Performing Arts: Dance
May 29, 2016
Margaret Beals’ following consists largely of friends. Stepping into the Cloud House Studio, I never heard of her; stepping out, I was offended I hadn’t studied her in dance history, though newly befriended. Margaret Beals: Films and Stories highlights pieces prefaced by gymnastic recollections. Known for sidesplitting improvisations, Friday’s screening was both set and no laughing matter – dances to Sylvia Plath’s final poems.

Beals’ opening remarks, spiced with preemptive comic relief, spoke casually of a way of working that is today endangered. On a convenient detour to Plath’s estate while visiting England, a dismissive “Let her have ‘em” from Ted Hughes resulted in Beals obtaining the rights to Ariel for five years, used fully to create the piece with Lee Nagrin and Brooke Myers.

Appropriately titled Stings, the 1978 film features Beals, 30, temporally between Nagrin, 40, and Myers, 20, performing in an audience-less studio shot by Ping Chong on 16mm. Despite archival purposes, Chong choreographs his single camera’s continuity, centering on a body part and zooming out, eschewing shot establishment.

The cleanly organized suite assigns one poem per section. Choreography is neither melodramatic nor cold, distilled with motifs of tip-toe walking, sweeping bourées under limp torsos, slow-motion whiplashes, spiraled sit-ups, and determined limb extensions within elegant épaulement, distorted by sharp directional changes. Angst festers under the surface as poise is portrayed atop rickety foundations.

Three generations of bodies generate a sculptural approach to partnering in which weight is rarely shared, but layered. In silence, Beals and Myers share unison so close in proximity they are equal parts body and shadow. Motifs, however, hardly vary. The work is a sternly naïve fugue, on a circular assembly line that juggles prime forms. In Ariel, Nagrin speaks sitting upstage center in a straddle, tessellated in Daddy, where she and Beals do the same, silently behind one another while Myers takes the text, unwaveringly intelligible thanks to physical restraint.

The trio wields poison dart voices, harkening to, but not impersonating, Plath’s iconic delivery. Through rigorous movements and backwards facings, vocal clarity is such that one might suspect lip-syncing if that weren’t actually more difficult. Beals finds voice and movement equally kinetic. The face is kept neutral such that the voice can do what it needs; the words’ sounds resonate in space just as concentrated movement allows meaningful resonance to words themselves.

Much of Ariel is externalized self-loathing – attacking others in a reversely vicarious fashion. Plath does not seem to loathe her “self” however, but the situations to which her physical manifestation subjugates her. There is a performative conundrum when dancers with livelihoods depending on bodily construction and preservation are tasked with expressing the destruction of another. The trio, however, is not meant to be Plath. All three drop into her mental arena, seeking understanding without succumbing to the same compulsions that led the poet to put her head in an oven. Beals’ dance, told through bodies, is not about the body at all, but, rather, where else the spirit could reside.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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