Matter Dance’s ‘Page Turner’ Gives Audience the Reins

Entering Stage 773 last weekend, audience members found books dangling from The Thrust’s ceiling and piled high in a book nook upstage right. We are seated on three of four sides, tightly packed and close to the stage. Modeled after the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, Matter Dance’s 10th anniversary concert called “Page Turner” presented audiences with this-or-that choices throughout the evening. Time-honored themes of love and loss, an epic journey complete with forest creatures and river nymphs, a battle between good and evil and a happily-ever-after are lightened up and pieced together by librarian Kevin Sciretta, our guide through the evening and provider of periodic witty banter during costume and scene changes. Sciretta presents us with seemingly critical decisions, accompanied by the spritely Hannah Witte dressed up in pointe shoes and fairy wings. When you stop to think hard enough about it, and consider costume changes and technical challenges of not knowing what dance will come next, it seems a nearly impossible feat. Indeed, as the evening progresses the choices are less and less up to chance, but the better approach is to just let go and embrace the journey.

On dancing alone, “Page Turner” holds little merit, but it seems that Matter Dance’s goal is to not take itself too seriously, presenting dance as high entertainment, if not high art. If not for the narrator, fairy guide, and smart, sassy dialog with the audience, “Page Turner” could read as a dance recital. Its dances are short, disparate and generally simplistic. And yet, each of the many works on this program has merit worth exploring further. Of particular note are a pair of dances by co-Artistic Director Carisa Barecca (known for her role in this weekend’s Second City/Hubbard Street collaboration, “The Art of Falling”) closing each act with laugh-out-loud, huge group pieces set to schmaltzy Tchaikovsky scores. The first, “Operation W.O.L.L.I.P.,” is a glorious pillow fight while “Ballet de L’Eau” takes a stab at a satirical Swan Lake (complete with tutus, brilliant water spray, and audience panchos). These two works alone could easily have gone on for half an hour. Of equal comedic brilliance is Bareca and co-Artistic Director Gail Adduci Gogliotti’s “The Food Fight,” which pits a life-size gingerbread man in a slow motion battle against other tasty treats... he loses. Not every dance was funny, and the best of the rest were Mike Ford’s “Connected,” an elegant men's pas de deux for Ford and Patrick Justin, and a women’s trio featuring dancers Michelle Chorski, Chelsea Harkelroad, and Rose Mulvey.

In almost every case, the dancers deal beautifully with the eccentricities of Stage 773’s awkward thrust stage, with choreography dripping off its sides into the audience, in addition to strategic projections and lighting design. What’s lacking in space is made up for by the dancers’ impassioned and sometimes ridiculous facial expressions; nonetheless, it’s not nearly enough room for the big group pieces, and even the smaller casts were prohibited from dancing full out.

Watching this eclectic group of actor/dancer/comedians, it’s easy to see why Barreca, Adduci Gogliotti and co-director Niki Wilk Mahon have been voted to the top of readers’ choice lists so many times. While many choreographers view their audiences as an afterthought – innocent bystanders who may or may not get it – to Matter Dance the audience is king, accessibility is the goal. The ties of Page Turner’s many dances to a storyline of our creation are loose at best, though it really doesn’t matter because the absurdity of the whole thing is what makes it so fun, and so brililant.