Perspectives on Vicky Shick’s “Another Spell”
January 31, 2017
Graduate programs do not usually have students write briefly and fast. So Robert Hullot-Kentor, wise chair of the School of Visual Arts’ Critical Theory and the Arts department, suggested I take those CTA members stuck in New York over winter break to a dance concert of my choosing and subject them to the strict limits imposed on my own reviewing for the Financial Times: a 350-word review, with no more than six hours to draft, write, rewrite, then revise to address “queries,” as editors call their comments and objections.
The group met three times—once to look at several newspaper writers’ short arts reviews as models (my charges shredded them); once to go to Vicky Shick’s enchanting Another Spell; and once to share what we’d written for a final round of tweaking. (I wrote on the show, too, but exempted myself from scrutiny, in my fragile old age.)
I was so impressed by the results that I asked Danspace whether they were interested in publishing the reviews here.
I think you can discern in these short essays the balancing act these writers practice at Critical Theory and the Arts: to see the work before you in all its particularity, which means also in its revelation of some part of “the antagonisms, conflicts and promises of human history and of the moment we inhabit,” to quote from the Critical Theory and the Arts statement of intent. Given the dance’s sensual vibrancy and delicacy—its natural resistance to “making points”—Another Spell turned out to be the perfect choice for this intense challenge.
Mechanical, then coincidental, a hauntingly beautiful body of movements
Bells are ringing, the piece begins, Vicky Shick stands and states, “The characters in this piece are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” As she utters these words, St. Mark’s Church turns dark, with the only light shining through the church window and the only sound the cold wind blowing outside. The warm spotlight turns on and highlights the set of six standing female bodies that curl up and tangle together.
The beautiful piece is separated by scenes divided by music, silence, lighting and shadows. New landscapes are evoked with these different vocal and visual mediums. With the tweeting of birds, the audience is transported to nature. With the sounds of metal clashing together, to a factory. This sensation of the body’s absolute presence comes and goes in these “sections” and in the dancers’ fragmentary phrases.
Shick, a former member of the Trisha Brown company, enters the space and guides the six dancers into choreography full of attitude and slow sensuality. By playing with the rigidity of structure and the anarchy of its disintegration, she produces an unforgettable sensibility to the body and for us. In collaboration with the artist Barbara Kilpatrick, costumes and a sculpture become part of the females’ routine while enhancing the visceral quality of the body and stage. The dancers dominate the theatrical terrain through the realm of dance, establishing a palpable rhythm in the movement and in between the movement.
The movement resembles a warmup dance session of repeated steps to loosen and learn to control the body. At times the dancers are disconnected and at other times they are touching, kissing, clasping hands and torsos. An interesting closeness is evoked, playing and touching upon personal distance and erotic intimacy. The women provoke and engage in a fascinating whole: feet, legs, hips, arms and hands swinging, enlacing themselves in one another to become a single organism. The women expose and hide each other while posing, then losing the pose.
Shick has presented an exceptional piece with her dancers, creating a mixture between a puppet play and a militaristic, ritualistic dance. The powerfully detailed movement captures the viewer’s attention. It also gives the sensation that everyone in the audience has their own focal point and is experiencing a different movement at the same universal time while transporting us all into another world, Another Spell.
— Anna Hugo
It begins as if the viewer were being let in on a secret. Welcoming us with a kind face, Vicky Shick speaks to us from the soft darkness, assuring us everything we will see will be fictitious. Lights off and then on again, pelvises slowly start to move—rhythmically, monochromatically well-dressed wild life.
As they exquisitely occupy St. Mark’s Church, the exclusively female dancers sporadically converge and disperse, creating a varying consistency of bodies. Pulling or supporting, in plain view or behind a screen, they seem always as one. Each movement is acknowledged and echoed by another: as one leg is put up, another hand catches it; as one woman snaps her fingers the other joins; they constantly look at each other and at us. An undeniable intimacy fills the space, and although their appearance is diverse the dancers breathe as a single organism; irregularly in sync, they walk and fall together.
The performance is accompanied by a minimal backdrop and close to no props. Assembling several distinct compositions, the dancers enter and leave the main floor, calmly waiting on the edges for their cue. In between dance rendezvous they walk casually from one point to another, occasionally wiping the dirt off their feet. These seemingly everyday movements meet mystical moments, accompanied by the shadow-game lights and the music – a range that goes from film noir, city noises versus jungle sounds, to chanting and a distant piano. The fragments of sound and dance form an idiosyncratic whole, a texture of femininity, an interpretation of the intricate relations of being together and alone.
A sense of connection extends to the viewers, as from start to finish our eyes are repeatedly met, in a peculiar directness as if the dancer were looking in a mirror or striking a pose in preparation for a photo. Midway through the performance, in what feels like a break, the women huddle together; this time some are on chairs and some on the floor. They pull out stockings and stretch them over their heads to reveal a distorted face. They look at us, look at each other, and laugh. It seems like a women’s body is never merely a neutral body; it is always of a woman’s body.
— Karen Rasaby
“Nuanced Experience”: Out of complexity, Vicky Shick’s dance draws its audience to an authentic experience
What does a spell imply? Heretical, mysterious, shadowed in a threatening ecstasy, a “spell” seems inevitably antiquated and occluded. Not the spell of Vicky Shick. In her recent Another Spell, commissioned by Danspace Project and reprised this January, the movement’s nuanced complexity acts subtly on the audience, creating a tension inside a spell of our time and beyond it.
