Muscle Memory’s Trio of Dances Explores Movement and the Absurd

In the lobby of the Dallas Hub Theater, flat against the wall, there is a long glass-enclosed display case, the kind you might find in an antique nick-knack shop of a long since deserted town center. Beneath the glass, on a billowing ream of burgundy fabric sit three court jester figurines. All three of them posed, legs stretched forward, arms out to the side, gazing out at passers-by with their sinister upturned smiles. The musty smell of heavy velvet stage curtains ripe from the spring heat and no sign of central air conditioning sets the mood for what turned out to be a most weird and wonderful evening.

It seems that for Muscle Memory Dance Theater (M2DT), performing “Stranger Than Fiction: A Series of Rocks and Feathers” as part of the Dallas Fringe Festival, it’s not important for the audience to understand everything they do, but to know or sense an underlying architecture behind the movements. These pieces don’t require explanation: they intend to be experienced. The dances I saw tonight don’t so much illustrate things we know as things we have never seen. They make complex mimes of objects and situations that have not existed until this moment when a dancer’s body carved them out on the stage in front of us.

Case in point: The Cigar Box choreographed by Lauren Guyer. Sixty or more shiny rocks of all shapes and colors are spread out in a path in front of an open cigar box on the brown marble floor. Two dancers — one male, one female — appear from opposing upstage corners. Unaware of each other they begin selecting rocks from the path and sharing with the audience the nostalgic memories conjured up by each rock they grasp. Eventually the audible memories are translated into sharp, twitching angular movements. On the wall behind the performers is a film projection of a grassy meadow complete with two young children prancing around a tree. And there are shadows interacting with the dancers who continue to collect rocks and spread them out again and again, collecting and spreading. It must be a fascinating exploration for its performers, and certainly a unique experience for an audience.

Lesley Snelson-Figuero choreographed the second piece of the evening, The Rubber Room. In this work M2DT takes you inside a place of limbo where hundreds of NYC schoolteachers are suspended each year – a place of interrelationship and interaction of the most bizarre of circumstance. Traditional music is replaced with the narrative of six NYC schoolteachers who have been detained in The Rubber Room. “You can’t sit there! That’s Bla-bla-bla’s seat!” The six performers each represent a voice and accordingly work their way through gesture progressions and kinetic movement phrases meant to interpret the ongoing narrative. Solos blend into duets as dancers share weight in a sequence of lifts that finish off in side pencheés. Eventually, all but one of the teachers find themselves lined up against the back wall their bodies slumped, reality sinking in, heads dropped in shame. The one holdout proudly shifts back and forward on her knees, biceps flexed and her head is held high. Throughout the piece there is an undercurrent of dark, comic rage that features characters trying to understand their paradox, alternately beguiling and stunning in its impact.

The final presentation, Abide choreographed by Amy Sleigh, Megan Cardwell-Wilson and Kiera Amison definitely gets the prize for most bizarre production of the evening. What begins as your typical train station setting circa 1940’s, with ladies in bright colored dresses carrying suitcases as they prance about, ends up in an entirely new universe, a place where women dress in high collared sleeveless white shirts and accessorize with a single helium filled balloon floating on a sting just above their heads. It was here in this split second, I remembered the three court jester figurines in the lobby display case, their glazed eyes looking through me, and I realized that although modern dance choreographers are seen as such a profound lot, in truth there’s often no-one better educated in the absurd.

Photo: Meghan Cardwell-Wilson (Credit: Jeanne Mam-Luft for M2DT)