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Friday, April 18, 2008

The DIY worlds of Peña and Ellsworth

Jillian Peña and Michelle Ellsworth--whose shared program at Dance Theater Workshop ends tomorrow evening--both incorporate new media aesthetics into their new pieces. Peña's MOTHERSHIP smothers us in vague, sterile New Age-y utopias created in virtual reality before our eyes and between our ears. In is a real Web site, not just the name of her piece--Ellsworth has devised an elaborate, and hilarious, religion that she alone professes, practices and defends against would-be critics or converts. Each piece runs about 30 minutes. Both are made by women. After that, things change dramatically.

Well, there is one more similarity: ambition. But that similarity is actually where these two works diverge.

For background, here's something from Peña's site:

I locate my video-based work within the dance community with the proposition that dance is an embodied shift that can exist without a represented body as its location. Casting the audience as subject and performer, I desire to generate a hyper-self-awareness in the viewers, who join the performance by gazing at their selves. This brings an instability of existence and agency to consciousness, but the sensation of it within a group might propose a way to transcend it.

is, in fact, a virtual reality video spanning DTW's stage, flanked by two women moving, gesticulating and, at one point, changing costumes atop huge blocks that resemble the stone pedestals beneath Patience and Fortitude, the iconic New York Public Library lions. These sentinels also suggest the two distant towers in Tarot's traditional Moon card. Images of castles in the sand, water and islands, with the occasional howling dogs or splay of lightning, also lean towards that otherworldly association.

The lighting (by David Ferri) takes in the entire hall, not just these two live performers. The audience is lit in various, shifting ways, which makes sense in terms of Peña's statement, doesn't it? Her voiceover ranges from guided meditation to pornographic pillow talk to mindnumbing expressions of despair and loathing. She sounds like she's sometimes on and sometimes off her meds. She often gives directions to the audience but no one takes her seriously enough to follow them. For a few moments, a couple of women in hoodies show up at the top of the theater's stairs, and some of us crane our necks to see what they're about to do. Since they do nothing but stare before silently leaving, we soon turn back around.

Peña's vision is an ambitious one. So it's surprising that, when all's said and done, the actual reach of her work and its results seem so modest. But I was struck by a sense of emptiness at the heart of this piece--a sense of collapse at the core of everything that leaves a tenuous, shaky surface. There are so many uninhabited spaces. Where is everybody? Even the sentinels abruptly abandon their posts at the end. There is no proposal of transcendance.

And Ellsworth? That's her in the corner, choosing her religion, which she calls The Institute for Potential Religious Artifacts, Beliefs and Procedures. You can find out all--and I do mean all--about this "cult of one" at But you'll have more fun if you go see Ellsworth live, riding her ingenious saddle-pew and singing her hymn to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme. She is clearly--by evidence of this intricate, involved and, yes, ambitious piece--The Hardest-Working Woman in Comedic Dance. In fact, I hope DTW (or someone) will be inspired to start a dance comedy series. Let's see who's really funny when the meager stuff that dance hipsters readily titter at go up against productions by the likes of Ellsworth.

Go tonight or tomorrow at 7:30pm, DTW.

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