What’s wrong with these people?
That’s not a question a sophisticated viewer of postmodern dance should ask. But it crossed my mind while watching the first half of Juliana F. May. “Family Happiness” at Avrons Arts Center Saturday.
Sitting on the stage of the Center’s Playhouse Theater, we are close to five dancers who walk in different directions in colorful tops and sweatpants or shorts. Periodically, they pull their pants down to their ankles, jump and crawl awkwardly, pull them back up, and then pull them down again. Sometimes they crawl between each other’s legs or through holes in clothing stretched between their legs and ankles.
During all of this, there’s a synth fanfare worthy of a vintage video game, with some drums and bass beats for driving, and the occasional unnerving high-pitched noise added. (sound design Tatiana Tenenbaum.) Dancers also make sounds with their mouths and move their tongues. The movement sections are repetitive, but the main impression is that the performers move back and forth relentlessly but coolly.
May’s previous work has dealt with different kinds of trauma, including sexual violence, so I wondered about undressing—what happened to these people that made them behave the way they did? started. But I wasn’t all that curious why the choreographer and cast would choose to stay in such a boring mode. It’s a hassle, both for them and for us.
And I could see a change in the face of Cavillon Paulazar, the only male in a cast full of dancers that I’ve admired in other films.And sure enough, after a while he pushed Tess Dwerman and Molly Paulstell For just a moment, signs of abuse flicker around. It was almost a tease, as the dance continued as before, or almost as before. Then all the dancers left and we were given time to reflect on what we had just seen.
The question in my mind was “Family Happiness” (Abrons and Chocolate Factory Theater) are you going to provoke? It wasn’t until after the show that I read May’s program notes, “Exposing the stimulation of postmodernism’s isolated aesthetic and its unbearable absurdity.” Maybe it’s important to criticize that approach by hiding compelling content in a dull format and then recreating it. This is a punitive act that ends on the brink of absurdity.
The second part of the 45-minute piece is less intentional than avoiding the problem, replacing the content with a more engaging key.Performer enters song first Leslie Quigett and Lucy Kaminskythen others in unison, then in counterpoint, first stationary, then changing formation.
The profanity they sing is fragmentary stream-of-consciousness poetry, perhaps drawn from a dream. It touches on topics such as sexual role-playing, sex beaches, and face eating, but also everyday anxieties and talking dogs, and is a mix of memories, sensations, and fantasies. “I” and “you” exist, but they are unstable, the effect amplified and complicated by the chorus.
What the group sings seems to be a person’s subconscious, a self trying to stay afloat making unconvincing claims like “I’m fine” or “I’m back in action.” . That self may or may not belong to Mei. It’s not entirely clear how her two parts of “Family Happiness” speak to each other, but the contrast between the emotionally detached challenges and the dreams vocalized by the group is clear. It has become When sung in chorus, the words don’t sound like happiness, but rather like family.
Juliana F. May
The show runs through Saturday at the Avrons Arts Center. abronsartscenter.org.