The Penguin Lady, a collective headed by Natosha Washington, showed their evening-length work Tarot at the beautiful Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex. The show runs Thursday through Saturday, and despite it being smack in the middle of the holiday bustle, most seats in the black box were filled on Thursday night. Washington has been a presence in the Salt Lake dance scene for a number of years, presenting works through various venues and formats; this is her most ambitious and strongest work to date.
The cast includes ten women, all adept performers that were able to execute what was demanded, and Washington did well to feature each dancer so that by the end of the night we felt as if each personality was revealed. The entire piece runs for about an hour, with no intermission, and features one investigated idea, a welcomed break from the multiple-works format that has become common.
The lights brighten to reveal the cast standing on two large tables designed by board member Matt Sincell. Accompanied by ambient rain sounds and wearing stark black dresses with long slits up the sides, the dancers take turns moving atop the table, highlighting a quality and structure that is recognizable from previous choreographies by Washington. For example, gestures often ending with a punch or a beat, rolling through the spine or trailing through the head to ultimately end with an extended leg. This way of moving is lush and expressive and often carries a sense of accessible urgency.
At one point, the dancers each pull out a tarot card that had been hiding in their costume, come off the table, and form a V with Chelsea Rowe at the downstage apex. This was the first of the several moments of striking visual power: ten severe women in formation as if they are a community of witches readying themselves for a night of ritual. Rowe does well as this central character, applying just the right amount of drama and gravitas, without ever slipping into the well of melodrama that we often see indulged by younger dancers. In this section the continued motif of raised elbows, spread hands, and simmering and shaking as if possessed or possessing is further developed and establishes that perhaps otherworldly powers are being channeled.
New sections emerge with the dancers shifting the tables and chairs, creating architectural tension. In a spellbinding duet between Lauren Payne and Jocelyn Smith, the cast sits in various configurations on the tables and chairs, often viscerally responding to what is taking place center stage. These ripples do little to add dimension, but like the townspeople reacting and conversing in a story ballet, they acknowledge that what is occurring is a group experience.
Payne and Smith dance with an interconnectedness that isn’t the result of bodies actually touching, but rather a keen awareness of one another and their relationship in space. Once Payne and Smith separate to different tables, the spell is broken and the intensity of the moment dissipates.
The piece continues at an engaging pace: trios and duets, solos and layered group sections with and without the props, moving the props, fully exploring the props, all serving to create a multi-layered and dynamic stage. Most aspects work well to create this desired effect, while just a couple fell short. At one point, Danell Hathaway solos downstage while tarot cards are thrown at her feet. She continues to move among the cards, and while I can assume that they were included to layer meaning and metaphor, for me they cluttered the crisp design of what was happening under the tables (not to mention the actual choreography of the solo). In Tarot, the past, present and future are not found in the actual cards, but rather in the power of the moving body.
The final moment of the night is the group, in solidarity, receding upstage, one dancer holding a raised tarot card. From this image it is apparent that our experience is over, but perhaps not entirely finished.
Erica Womack is adjunct faculty at SLCC and presents her own choreography in SLC.