May 30, 2015
With the reaching of milestones come wildfires of self-reflection. Memory and ambition fuse, impersonating one another between smudges on our present lens. Such sensations pervade Hannah Cullen’s first full-length work, Us, Me, They, She., as she and her cast graduated from NYU within weeks of mounting the show at Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater. An ensemble of ten balances identities armed with Cullen’s poetry, disseminated to fashion highlights from a shared power-source.
A set of statements forms a current with many tributaries. Hesitantly greeted, “Hi,” we are told of, confessed to, and even asked about each dancer’s insecurities. Ambivalence is heightened by contradictions that lead to nowhere but the establishing salutation. After Austin Guerrazzi layers them in a tide of sonic self-absorption, they come from mouths instead of speakers. Voice is not given to the voiceless; bodies are given to the incorporeal.
These utterances live in movement attempting in vain to speak as loudly, self-pitying gestures inevitably muting the body. Existential inquiries melt into problems rather first-world: craving identity, missing childhood, shaming shyness, demanding certainty. Why lament such discomforts? That dearth of information implies freedoms; paired with self-censoring movement, we read angst. Is childhood nostalgia yearning for something society loses with age, or an inability to grow up?
Underneath the current is a feminist grumble that festers instead of engages. It rears its head when it could sustain, rendering feminism equally stifled as whom it serves. When seated, manspreading begets leg crossing. Male vulgarity, though, doesn’t force women into manners; the oppressor is always elsewhere. Ledbetter sits; Cullen speaks for her. For once, first-person shifts to third, albeit simultaneously true and dissociatively self-referential. The absence of a male speaking suggests that, rather than womanhood, empathy is at stake.
Cullen accomplishes this through action that binds people who have no obligation to associate. By exchanging and wearing multiple outfits, they are amalgams of collective experiences. When Ledbetter finally addresses us, the cast lines up, echoing not Ledbetter, but the dancer directly in front, maintaining her impulse to abstract the result.
The narrow text flows via poetic roulette. Each dancer delivers a unique variation, changing order and exploiting connotation to unify ten sensations of the same elements. Nicholas Jon and Nico Gonzales argue, casting the text as its own adversary. Alison DeFranco cuts in and out at a time when we’ve heard the words so much our brain fills the gaps. When the phrases mash once more we can isolate thought from the muck.
Amid constant change, what remains consistent is one microphone. Each gets a turn, adjusting the stand to meet their proportions. Some, like Ali Castro, resist meeting face to face, though ultimately chose to be heard. In the company of a male audience, the women direct their motions to the mic - the friend to confide in, the shoulder to cry on, and the foe to confront, ultimately snuffed by Ledbetter with her coat as the ensemble sings their way offstage, no longer needing its enhancements.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews