Minnesota Fringe Festival — Mother Tongues


“Mother Tongues” was at the Lab Theater. They’ve now gone back to Chicago.

This is a very personal piece. Dancers interpret through movement how they feel about their relationships with their mothers. There is extensive and complex sound accompaniment including music at times but a lot of interviews with several people (I presume the dancers) about their feelings regarding their mothers. It’s all got a kind of touchy-feely-new-age quality in part because dancers not actually performing don’t exit the stage. Instead, they sit on benches or chairs and watch those in action with earnest and respectful attention. How very, very “community.”

The dancers are skillful and well-rehearsed. There is a variety of choreographic invention. The concept is clear. Yes, it’s got a kind of Chicago flavor – lots of big peripheral swings and turns, lots of character filtered through abstract movement, lots of understated dramatic contrasts, all suggestive of post-Columbia-College-Dance-Department. But it’s done with commitment, skill, and energy.

I have some problems. I hope my comments are useful and constructive. I’m publishing this even after they’ve finished their run because I want to send some perhaps personal and biased but heartfelt messages to young choreographers.

First, the sound score. When it presented interviews they were off-the-cuff, unrehearsed, casual, credible, and realistic. Very “authentic.” The problem is that, like many casually recorded conversations, they were cluttered with ambient noise and quite frankly I often couldn’t discern what people were saying. That’s a bad problem when the choreography is clearly meant to respond to, relate to, and comment on what is being said. Authenticity is great. Multi-media is great. I’d LOVE authentic conversations if I could hear and understand them. But if you don’t MAKE these things work, they don’t work.

Example: there’s a male duet in two chairs. It’s built on pedestrian gestures illustrating what you might expect two good buddies in a bar to say. It very gradually (and skillfully) evolves into much more theatrical, athletic and “dancey” movement. Meanwhile, two male voices on the sound score have a dialogue that clearly is meant to parallel what is happening onstage. The problem is that with all the ambient noise, lack of recording clarity, and slurred or slang speech by the participants I could only catch an occasional phrase. The wonderful intention and the skillful choreography, coupled with really good performances by the two guys, were all deeply undercut by the too-authentic unintelligible verbal soundtrack. I wanted to like it, but was mostly frustrated.

Second, lengths of sections. The piece occurs as a series of solos, duets, trios, full group pieces, and so forth. In each case a pretty clear concept is established. The problem is that once the concept has been established nothing goes anywhere. And the section continues for a long time. As Doris Humphrey once famously said, “All dances are too long.”

Example: there’s a male solo occurring within a circle of women who have their backs turned to him. The solo is very nicely danced and has a brittle kind of humor. We come to realize that he is trying to impress the women. Or one of them. Or ANY one of them. One after another. Total failure. That’s the joke and the comment. So after about two minutes we’ve got that. That’s the premise. Now let’s run with it.

So what’s next? Well, same thing. Over and over. Same thing, over and over. Same thing. Over.And.Over. See what I mean? My text was just a deliberate example. This dance continues up to a total of about six minutes. Same thing. Over and over. Near the end he does a “kip-up” and fails. That’s an athletic move where the man is lying on his back, does a sharp abdominal contraction in timing with a back arch and hurls himself to his crouching feet in one complex and very muscular movement. In this instance the dancer attempts a kip-up and fails. The women look at him. He does another, and fails again. Now we know for sure it wasn’t a dance error. OK, knowing snicker. He does a third and fails. The women look at him. OK, we got it. Now here comes what I’m calling “a problem.” This exercise continues for another full minute or two, with a dozen or more failed kip-ups. It goes on and on and on. Over and over.  Show us the next thing.

Another example: there is a quite witty and skillful duet about a physically pratfallish relationship, set to the Habanera from the opera, “Carmen.”  I loved it. And then, goddammit, they repeated the whole thing, with some variations, turned 180 degrees and repeating the music verbatim. The whole thing. Nearly verbatim. Same music.

Quit while you’re ahead. Move on.

Finally, I would like to quarrel with having the non-dancing performers sit on stage watching the active ones with earnest and supportive attention. I think it’s a powerful statement and deserves its place. I think that place should be chosen. I quarrel with having it be the default setting. The effect on me, since most pieces were solos, duets or trios and few were full cast, was that a kind of smothering fog settled over the whole stage like morning mist in an impenetrable forest. You don’t dare go anywhere, think anything, or do anything. You’re lost and suffocated. The presence of those patiently sitting folks became, for me, overwhelming and dampening.

I wanted to like this show better. My problems are not so much with the choreography or the dancing. They are with the artistic decisions concerning elements such as sound, context, pacing, and tone that relate intimately to the dancing but aren’t the dancing itself. I have no quarrel with the dancing nor the concept nor the good intentions.