Portland troupe marries dance and oral fixation

With little traditional dancing and no narrative, tEEth's 'Make/Believe' leaves its audience with a viscerally compelling look at human communication.

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Portland's tEEth dance troupe performs 'Make/Believe.'

With little traditional dancing and no narrative, tEEth's 'Make/Believe' leaves its audience with a viscerally compelling look at human communication.

There are many ways that humans communicate. We speak, or remain silent. We scream out loud and we scream silently. We touch or recoil from touch. We speak honestly or we almost gag on our lies. We laugh, we cry.

If there is anything that tEEth’s Make/Believe is “about,” it seems to be exploring the myriad forms of human communication. As befits the troupe’s name, Portland-based choreographer Angelle Hebert and composer Philip Kraft are clearly interested in the mouth. In this latest work, they take that oral fixation to the extreme.

Though Make/Believe was commissioned by On the Boards and Portland’s dance-presenting organization, White Bird, this isn’t the first time Hebert and Kraft, tEEth’s co-Artistic Directors, have taken on communication as their subject. An earlier work, Grub, which premiered at On the Boards in 2009, had its genesis when the husband and wife team realized they were emailing each other while sitting at the same table. And Home Made, a section of which won On the Boards’ A.W.A.R.D. show in 2010, used mouth positions as one motif in its exploration of an intimate relationship.

In Make/Believe there is no narrative and almost no traditional dancing. Rather, it’s a series of episodes, most of them involving twisting and turning pas de deux. The dancers’ voices are as important as their rubbery bodies in conveying a gamut of emotions, from delight to anguish. The quartet of talented performers — Philip Elson, Noel Plemmons, Molly Sides, and Shannon Stewart — move across the stage in a series of contorted positions, talking unintelligibly, screeching, or opening their mouths in an eerie intimation of Edvard Munch’s masterpiece The Scream. Hebert is an extremely skillful dance maker and the numerous sequences flow naturally from one to the other, despite radically changing moods, lighting, and soundscapes.

Notwithstanding the fact that there is no obvious through line, Hebert and Kraft are able to create a dramatic arc that carries us from Make/Believe’s arresting opening section to its powerful conclusion. The work begins on a darkened stage with the dancers invisible in the background. Slowly, the sounds of laughter — everything from gentle giggles to hearty belly laughs — start to echo throughout the house. The lights gradually come up as we see the silhouettes of four kneeling performers held captive behind a glaring, thin line of light on the floor. In slow motion, they begin to crawl across the line and the dance begins in earnest.

From this point on Make/Believe’s visually sparse but aurally complex style takes us through a series of sometimes highly sexualized interludes. Kraft’s industrial-noise score and Alex Gagne-Hawes’ dramatic lighting effects partner equally to create an intense environment from which it is impossible to escape, even if we wanted to.

In one of the most affecting sequences, Hebert reminds us that sometimes our words and our feelings are at odds. Sides, caught in a wide band of light, moves backward away from Plemmons, all the while telling him she wants to be closer to him, physically and emotionally. At the same time, he pulls her tighter and tighter to him as he barks at her to “get off me, leave me alone!” Hebert has captured an essential human behavior in which we sometimes say one thing while doing the opposite.

At another point, Stewart wraps her head in a long microphone cord with the mike stuck in such a way that she can barely speak. Her voice is electronically altered into a little-girl sound so that between her wrapped up mouth and squeaky voice, she is virtually unintelligible. The words want to get out, indeed they want to fill the theater, but Stewart can’t manage to say what’s inside her. Make/Believe’s final tableau reinforces the point as the four dancers move to the front of the stage, mics stuffed in their mouths, and stare intently at the audience, unable to utter a word.

One of the things that is so satisfying about any tEEth work is Hebert and Kraft’s attention to production details. Gagne-Hawes’ lighting is shockingly bright when it needs to be, shadowy and mysterious when the scene calls for that effect. Whether Gagne-Hawes is creating huge intersecting circles of light or a remarkable diamond-shaped prison-box for the dancers projected partly on the floor and partly on the back black curtain, he conveys the emotional essence of the sequence at hand.

Kraft’s score veers between prerecorded and digital live sounds, a sometimes blaring, sometimes haunting cacophony that intensifies the emotions of the dancers. Costume designer Rachelle Waldie’s blousy tops allow the dancers to reveal bare chests or cover their heads and faces with flimsy hoods allowing them chameleon-like changes of appearance.

In the end, Make/Believe is such a visually and viscerally compelling work it doesn’t matter what one makes of the content. It will be exciting to watch this talented troupe as it continues to grow in artistry and audience.

If you go: Make/Believe by tEEth, On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, through March 3. Tickets $20 and are available at the box office, by phone 206.217.9888, or online at www.ontheboards.org.


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