Continuum Dance Theater presented EMPIRE over the weekend, an evening length work that investigated different types of women and the lives they have created. The performance took place at Off The Wall Theater in Carnegie, a cozy space that normally presents straight theater, but suited dance perfectly.
Nine dancers took to the stage. LaMar Williams, a male guest artist, joined the eight female company members for all four sections of the piece. Williams added wonderful humor and sincerity to the work, and fit in well.
Each section began with recorded text featuring the dancers’ own voices. Snippets of their conversations regarding the four themes provided a lead-in to the dancing.
In “Mother by Nature,” Stephanie Frey Anderson played the part of the frazzled mom, trying to get everything done. She dragged her laundry basket across the stage, looking exhausted, while the sound of a baby crying rang over the speakers. At first the image felt stereotypical, but then again, many mothers I know talk about their never-ending piles of laundry.
Anderson made her way to the back of the stage, taking on the role of household matriarch. She eagerly set her kitchen table to perfection, and leaped back into the kitchen to finish making her pie. Her guests chatted with exuberance and waited to be served. Anderson put on a smile and tried to be a gracious host. But she ended up pushing her guests’ feet off the table and shooing them away, eventually sitting on the table alone as the lights faded.
The second section, “The Boardroom,” looked at women in positions of power. The setting reflected an office scene, a chaotic one where employees were goofing off as Williams tried to get everyone in line. When the boss finally entered the room, the dancers stepped up their game.
Duets moved through the space in an exploration of our competitive natures. The dancers partnered flawlessly; their unison nearly perfect. The movement was big and bold, proving the strength of the women, and women in general.
“Identity,” the third part, slowed the pace. Michelle Skeirik and LaMar Williams sat side by side, moving tentatively, and seemingly uncomfortable in their own skin. The text shared the dancers’ thoughts on femininity and sexuality.
Eventually, the two perched at their own dressing tables. Skeirik slowly wiped off her makeup, while Williams applied it to his own face. The two then shed their clothing. Skeirik put on pants and a plain sleeveless top. Williams put on a dress. They came together again, that time with more comfort. The duet was a genuine highlight of the show. The other dancers entered, a show of solidarity. In a straight line, they took turns trying on different clothing. They then walked forward to let the audience take in their shifting identities. The lights faded on Skeirik and Williams confidently holding hands.
“Hail the Queen” closed the show. The section was a whimsical take on one woman’s desire to be queen for a day. As the featured soloist, Elisa-Marie Alaio was unimpressed by Williams’ attempts to get her attention. As her movement turned away from him repeatedly, the rest of the cast entered for a powerful and athletic unison section. Eventually Alaio took a seat at her throne, allowing the others to carry her around the stage with heads held high.
There may have been a nod to Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, as the performers infused their contemporary dancing with traditional African movement. They each took a turn trying on the royal crown, and Alaio ended up wearing the precious jewel as Williams and the others offered their reverence.
The best moments in EMPIRE were the more subtle ones. The slight shift of the dinner plate in “Mother by Nature” reminded us that perfection is unattainable. The push and pull in the duets of “The Boardroom” showed that working with others often helps us grow. Although some of the images in the piece seemed cliché, the overall message was that femininity cannot be easily defined. And that is a message that needs to be told again and again.