Raw Moves’ The Story of Eight opens with all eight of its props waiting on stage, arranged in a careful pile and under a dim pool of light. Pillows, jackets, a ladder, a very fake looking bouquet of roses, an oversized mattress, a washing basin, some rope, and a few small chairs sit as if posed for use by the school photographer. They ominously await the spooky action that will ensue- an alternately boring and disturbing parade of underdeveloped images of sex and violence mixed with sequences of disappointingly predictable groupthink dance.
One of the first striking images we see is of a man suffocating a woman with a pillow. He smothers her just long enough for us to recognize the image and then gives up on it, moving on to some other quick and dirty partnering around the mattress. This will be a recurrent theme in Eight, a little abuse, nonchalant and then back to the dancing. Eileen Rojas jokingly flirts with suicide (jacket and rope). Nathan Shaw and Ursula Perry will perform what looks like Dancin’ with the Stars’ answer to interracial sex. You guessed it- the rope is alternately a noose, a whip and a lasso. Karin Fenn, the oldest performer, will chase a bouquet tied to a string. And finally, at intermission, they’ll tie Jennifer Beaumont to a chair and leave here there smiling while the lights come on in the house.
At the risk of being compared to Arlene Croce, at this point I must make a confession. At intermission last night I snuck out the back door of the Rose and stole away into the night with my companion. I couldn’t take it any more. I felt like I was watching a pale imitation of what RDT tries to pass off as contemporary with slap stick scenes of racism and sexism added to give the work a controversial flair. In my defense, I had watched the whole thing in January when it premiered, and found it about as satisfying an experience as this review indicates. After seeing the first half last night, I could tell things hadn’t changed much since then.
If I was reading this review I might find myself thinking that the person who wrote it was just uncomfortable with what he was seeing. Everyone in Eight is actually very talented and they care a lot about what they do, and so I owe it to them be clear here. What annoyed me was that all of these very real societal issues were raised in a such brief slap-stick scenes and then dropped like hot potatoes so that they can get back to the real dancing (which wasn’t a tenth of what they’re capable of anyway). But what disturbed me was listening to the audience laughing at all of this. Again, let me make it clear, I love the offensive. I am not even uninterested in the idea of “offensive” humor. But what is there to laugh at when we tie a woman to a chair for no apparent reason, or make a middle aged woman jump up and down for a fake (wedding) bouquet? Where’s the joke? Did I blink and miss something?
I fear the joke is on all of us in the dance community if this kind of work is the best we can do. There a crushing irony when a young company like Raw Moves can only seem to use the reality of their performer’s identities in such a cheap way. It almost makes me long to return to the oblivion of Nikolais where all the bodies on stage are infinitely replaceable, neutered, raceless creatures who emerged from the womb in nude unitards. I hope that we are laughing and crying and standing up to applaud at The Story of Eight because of the very real discomfort I felt. I hope we don’t really think that The Story of Eight is funny or poignant, because it’s neither. I hope we know how bad the music is and how derivative the movement is. I almost can’t blame the dancers, it’s hard to see something you’re inside of for what it is. But I’m having a harder time forgiving the audience or the choreographers. We should know better.
Sam Hanson is a BUS student in Performance & Media at the University of Utah