Candice Thompson and Tammi Shamblin in HER, photo by Steven Schreiber
It’s rare to see a contemporary ballet company delve into uncomfortable issues that are often considered taboo. Abstract, plotless works are the norm, with occasional superficial portrayals of male-female relationships. But Deborah Lohse’s admirable ad hoc Ballet goes against the grain in HER, a full-length premiere at the Joyce SoHo that addresses female intimacy, desire, aggression, and the continuously redefined relationship between two women. The dancers sensitively convey the complexities of their conflicting characters while showing highly technical movement that is beautifully warped from its balletic foundation.
An opening solo for Lohse sets the stage for the rest of the work. Standing naked in front of video projections (by Eva Barnett) that scrutinize Lohse’s body, she seems to be adjusting to living in her own skin as she curls her torso or stretches limbs. Lighting by Amanda Ringger alternately softens or sharpens to hide or reveal her body. At one point, Lohse throws herself flat against the side wall of the stage as harsh light fully exposes her. She looks pained, helpless, and unwilling as she reveals all.
Reluctant exposure of the body is a theme in the second section as well, along with the painful reality of rejected affection. Tammi Shamblin portrays a timid, curious young woman who adores and craves approval from the strong yet reserved Candice Thompson. To the electronic sounds of Ladytron and Stefan Weisman’s delicate music for piano and violin, they dance in unison, distorting balletic lines to display marvelously twisted shapes. Thompson is remotely aware of Shamblin’s watchful, eager eyes, and after recognizing that she has been uninvited from the scene, Shamblin exits.
photo by Steven Schreiber
Yet, she remains naively persistent in her quest for acceptance as she sweetly delivers frosted cupcakes to Thompson, who politely accepts them but quickly loses interest. Thompson’s frustration with such a needy creature is initially withheld, but becomes increasingly apparent as she explodes with aggression and repeatedly slams Shamblin against a wall (exactly where Lohse stood naked under harsh light), claiming her power in the relationship. Measuring the space between their chests with a tape measure, she creates a boundary between the two and establishes conditions for future interactions. Aggression shifts to tenderness in a curiously fleeting duet before Thompson’s aggression re-emerges as she pushes Shamblin into a small white chair – more suitable for a doll than a grown woman – and pulls off her shoes and silk top. One can sense the impending mortification as Shamblin clutches her naked torso with Thompson menacingly standing over her.
The cupcakes were Shamblin’s endearing gift, but they are Thompson’s weapon as she sadistically forces Shamblin to eat them one by one. A woman’s generosity and desire for approval have been literally rejected and rammed down her throat. Embarrassed, trembling, and covered in frosting, Shamblin stretches her mouth and limbs in a final solo as she continues to give of herself – not to Thompson this time, but to the sea of audience members who have witnessed her humiliation.
There is double meaning behind the act of unwillingly consuming cupcakes. Not only does it display a woman’s cruelty toward another, but also a woman’s relationship with food. In this case, the situation is heightened by the fact that the woman happens to be a slim, toned dancer. Sitting slumped over in a chair, with bright lights highlighting her naked body while being forced to devour food might be a female ballet dancer’s worst nightmare. Lohse could have chosen to mime this section, but using real cupcakes allows for a more sensual, potent portrayal.
The dancers’ commitment to their roles is commendable. They successfully capture and express the shifting pain, pride, and pleasure that their characters feel. One woman is as aggressively cruel as the other is painfully vulnerable, and most startling is how true these characters are. Everything about HER is honest, real, and powerful.