Rise from the ashes and make sweetness from the rubble.
Standard black on black paint to cover the walls and support pillars, a small stage set up at the back of the space hosting instruments and sound equipment, four small sections of seating to the left and right. In contrast, a gleaming floor, enchanting chandeliers, lighting that seems simultaneously both warm and cool. Based on the decor in the Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente, I could have been attending a punk concert as easily as a Gothic-themed ball. On May 22, however, I was there to see the 2015 Spring Season of ChristinaNoel and The Creature, a collaborative company whose work resists any simple categorization other than performance. Everything, from the larger than life portraits of the performers in the lobby to the chandeliers I admired on my way to my seat, was designed by The Creature to create an atmosphere.
ChristinaNoel and The Creature is a passion project, and I knew this before the performers had taken a single step. It’s in the way that ChristinaNoel Reaves interacts with her company manager, in the way she speaks about the work and her collaborators, in the way she explains the notion of The Creature–the projects and the people and things that are adored even through the challenges they create. One also gets the sense that The Creature cannot be ignored; this is the work that cannot remain undone, the ideas that cannot be denied.
And, as it turns out, this passion project has a lot of craft and skill to back it up. Ash & Honey Part 1 served to demonstrate not only Reaves’ compositional skill set, but also the highly versatile dance technique, musical ability, and personality of the performers who comprise The Creature. I recognized highly technical modern dance movement alongside steps that might be danced by a teenager to their favorite song on the radio, hints of flamenco serving to segue into pedestrianism. The performers (of whom Reaves was one) spoke, sang, and played the trumpet, french horn, or piano, accompanied by an original sound score by Aeric Meredith-Goujon.
The opening is an aural assault–three keening voices, purposefully dissonant, sound as the lights almost imperceptibly raise the theater from darkness. The impression is one of arriving in slow motion to a strange elsewhere before everything slams into action with a duet that is more than half conflict. My primary critique of the work came here, as I found that the abrupt shifts between highly physical movement with elevated speed and syrupy slowness did not sit well with the overwhelming sound score; pauses like these have to be earned and did not seem to fit this early in the piece.
If the opening served to create a darker, stranger world, the second introduces a feeling of surreality as a sense of playfulness overtakes the performers in the midst of a rhythm study that evolves into the dancers standing in line, shaking their hips in unison. Jonathan Matthews soon begins a solo section that was easily one of the highlights of the evening. As he executes a highly technical movement phrase involving complex floorwork, Matthews monologues with a meandering logic that only someone with his odd brand of charisma could make convincing. Words evoking distance and closeness run into each other without ever becoming specific, never ceasing even as Matthews falls to the ground or stands on his shoulders. Mary Kate Hartung has a similar solo later in the piece, her voice trailing in and out as she runs not just through the designated dancing space but the entirety of the theater.
Jasmin Simmons, a long-legged standout throughout the work, dominates the final section. Her movement slows to an agonizing melt, arms weakly embracing the space as she repeatedly intones, “I will pray for all you motherf***ers.” Half song, half moan, Simmons moves sinuously through exhaustion as the rest of The Creature moves around her; when she is alone, the ensuing breakdown feels all too real, Simmons shaking as she continues to sing into the silent space. The piece closes with a now-familiar interruption, juxtaposing rhythm and movement sequences seen earlier in the work that culminate in The Creature moving together, turning and turning past the end of the sound and the light. The cheers and applause that greeted the end of the piece were well earned, as was the individual introduction of each dancer to the audience with which Reaves closed the evening.
Ash & Honey Part 1 succeeded both on the individual merits of each performer and on what was mostly a compositionally strong structure. The movement and music were neither traditionally relational or purposefully contradictory; rather, both used repetition of rhythms in sound and in motion to provide a clockwork and touchstone to keep the world moving. The work excels when there are multiple focal points within the space or when a single focal point is fought for by a performer and earned by the audience’s emotional engagement. The utilization of text and the performers’ perspectives without ever becoming bogged down in a concrete plot line was impressive, as was the work’s ability to suggest ideas to the audience’s intuition rather than their reason. It ranges from strange and unknowable to strangely relatable, from humorous to painful to wacky to somber. ChristinaNoel and The Creature created a beguiling, intriguing world, and I am already looking forward to next season.
Featured image: ChristinaNoel Reaves in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.