October 26th, 2009 5:33 pm | by Kate Williams News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Live Review: Exquisite Corpse

I doubt any of the audience members at Exquisite Corpse this past weekend had any clue what we were walking into as they made their way into the transformed Reed College gym. We were presented with a choice of seating in the round, but to make it to our seats, we first needed to negotiate our way through the performance space, littered with odd objects—a red dress here, a portrait of a monkey there. Some took it in stride, walking comfortably across the space to a choice seat. Others were much more timid, traipsing behind chairs, hoping not to disturb the scenery.

However we got there, our seats served as vehicles that transported us into the relentlessly creative minds of performers Carla Mann and Jim McGinn and their long list of collaborators (Mary Sheldon Scott and Jarrad Powell of Seattle's Scott/Powell Performance, Portland's Tahni Holt and Stephen Laks and Rachel Tess of Portland-based, internationally touring Rumpus Room Dance). The performance, a project exploring Surrealism as a method of choreography, employed these choreographic contributors to create a series of duets. Each duet shared a deliberate quirkiness and a heavy use of props–including the aforementioned decorations, as well as a cake, sidewalk chalk, a giant wok and a squeaky metal cart—and not much else. This was intentional.

The program offered up the best explanation for Mann's and McGinn's method. It described a "game" in which "a sheet of paper is folded several times and then passed around. Each participant draws a portion of the human body—a head, or torso, arms or legs. Each artist sees only his or her own drawing, not the others, until the paper is finally unfolded and the strange and beautiful body is revealed." Exquisite Corpse mimicked this process, "creating not a narrative, but a mystery."

Some of the duets were more engaging than others. The first full duet was distractingly heavy-footed—Mann and McGinn spent much of the segment stomping around the stage twitching their arms and, besides the synchronized movement, seemed disconnected from each other. In addition, some of the prop sequences, such as McGinn's movement of the metal cart were too drawn out, becoming tedious instead of humorous (I assume that this tedium was intentional, and that Mann and McGinn were in such cases asking the audience to get annoyed).

However, these faults are easily forgotten when the two assume their natural movements, crawling on the floor and lifting and throwing each other in a silent suppleness that would seem impossible when dancing on the creaky gym floor. The faults are forgotten when Mann and McGinn share a giant red dress—Mann's tiny head sticking out through the neck and McGinn's enormous arms through the sleeves–and sway together with subtle Victorian seductiveness. The movement is simple and soothing, yet the moving body is jarringly unfamiliar.

Short videos by John Bacone punctuated the performance, serving at once as props, additional performers and a marker for changes in duets. Some of the videos were fascinating, such as the tightly looped, zoomed in shots of Mann and McGinn's twitching muscles and veins, and others seemed an unnecessary recourse to '60s era psychedelics.

Despite small shortcomings, Exquisite Corpse is a show worth revisiting. The performance was so multifaceted that it was hard to fully experience each element with just one viewing. Because each duet could stand on its own, the show lacked any sort of narrative arc (again, intentional). It was hard to walk away with any sense of completion, and each finished duet disappeared behind the ones to follow. Perhaps with repeated viewings, one could more fully appreciate each layer as they contribute to the final whole.

Or perhaps each layer should just remain a mystery.

Photo of Jim McGinn and Carla Mann by Gordon Wilson.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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