Performed on the ground of St. Mark’s Church, the dance extends upward to the slightly illuminated dome. The set is simple: two racks on wheels. Serving as veils as well as backdrops, a piece of fabric like the skin of a beast hangs on one and, on the other, something resembling a black coat. But the unrealistic shape of the textiles indicates that a literal opposition between the primitive and the cultivated could be an oversimplified account.
The seven-person dance is highly nuanced, with its constant shifts between three categories of moves. Most of the time the movement refuses interpretation, like the natural reactions of uncontrolled bodies. On the opposite end are typical gestures such as a boss’s crossing of his legs, or hands simulating a pistol. In between lies movement that neither evokes direct natural affections nor elicits explanations. It hovers between having and not having a meaning.
The fluid transition between, or combination of, these three kinds of moves, accompanied by music that ranges from silence, snaps, and ritualistic incantations to electronic darkwave, creates both a powerful dynamic between telling and performing onstage and a convoluted tension between interpreting and feeling for the audience. Do six young women glued to each other trembling, chest to back, mean anything? Is it an ironic expression of men’s fantasy or is it just some animal-like play? Is the group’s rushing back and forth an expression of primitive emotion? But then how to understand the obvious domination of some dancers over others at times?
During the performance, the audience is forced to jump in and out of these feelings and thoughts following the dancers’ ever-shifting expressions. To interpret is doomed to fail since the fragmented stories only appear glancingly. But the work is clearly fraught with inter-subjective or even political meaning that extends beyond natural emotions. This is the spell that Shick and her companions cast on us, a spell that draws us into an authentic state of experiencing.
— Mang Su
On a fresh spring morning, a herd of young girls washes over a playground, startling as one mind to threats real or imagined, shattering on air-rocks and quickly re-forming, already forgetting and distracted, preening for each other, preoccupied with their strange new limbs.
Evoking the experience of girlhood through the lens of an alien observer, Vicky Shick’s Another Spell nimbly engaged a rapt audience at Danspace Project on a freezing January evening. Dropping into and out of recognition, specific actions distorted, hinting at but shying away from direct representation. Some activities took fanciful shape and demanded titles: Going to Town—in which the girls clotted into small sets, engaging in near-familiar movements of fitness and leisure and, of course, watching each other. Witches’ Sabbath—the light went, the sound became abrasive and abruptly bird-less, the girls grew more chaotic, spinning in a wild circle. Home After School—each girl stood apart, engaging in an inscrutable but routine set of actions.
In marked contrast with the ease and grace of the movements, all of which seemed appealing, pleasant to inhabit, the costumes were jarringly unappealing. In shiny synthetics and off-the-rack cuts they implied a mistranslation or statement of bemusement on fast teenage fashion. They stuck a wrench in the pure enjoyment of the movements. A bare, grid-like bustle especially offended and an echoing baggy shirt of black bars obscured the mid-section of one dancer for the duration.
They dancers moved like a set of organisms: sharing distinctive movements, passing them among each other, retaining a few idiosyncrasies for themselves.
At one point from where I was sitting it seemed a disembodied head slid down an arm into a waiting hand. This happened twice, close after the Witches’ Sabbath. It reminded of classical scenes of female-initiated beheading as reenacted on the playground.
Sense of time was distant and attention set itself at a more or less constant level of engagement. It was a pleasure to be there. Both recognizable and incomprehensible, form to the feeling, but disintegrating if you unwisely attempted to pin it down, the dancers refused to alight and kept the audience delightedly unsteady.
Shick and dancers in a magical spell against militarism
The darkness of a church pervaded by the city lights and filtered through stained glass windows sets the mood for ‘Another Spell’. When the first dancer enters the stage, her subtle movements are brightened by a lamé outfit. A wheeled panel that had been already in place will soon assume an important role – the one of concealer and revealer at the same time. The second dancer to enter the stage engages in softly robotic moves while staring at the public; she’s wearing a skirt that looks as if it were right off a New York Fashion Week runway.
Another four dancers will join in the subsequent minutes and they will interact with one another, along with Vicky Shick herself, who makes occasional and powerful appearances, revealing years of experience using nothing but dance. Another Spell is a show about the feminine, about sisterhood. During times of ubiquitous war, it’s a magic spell against militarism.
In the course of one hour, these archetypical women – defined at first by their costumes, but as the performance develops, we identify each of them by the way they move around the stage – cooperate with one another in several manners. They might dance alone, in pairs, in groups or all of them together. Tenderness stands out. These characters are friends, lovers, mothers and daughters using the wheeled panel as their only camouflage from the spectator’s eyes.
The performance is divided between periods of music and silence and intermittent corporeal sounds such as singing. Sometimes rhythm is obvious (for example when they dance along to the rhythm of a percussive piece), sometimes not. Rules are disguised. Movements are loose, unconstricted and unfinished.
Synchrony doesn’t seem important at first, but when a dancer touches another dancer’s body, the coordination and harmony are surprising. The moments when they perform together are more interesting than their solos, as differences are accentuated and particularities in conflict. The idiosyncrasy of the characters is the key to this performance. There’s room for each of them. There’s room for claps and snaps; they organize themselves in the space in different shapes, like an Army, except they rejoice in elements that military restrains: mellow voicing, laughter, some fragmentation and, above all, particularity and non-standardization. In a world of utilitarianism, it is a relief to watch a performance showing such disinterested and unfettered interactions.
— Luiza Testa