Dance of the Whisky Faerie: A view


by John Munger • July 11, 2008 • The Fringe Festival opened last night, and one of the opening shows was “Dance of the Whisky Faerie,” produced by Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw. Let’s talk about it, but first….

I like to reflect on shows but I don’t like to call what I write “a review,” nor do I like to call it “(academic) criticism.” The first seems too often to be driven by mid-level editors who want a succinct See-It-Or-Don’t-See-It infomercial and the latter has struck me too often as dusty-fingered pedantry ever since I was an honors English Lit major at Harvard.

Going Through the Movements is the blog of John Munger, one of five bloggers covering the Minnesota Fringe Festival for the Daily Planet.

So I call commentaries such as this one, “Views,” meaning that I basically report what I saw and how it affected me. I try very hard in a “View” to stay away from ranking, judgment, advice to artists, or recommendations for potential audiences. Read on.

The Storyteller tumbles into a pool of light with a whisky bottle in the center. He declaims adoration for intoxication but observes that his house has been invaded by an horrendous creature called “a dancer.” Oh heavens! This, of course, may actually parallel the real life relationship between sketch-comedian Joe Scrimshaw and dancer Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw. They got married last November, not yet a year ago. They’re both my friends, my professional colleagues, my supporters in my own endeavors, and one of my personal and tenuous holds on continuing involvement with what matters to younger artists, who they are, and how they work. God (or whoever) bless Sara and Joe. So I am totally biased.

Enter the Whisky Faerie and it is clear from her quick-footed movement vocabulary that the Scottish/Irish dance elements are at work here. If anything, I felt like the first dance was simplistic and, knowing Sara’s skills, I hoped for more. But bear with me, and bear with Sara and Joe. What is clear at the outset is that the gaelic tone of the show’s title underscores the whole show both verbally and kinesthetically.

The StoryTeller has to tell stories in return for access to whisky. The Whisky Faerie withholds the bottle and dances as an accompaniment to the stories. Thus the set-up and thus most of the plot. We get several stories, several dances, and there is a coda-finish that puts a punctuation mark on the show. It’s simple, clear, and structurally modeled in some ways on the Scheherezade 1001 nights of story-telling. But there is a subtle thread.

Ever so quietly the stories begin moving past sketch-comedy farrago about booze and laughable mis-relationships between the sexes. The turning point is the tale of the seal-faerie who slips out of her sealskin, becomes a woman, and raises a family with the fisherman. He keeps the seal-skin hidden. Ultimately there is a turn of events and the result can appropriately be called, “nuanced and moving.” I had not heard this gaelic tale before and I was struck by its succinct complexity, its mix of pathos, comedy and warmth, and by its touching and thoughtful metaphor for life and relationships in general.

Sara’s dance to this tale retained Scottish dance elements, but moved into a realm where artfully flexing hands suggested seal flippers and the movement segued seamlessly from highland sportiness into a kind of domestic calm featuring anchored spins that hurled into space on a run. But the runs pulled back almost immediately into home ground. And then it all finally segued into a fading away that matched the emotions of the tale but never slavishly illustrated, mimed nor imitated the actions in the story.

That was a third of the way into the show. Joe and Sara developed this evolution of the story-telling and the superbly delivered choreography into a slow revelation of the deep and evolving relationship between the StoryTeller and the Faerie.

It struck me as I came out of the theater that this was an example of how the skills of sketch-comedy and vaudevillian physical theater can be harnessed to deliver on deeper levels than just a series of gags. It also struck me that this was an example of how dance plus text can be more than the sum of their parts rather than mere illustrations of each other. One of the highest arts of choreography is to find means for bringing to life the unspoken and wordless personal subtext that underlies all human experience. It is tapping into the pre-linguistic world of how the infant feels even from the moment of birth, why we fall in love when we cannot explain it, and how words are not enough to make for true communication between two people. Just to name a few examples. This show delivers that powerful level of human experience, verbally, physically, comedically and touchingly.

See this show.

NOTE: This blog does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Dance/USA, nor anyone other than the author. These are purely and utterly my own observations and views.

John Munger has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.