Karen Stokes Dance Vine Leaf Dances

Frieze Play. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Frieze Play. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Karen Stokes Dance

Vine Leaf Dances. November 15-17, 2012
Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex 


by D.L. Groover

I suggest the team from Hazmat examine the water supply around here. Something mysterious is happening. For the second time in less than a week, there was a full house for modern dance. Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex was packed to the rafters for the Thursday, November 15, opening of the latest production from Karen Stokes Dance, Vine Leaf Dances. Friday was sold out, Saturday was standing room only. If this is a trend — or a nefarious plot — hoorah! Now to be fair, this audience was older than Revolve’s raucous, student one, and more reserved. Much more reserved. I don’t think this was due to its age.

Vine Leaf is a full-evening work comprised of four pieces, or “vignettes,” as Stokes calls them. “Stories that are so small they can be written on a vine leaf.” Two company premieres, Just Us andMidnight, were sandwiched between Prelude to Three Temperaments (2006) for Act I; while another premiere Balia, was grafted onto Stokes’ signature work Distrestion (2008) to comprise Act II.

As cohesive drama, these stories are fairly wispy and require an act of faith to see them as anything other than individual dances. If there is some grand scheme, it got buried along the way. Separately, each piece has its charms and quirky personality — Stokes is a master of visual mise en scene — but woven together as whole cloth, the evening ended up a patchwork.

The tying bond turned out to be Stokes’ vocabulary for the program: a who’s who of gestures, poses, bouncing arms held straight out, slo-mo running or walking in place, wiping of noses, coughing, small tics, and the like. When these ordinary movements reappeared later throughout the subsequent works, without much variation, the repetition became tiresome, not an adjective I ever thought I’d use to describe Stokes’ work. In the first piece, Just Us, set to Stephen Montague’s edgy “Eine Kleine Klangfarben Gigue,” the eight dancers in hip street clothes pair off without regard to gender as they wiggle a leg in the air or roll on the floor. They see something off in the distance, follow it with their eyes, then return to romp some more. The piece doesn’t end, so much as peter out, trailing joy behind it.

Prelude to Three Temperaments, set to the sprightly Scottish-folk-inspired Stephen Montague string quartet “Tam Linn” — Stokes always picks intriguing music — starts off as three dancers (Teresa Chapman, Lauren Cohen, Erica Okoronkwo) enter their own pools of light. Throughout the evening, Christian Giannelli’s crisply dramatic lighting wrapped the bodies and made them shine. The three women, all dressed in variations of black, white, and gray, are, I suppose, variations of each other. One entered in prayerful repose, one sneaked in tentatively, one came into the light as through a waterfall. To the twangy Montague, they wiggled their butts and told us to be quiet by putting their fingers up to their mouths. There’s a neat allegro vibe going on, but the meaning eluded us.

Midnight wasn’t any clearer. Using selections from the chamber group Rachel’s Music and cello music from Zoe Keating, in stark side light, five dancers enter from the wings and immediately fall down; they wiggle their feet. Meanwhile a sixth (Toni Valle) seems intent on washing her hair. They’re dressed in forms of loose sleepwear, are they dreaming? Sleep walking? Some jump in place and windmill their arms. They look at their wrists as if checking the time. They roll on their backs and kick their legs. They twirl with their arms overhead, or down by their sides. They do head stands. Suddenly a woman jumps into a man’s arms and holds the pose, stuck in time. Suddenly, they’re all defiant with arms crossed, as they approach the stage apron and stare at us. The light goes blue and they all fall down again, only to crawl across the floor. These guys and gals are having a very bad night.

Distrestion (2008) has a look and definite attitude. It’s Revenge of the Zombies, or maybe Moll Flanders Meets the Plague. In eye-catching bodices, peasant shirts and torn pants, with faces plastered with ash, seven living dead creatures ricochet through the Gothic Archies’ “How Do You Slow This Thing Down?” and “Scream and Run Away.” Toni Valle, who leads this dance of death with a macabre chill, lip syncs in snarly goth mode. “Worry, greed, and evil,” wail the Archies. The community goes mad in jerky marionette movement. They slash at their throats, run in place to go nowhere, rend their hair. A picture of mankind at its nadir, the dance is creepy and effective. A side show staged by Tim Burton.


But then the blood-red sky clears, the mood brightens. Far-off cries of gulls and surgingsea waves fill the stage. A travelogue of picturesque cliffs is projected on the downstage scrim. A gull swoops by, and we enter Balia. The dancers, cleansed, maybe even purified, glide on in gauzy sheaths, like angels…or gulls…or sea breezes. Using string quartets from Dvorak, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and the famous Samuel Barber “Adagio,” the score is ethereal and pure. But the airy spirits start doing the same old quirky gestures we’ve seen all too many times tonight — head stands, bobbing arms, slo-mo kicks in the air, running in place. The piece is fluid and sculptural, but each of these ephemeral beings is in his own private space. There’s a pas de trois, but fleeting and without connection. Wearing transparent shrouds doesn’t bring the emotion closer, nor make any more sense of the community than Distrestion‘s raccoon-like eye shadow.

The dancers, though, are an accomplished lot, sailing through the evening like animated hieroglyphs. They have real company spirit: Kara Ary (earthy), Yahudi Castañeda (lithe), Jessica Capistran (joyous), Jessica Cortez (sharp and precise), Damien Robichaux (centered and solid), Reuben Trevino (supple), Toni Valle (master of this movement as if it were breathe itself). All of them danced with dramatic conviction and polish.

About the Author

D.L. Groover, a Two-time Lone Star Press Award winner for Arts Criticism, writes about the stage for the Houston Press, OutSmart Magazine, and Playbill. He is co-author of Skeletons From the Opera Closet, an irreverent look at that loudmouth art form.

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