Entering Dovetail Studio’s main space on Saturday, there were black curtains hung on four sides. They hide the walls and ballet barres, creating a black box out of soft goods and drawing the eye to a glowing white marley floor, illuminated in cool blue light.
It is here in this space that Joanna Read presents her latest work “Lie Through My Skin,” running through Sunday at the Avondale dance studio. Read, Dovetail owner and the director of Same Planet Performance Project (SPPP, a project-based version of the former Same Planet Different World), creates her second quartet in as many years, adding dancers Jess Duffy and Jacob Buerger to her weird and wonderful world with Michelle Giordanelli and Michael O’Neill, who appeared in SPPP's previous work “Honey.”
The dancers enter this dark capsule, with audience members facing each other on two sides. The opening scene shows O’Neill on hands and knees, pulsing his belly up and down. Abrupt blackouts present the dancers in a series of grotesque vignettes, as if we’re peeping into private moments in these people’s lives. “Honey” was about disco, and sex, and indulgence; the beginning of “Lie Through My Skin” seems to pull at some residual strings of that work. Duffy and Giordanelli regally ride Buerger like a horse as he crawls on his hands and knees for a long time. An echo-y electronic score is layered under a surprisingly fluorescent visual landscape.
Costume Designer Vin Reed goes for an uncharacteristic color palette here of teal, chartreuse, and red in layered separates. The women’s tops extend beyond their bodies, with Duffy’s waist wrapped by long tails on her tunic, and Giordanelli’s extra-long sleeves slouched up her forearms. Jacob Snodgrass’s lighting follows suit with chilly LEDs, which cast stark white light across the space and pop the costumes dramatically against the white floors. These design elements make those black curtains feel significant; the landscape created is one that feels isolating, like we’ve been plopped into a container and separated from the rest of the world.
I think these feelings of separation and isolation are part of the point in “Lie Through My Skin,” which according to Read’s program note, began with a movement exploration of her own shame and discomfort in confronting white privilege. In this setting – a silo, a cavern, a container – we are watching from very close, and there’s little left to the imagination. We see the dancers drip with sweat, we see the consequences of this work in the floor burns on their feet.
That being said, because of this closeness you can’t see the whole thing, and have to pick your battles as a viewer. If the dancers aren’t moving together, it can turn into a bit of a tennis match. And despite our proximity, the dancers don’t, at any point, fully look us in the eyes. They look through us instead, or at one another. Some of their movements – that long pony ride on Buerger’s back, skipping, and galloping with a lassoing of the arms – reference child’s play. Two times, they burst into laughter. It’s too loud to be genuine, it’s intentionally inauthentic, perhaps referencing the awkward things people do when faced with embarrassment, guilt, shame.
These more literal references pointed me to think about the private thoughts, feelings, and actions of my own life that I’d rather keep that way. The things we’re told are wrong by religion, social mores, the government, and convention are woven into this dance in images of perversion, exclusion, nostalgia, gluttony, rage, complacency.
A section at the end finally plays with the long fabric sleeves of Giordanelli’s top, and the unwound tails of Duffy’s wrap dress, which are weighted by balls to assist in a long section of twirling those tails while Duffy balances on relevé. Each woman rather ceremoniously reveals these extensions of herself, only to be bound and tangled up in them. It bothers me that the women are the only ones being tied up; it bothers me more that this seemingly central element is wholly underexplored. Tennis balls, matching limey green costume pieces, are rolled on stage as the cast gathers around Buerger’s body while he lies on the ground. The other three stuff his shirt with several balls, laugh at him, and then gaze away with ominous expressions. And then it’s over.
Joanna Read’s greatest strengths are creating really satisfying movement phrases and molding them into surprising, equally gratifying arcs. Her works are never a linear narrative – and that certainly isn’t the case here either. Read carries her audiences on evocative rollercoasters that almost always make some sense, in spite of themselves. “Lie Through My Skin” does this too, but I’m missing the inherent beauty and patience of her previous works and how in them, Dance (capital D) usually prevails above all else.
This journey into a more conceptual space reminds me of a recent dinner out with some family friends. In commenting on the mushroom ragout, one of our party said she didn’t dislike it, exactly, but found it a strange combination of flavors that tasted ok together.
She didn’t finish her dinner.
“Lie Through My Skin” continues through 7:00 p.m. at Dovetail Studios, 2853 W. Montrose Ave. Tickets are $22 at 773-550-6533 and on See Chicago Dance.
Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune