind (clarinet?) and chimes. The final image is the women again sitting on the floor, in the clover shape, as the light fades.

The third piece of the evening, “Sidelined,” was the longest piece of the evening and used baseball as its central metaphor.

We all come to the theater with our baggage in tow, and while I tried to leave mine in the breezeway at the MATCH, I admit my general antipathy toward sports left me less engaged than others might have been. So, with that in mind, here are a few thoughts on this piece.

First, this was the least technically spectacular piece of the evening. I mean that in the tech aspect—the lighting was pretty straightforward with few pyrotechnics (not a criticism)—and in the dancing. The movement felt less tightly choreographed than most NobleMotion fare, using less virtuosic movement, with looser, more gestural movement (also not a criticism). The set consisted of three benches, which looked to me to be taken from some locker room. Those benches were moved around and occasionally used inventively, as when two were stacked to create a tavern setting, the third bench used as the seats at the bar. The scene devolves into a lighthearted barroom brawl. Another scene has the three benches arranged as if boundaries for a lone figure in an umpire’s mask. This solo found the dancer dancing on and under the benches but with a constraint that made the solo feel sad, lonely.

Which is probably apt. The umpire’s mask was a symbol for leadership. As such, it was sometimes fought for, other times taken from another in a gesture of sympathy, an attempt to relieve the pressures of leadership.

The most engaging section, for me, was a duet, a man and a woman, using the occasional recognizably sports-influenced movements, but for the most part, again for me, just a lovely duet. The Nobles consistently choreograph some nice partnering (as also seen recently at the Barnstorm Dance Fest).

If I say “Sidelined” was the least engaging piece (FOR ME) of the evening, I also want to recognize it had the most lighthearted moments of the evening. The soundtrack helped cue some of that, with comedian John Clarke’s “Flea Race” as an example.

In my first comments on NobleMotion fifteen years ago, I said “NobleMotion Dance is a name to watch.” The intervening years, as well as PowerPlay, vindicates that early appraisal. Besides consistently producing engaging and visually spectacular work on Houston stages, they’ve taken their work to other cities and even to the national TV screen with a piece made for the second season of ABC’s American Crime. I continue to tell people to watch (for) the name, particularly if they’re not regular dance enthusiasts. I’ll say it again for PowerPlay—even if you’re not a sports fan.

PowerPlay has three more performances, July 28, 29, and 30, at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston. Get tickets here – https://matchouston.org/events/2023/powerplay

About the Author

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer, living in Houston. Visit him online at neilellisorts.com.

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