Congregation Kehillath Israel (viewed virtually).
November 9, 2023.
In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (certainly a 2023 mega blockbuster), America Ferrera’s character proposes “Regular Barbie”: just an average woman facing both setbacks and triumphs, and simply trying her best each day. It’s one of the moments in the film that, months after seeing it, still sticks with me.
Interesting Women, from Boston-based Lynn Modell, put something of that idea into dance: that women moving as women do, telling their genuine stories, in a community setting – that’s all “interesting” enough. Honesty, humor and tasteful understatement set the scene for the “ordinary” being just as compelling as the flashy, big and expensive ever could be.
It began with a solo performer (Lonnie Stanton), a white lab coat giving her a professional air. She moved on, near and around a plain white table…all quite pleasantly minimalist. World cafe music, with a flamenco twinge, accompanied her (“Impressões” by Divan Gattamora). The movement was largely pedestrian. Composing and performing that sort of movement takes a different kind of virtuosity than that of supremely athletic movement. Even when the movement became more complex and technical, it continued to offer that virtuosity.
Five more women entered soon enough, signing in with Stanton’s character and then taking a seat. Dancing in unison, in chairs, these individuals came off as ordinary humans who move; their everyday quality shined through. I was quite “interested” indeed – one, because their evident humanity allowed me to relate to them and two, out of curiosity. Who were these women, what was this place, and why were they here?
Perhaps that didn’t matter much. The scene felt specific enough for me to ask those questions, but universal enough for there to be many, many possible answers. With video on offer next, laughter replaced my curiosity. Modell interviewed a guest on her “Interesting Women” show, with just enough of the keenly absurd to get the audience chuckling. That’s another quality that would continue throughout the program: a pinch of wackiness to encourage the audience to let loose a little.
The ensemble created that kind of humor in a subsequent dance section: with humor in dance attempted fairly often, achieved less frequently. The five of them (the same who had signed in and then danced in chairs), took delicate balletic steps but also offered a Latin dance bearing and rhythm – all while wearing tutus.
They executed small jumps, but also flicked their feet up and back while turning palms upward. The movement vocabulary felt just as fresh and original as the overall program (read: very much those things). The audience, still chuckling away, seemed to be eating it all up. The program continued in that format: peppering dialogue and monologue in between dances. Such a multimodal quality can add something intriguing for any viewer, and thus has potential to widen concert dance’s appeal and accessibility.
Exhibit A: Modell’s “Bittersweet Jacob’s Pillow Story” numbers 1-4 recounted her ongoing challenges somehow frequently tying back to the storied dance institution. As with when I listen to podcasts with seasoned dance artists, I love hearing their stories — the good, bad and ugly. Modell’s delivery, with just a touch of deadpan, made these stories all the more delightful.
There were more entertaining episodes of “Interesting Women”, to boot. These were women’s honest stories, with a dash of satire to taste. None of it was overtly feminist, either; it seemed as if making space for women’s stories made those statements, and did that work, just fine enough.
As for the dance side of things, the atmosphere shifted from section to section. One had dancers moving under and through midnight-blue lighting (by Anne Dresbach), in a modern dance idiom of long lines and intentional footwork. The movement took its time, allowing itself to relish – refreshing, with much of dance feeling faster and faster these days. The four performers (Andrea Blesso, Ann Fonte, Amy Jill and Nora Stephens) capitalized on those qualities. They brought stellar musicality and pleasing release. Nothing was muscled, only moved through.
Another section – as zany and chuckle-inducing as “Interesting Women” – had Modell cutting another woman’s (Ann Fonte) full-bodied bob. Both performers brought that thoughtfully pedestrian virtuosity — of easeful quality of movement, of presence, of musicality, of captivating characterization. No endless turns or sky-high leaps were needed here to pull me right in.
After describing how her work almost took the Jacob’s Pillow stage (a dream dashed due to the COVID pandemic), Modell shared a powerful sentiment: “When you can’t reach your dreams, you make new ones,” like performing at Congregation Kehillath Israel that night. Then, the ensemble presented the work that they would have performed at Jacob’s Pillow, complete with big white hoop skirts, Founding Father curly white wigs, a Baroque score (from George Frideric Handel), chicken head bobs and hip shakes. I wholeheartedly appreciated the lack of fear to just be plain silly!
Like much of what I had seen so far from this program, it was both absurdly funny and beautiful in its own way. It also hit me at that point; this was an intergenerational cast of varied body types, with the movement accessible to all – that virtuosity of performance reigning over one of athleticism. These were average and interesting women, indeed!
Another thoroughly enjoyable dance theater section followed. One dancer took off her hoop skirt, and they all gasped…and then all followed suit. They repeated the same process with their wigs. As if flapper phoenixes rising from the ashes of Victorian mores, they then all danced jazzy vocabulary – their presence bold and self-assured. Even while maintaining their effective understatement, the dancers built a fiery atmosphere (and the red lighting helped there).
There we had it, that was the 40-minute program — short and sweet, with each section also feeling like a perfectly-sized little package. Modell didn’t seem interested in more for more’s sake (brava to that!). Just like each artist onstage, and all that they generously shared, what was was enough – more than enough.
Yes, we can find the interesting in the ordinary — all around us, and in ourselves. Thank you for the reminder, Lynn Modell and collaborators! True to funny form, she gave full permission (sort of) for audience members to exit before the post-show “Q and A”. “Go, go enjoy that Netflix thing you were watching; it won’t be there when you get home.” The audience, laughing yet again, fully got the joke.
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.