Dance review: The sharp bite of tEEth’s ‘Make/Believe’

A studio shot from tEEth's "Make/Believe"/Photo: Patrick Weishampel

I hunted in vain for a specific through-line in “Make/Believe,” the new dance/theater piece that Portland-based tEEth premiered for White Bird’s Uncaged series Thursday night. Catherine Thomas’s preview quoted choreographer Angelle Hebert, who said that the meaning of the dance had evolved from “fantasy as a means to cope and survive (to) fantasy manipulating our world into how we want it to be.” I didn’t see that in the piece.

That didn’t stop me from liking “Make/Believe” quite a bit, though, so apparently my inability to articulate in 25 words or less what it was “about” didn’t bother me much. Why should it? Movement and sound usually communicate along paths that language doesn’t. The theatrical experience of “Make/Believe,” minute by minute, “means” lots of different things, and it “means” them in different ways to different observers, just because that’s the way art works.

“Make/Believe” combines movement (by Hebert), sound (by tEEth co-founder Phillip Kraft), four live microphones, four dancers and some inventive lighting design (Alex Gagne-Hawes) in a series of episodes. Some utilize the microphones and their cords extensively. Some have more to do with the light or the music. All demand that the dancers commit to enacting various difficult states — childlike frustration is a key one — and to invasions of each other’s faces and mouths by the hands of the other dancers and those microphones.

So, why did I like it so much?

Hebert and Kraft have been working together since 2000, forming tEEth in 2006, according to the program notes, and the integration of sound and movement in “Make/Believe” is so deep that the two seem to interlock. Kraft’s soundscape is generally rather melancholy, though not always, but highly inventive nonetheless, providing a lot of textures for Hebert’s movement to play with and play against. The toy piano, a frequent visitor in contemporary soundscapes, is used specifically to emphasize the “childlike” aspect of the piece. The louder, white noise section (I didn’t need the ear plugs they offered coming into the theater; you probably won’t either) is tied to an emotional climax of sorts on the movement. Hebert sometimes played against the sound, by making the moving frantic when the music was slower, say, which kept things more interesting.

The movement itself was not especially difficult. Hebert’s dances aren’t built on phrases that demand virtuosic speed or control or extension. They require energy, though, lots of it, to fuel the spasms of movement that she favors. And control of those spasms, because they will repeat and the dancers will even spasm in unison.

More important is the emotional “state” of each dancer, moment by moment, because their communication of sadness, frustration, humor, anger, aggression or concern is where the real meaning of the piece emerges. The four dancers (Philip Elson, Noel Plemmons, Molly Sides, Shannon Stewart) were perfect vehicles for those emotions throughout the piece. “Commitment” is too soft a word for their immersion in the dance. So, just as the music and movement interlocked, so did the dancers and the movement.

At the beginning of the piece, Stewart and Sides laughed into the microphones. That had me worried for a moment, because I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was going to be subjected to heavy breathing throughout the concert. But the microphones are used more judiciously than that and more inventively. The dancers occasionally speak into them, and the cords were used in one quite involving sequence (I hadn’t though of mike cords as props before, but there you go!), but they weren’t the center of the show.

The lighting is a prop, too. Sometimes a sliver across the stage acts as a sort of barrier to be crossed. Sometimes the action of the dancers is confined to a rectangle of light on the stage. A general gloom settles over much of the stage for long periods of time.

What I’m getting at is the aesthetic rigor of the piece, its careful formulation and execution. Not that “Make/Believe” ever seems mechanical at all. In fact, I’d say it is the opposite: expressionist to the point that it resembles butoh to me at times — we see a lot of the tongues of the dancers, they grimace, their movement can become glacial. I know “careful butoh” sounds like an oxymoron, and “Make/Believe” isn’t butoh, but I think it communicates in a similar way, along some neural pathways that are almost vestigial or at least unconscious. At its best, it puts you on edge.

In the fall, at the most recent TBA festival, I caught tEEth’s “Home Made,” which has won some awards and generally been a sort of break-out production for the company. “Make/Believe” doesn’t have the startling one-on-one intimacy of “Home Made,”  chunks of which were danced unclothed by Plemmons and Keely McIntyre, and the focus that intimacy gave the piece. But it’s more ambitious, larger, more various in its effects. And that makes it a great follow-up.

The movement image I take away from “Make/Believe.” The dancers are lined up in a row. Their knees are slightly bent and they are deeply bent over at the waist. They’ve bent their elbows so that their hands, outstretched, are near their heads. With a crunch of abdomenals they lurch upward, tilt their heads back, open their mouths wide in a silent scream. Over and over.

2 Responses.

  1. The light design is by Alex Gagne-Hawes, as stated in page 2 of the program and above my bio. I also did the light design for tEEth’s previous work, Home Made.

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