The meaning of having a voice: Rhode Island Women’s Choreography Project’s 5th Anniversary Concert

Rhode Island Women's Choreography Project. Photo Jacob Louis Hoover.
Rhode Island Women's Choreography Project. Photo Jacob Louis Hoover.

Ballet RI’s Black Box Theater, Providence RI.
August 27, 2023.

Twenty to 22 percent of dance works one normally sees onstage are choreographed by a woman, noted Eugenia Zinovieva, co-director of Rhode Island Women’s Choreography Project (RIWCP), while addressing the audience for this organization’s 5th Anniversary Concert (along with her fellow Co-Director Kristy DuBois). Doing something about that environment is the point of what they do, she explained, “to [help] level the playing field.” 

This program’s works were all from female-identifying artists, and that seemed to be the only real curatorial guideline; the program offered a feast of diverse concepts, choreographic approaches and aesthetics. That was the result of six artists bringing a unique voice to the table – by virtue of being of a woman, a voice with all-too high a chance of going unheard. In this program, however, each of those voices was very much heard. Each choreographer even had a chance to use their literal voice, by introducing their own work to the audience, as is this organization’s norm.  

Jessi Stegall’s Gotholympians kicked off the program. “A satirical dance-theatre piece that explores the quirks and risks of competitive & performative suffering,” it’s a bold and bracing work that takes true risks – both physical and emotional. It illustrated the connective tissue between dance and gymnastics: an intriguing concept I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored. 

Wearing leotards reminscient of gymnasts’ – shiny, long sleeved, and without tights – the dancers executed Stegall’s movement with the tenacity of the most “hard-core”, elite-level aesthetic athletes. They danced with the exactitude of navigating uneven bars and balance beams. I could feel the tunnel-vision dedication and the pressure of striving. 

Those things can come with perfectionism, and I could feel that as well. It’s not without mental and emotional consequences. Later on in the work, the dancers gasped for air – the most basic sustenance. Easeful breathing is contentment. Short, choppy breathing is anxiousness and fear.

The ending drove it all home in an unforgettable way. With two dancers face down, one dancer with a medal around her neck stood tall. The score pronounced “when it comes to messy, no one competes with me.” She then fell, too. If our wellbeing is what it costs, even in “winning” we have lost something – something big. 

Then came Jay Breen’s Whatever That Means, a work cogently exploring individual and shared experiences of love, delivered through thoughtful and poignant movement vocabulary. This work offered slow, internal movement in a very satisfying way. I was reminded just how many more tools there are in choreography beyond the fast and furious, the athletic and spectacular. 

Right before intermission came Theresa Jimmerson’s Fallait Demander (“you should’ve asked”). “Named after Emma’s famous feminist comic,” the program explains, the work is about “the mental load of motherhood…the work of managing a household…crucial, yet invisible.” The first eight counts of the work snapped me right to 150 percent attention, with dancers riding on the shoulders of a partner dropping right to the stage with a loud, collective thud. I thought here about a depth of exhaustion that words can’t fully capture. An early solo in the work, illuminated in spotlight (lighting design by Devin Mooney), captured the agitation and intensity that can accompany such exhaustion.  

From there, the work moved forward with a steady pulse; a mother’s work never ends, as the saying goes. Embodying the demands on mothers – the sorting, planning, anticipating, and remembering that the program named – Jimmerson kept the stage full and fully alive as that steady pulse beat on. It all stayed visually organized and digestible, however. Any mother can describe that feeling of organized chaos, somehow continuing to make it work against all odds.  

A softer duet pointed to the relief and release that social support can bring. The exhaustion (signified in rolling across the stage and deep heaving) wasn’t far behind, however. The ending brought it back to individual experience – once again, a dancer alone in spotlight. They say one has to experience the weight of motherhood – as well as its transcendence – to really understand it.  

Right after that was Haley Andrews’ Are You a Friend of Dorothy?, a piece shedding light on the beauty of queer love. Easeful use of momentum and breath felt as sweet and natural as love at its best can feel. A smooth layer of body percussion on top of the musical score (“Bang Bang” by Nancy Sinatra and “Anthem for No State P1” by Godspeed You!, with other songs used later in the work), felt just as organic.

Coming after that was Juliana Godlewski’s Wings Untangled, a dynamic and thought-provoking solo danced by Katherine Bickford. In her introduction to the work, Godlewski recounted how the work blossomed from old journal entries, and in particular how she was continuing to find her artistic identity. She reminded us that “the end of a chapter is the beginning of another.” This work being a solo struck me as quite apropos; the process of finding one’s artistic voice is a solitary one, and often quite lonely. 

Bickford’s commitment to the work – her every cell absorbed in Godlewski’s movement vocabulary – underscored the pure elbow grease and grit that are intrinsic to that same process. Her breath was deep, rhythmic, and audible. That’s something that I love hearing, as there’s arguably no clearer sign of just how much dancers physically give in performance.

Also evident in the work was both choreographer’s and performer’s keen kinetic command; Bickford moved through both staccato accents and smooth circularity with the continuity of ripples through water. To end the work, she looked off into a brightly lit downstage right. It would all continue, indeed, one chapter leading into another. 

Deanna Gerde’s Hydrae, “centered around the dynamic of power, vulnerability, and independence relative to the female experience,” closed the program. As the lights came up, one dancer rose to her feet, slowly and soulfully (yes, I wouldn’t think that’d be possible from such a simple action, but this artist managed it). As another dancer joined her, they joined foreheads and moved with that as a point of contact. 

Here I pondered, momentarily, on the unparalleled connection that can bloom between one woman and another. The red of their costumes (by Eileen Stoops) shone as brightly as the fire in the hearts of women who find such affinities. Gestures of reaching out, but then drawing back into the self, highlighted the vulnerability and independence which Gerde referenced in her program note.

A soloist with a circle of dancers around her spoke to those times when eyes focus on one individual in a group – either in care or in (as unfortunately happens) targeting. Weight sharing, and a concurrent lifted sense to the body, made tangible a sense of support from another – and how much such support can ultimately mean. 

As the lights fell, dancers outstretched a hand towards the audience and exhaled together in one bated breath. That one moment seemed to contain more layers the more one peeled back: unity, offering, groundedness and standing firm in the self, as just a few.  

All of the works in this program brought a similarly fresh and riveting meaning, realized with orginality and intentionality. That’s what can happen when we can expand the pool of voices from which we hear. Meaning expands. Art exands. We expand. I’m all eyes and ears for how RIWCP will continue to help open those gates and push those boundaries. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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