Dance or Spoken Theatre? Both.

United StatesUnited States  Mam-Luft&Co. Dance: Jefferson James, Jeanne Mam-Luft, Susan Honer and Ashley Powers (choreography); Denny Reed (lighting design); Jeanne Mam-Luft (video and sound design); Jefferson James, Chelsea Davis, Jeanne Mam-Luft, Grett Marchek (costumes); Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. 23.2.13. (RDA)

Jefferson James: Epitaphs
Jeanne Mam-Luft: Speak

Dancers: Colleen Byrne, Stephanie Ann Danyl, Clint Fisher, Becca Fleisher, Susan Honer, Mindy Nagel, Ashley Powell, Elena Rodriguez, Emily Scott, Amanda Sortman and Nicole Suzel.

Women dressed in wide, ankle-length skirts in the colors of the Plains—autumnal hues of ochre, eggplant, rust and earthy browns—enter the stage from various points. Their demeanor is modest—stoic in some, demure in others—protected by shawls. They circle, sweeping upwards and pleading with their arms, reaching towards a seemingly infinite sky bathed in the colors of sunset, beautifully side-lit by Denny Reed. Here and there we begin to catch glimpses of their somber expressions. They are Lois Spears, Constance Hately and her nieces, Irene and Mary. Then come Aner Clute, Minerva Jones and Lydia Humphrey—lost souls, united in death, assembling at sundown—Fairies of the Prairies in search of redress and release, now endowed with the nobility that was denied them in life. The evening has opened with Epitaphs, a gorgeous restaging of the forty-year-old modern dance classic by Jefferson James, Founding Artistic Director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Dance Theater.

When David Lyman and Susan Wagner speak the text from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, alternating with various snippets of chamber music by Benjamin Britten, the stories begin to emerge. Lois Spears (Emily Scott), blind since birth but always happy, utters praises of Glory to God in the Highest. Childless and bitter Constance Healy (Amanda Sortman) raised two ungrateful nieces, Irene (Colleen Byrne) and Mary (Stephanie Ann Danyl). Aner Clute (Elena Rodriguez) fell into bad times after being jilted, then met ostracism by the townsfolk. Minerva Jones (Ashley Powell) was “jeered at by the yahoos of the street” for her “heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk.” Church-going Lydia Humphrey (Susan Honer) remained to her dying day, “gray and old…unwedded, alone in the world.” There are seven women in this fine ensemble. They are both dancers and actresses. Their work and that of choreographer Jefferson James is moving, honest, forthright and American.

In a program note, Jeanne Mam-Luft, Artistic Director of Mam-Luft&Co., writes of her experiences as a Cambodian refugee and her reunion with her extended family after an absence of almost thirty years, and of how both played a part in the creation of Speak, an hour-long work that refuses to be pigeonholed. Is it dance? Yes. Is it spoken theatre? Yes, that, too. This potent work, poignant and witty, depicts the “otherness” of the creative artist and the sometimes humorous, sometimes painful struggles of the immigrant to assimilate and break through the language barrier. Directed and designed by Mam-Luft and choreographed by her, Susan Honer and Ashley Powell, this dance-theater piece uses movement and language juxtaposed with video and sound to examine the nature of human communication.

The inability to verbally connect with other human beings and conversely, the occasional joys of being able to do so, are explored in myriad encounters as Mam-Luft’s dancers slide past each other, collide, pair up, split up, group, regroup, appear and disappear only to reappear moments later in different liaisons and combinations. The troupe’s usual artistic currency is kinetic rather than verbal, but their prowess as actors dispels any preconceived notions of what dance is or is not. In this context what could be “all talk and no show” instead becomes at times humorous—at others a harrowing search for the right word at the right moment. It is a disconcerting, frustrating show-and-tell merry-go-round-from-hell that spins inconclusively nonverbal exchanges and verbal misunderstandings, leaving everyone exhausted and suffering from the blahs as a result of all the blah-blah-blah.

The eleven dancers clad in grey unisex leotards try to size each other up by touch and they then dare to speak, but only grunts and baby talk emerge. Linguistic clichés and tongue-twisters are set on their heads and debunked: “I can’t hear you…you’re breaking up…you’re talking in circles…the rain in Spain…one supposes my toes are roses…” Meanwhile the video backdrop shows typewriters, graphs, telex and telegraph machines, ancient computers, medical depictions of the phonating apparatus, to the accompaniment of a short-circuiting urban soundscape of police sirens, gunshots, foreign languages, a baby crying. This is a demonic Tower of Babel full of the sound and the fury of babble used as warfare, one in which language has, for all intents and purposes ceased to function. All that remains are warring factions into which one can only be initiated by submitting to brutal hazing in a verbal battlefield in which only motion and stillness are left at the end.

The relationship between verbal language and body language takes on an enormous significance in Speak, a kaleidoscopic, visionary work in which the spoken and the unspoken play equal roles in a lethally-accurate depiction of how we turn language into a weapon of mass disruption.


Rafael de Acha