by Martha Sherman

These days, nudity in dance is not unusual, sometimes not even shocking. But it is compelling, and commands attention. For Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith, a team who have been making dances exploring relationship together, through their own relationship, since 2006, nudity is essential, offering their vulnerability and the stunning generosity of their non-sexual, but tender, intimacy. Their vocabulary is the exploration of personal boundaries, and their bodies are proxy for consciousness, boundless and deep.

The world premiere of “Basketball” at BAC was the latest in a series of Lieber/Smith duets that explored this territory. This time, the studio theater at BAC was dimly lit and especially large, and they used it all, moving in and out of several costumes, including donning furniture: chairs and a table in a late scene that drew on personal histories of violence. Their wardrobe, silken and stretchy, was like alternate skin, shed and recovered when identity demanded.

Their bodies were often dead weight to each other. As they opened, Lieber hoisted Smith up, legs in the air, and dragged her along the floor before laying on top of her as they rolled, thumping, across the wide floor. Their movements – a back breaststroke along the floor, the slow rolls on legs perfectly spread – were painstakingly detailed. Each became the other’s fulcrum, back to back, or in a Chinese-acrobat-style parade with one on top of the other’s shoulders. It was hard not to squirm a little, wondering how it felt to be pushed along the floor by an unprotected crotch.

Eleanor Smith and Molly Lieber in “Basketball.” Photo © Maria Baranova.

To the sensual pulse of Bette Midler’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” (and several other pop tunes, with occasional radio static in between), these women answered the song’s question: Yes. Smith, in beautiful, almost Greek sculptural attitudes, twisted her back, shifted her double-jointed shoulders over angled knees and created a perfect still shot of an impossible stance. Ironically, it was in a gentle narrative scene using recognizable dance movements – models on a runway, a couple in a dance hall slow dancing, a bubbly line dance – that they were least convincing, like offering filler while they caught their collective breath.

My colleague at The Log found the work “grim.” Its darkness could trigger that response, especially when Lieber and Smith struggle with relentless weightiness. But in their darkness, there is always resilience: no way down that doesn’t pair with an upward lunge, no push that isn’t resolved with a pull. When the two linked in wide naked V’s, face to face, Lieber gently wiped Smith’s moist face, the caring and sweating both equally important in their partnership.

They often caressed each other, Lieber’s hand tracing lightly up Smith’s leg and back; their necks rolling together, one ahead, one behind. There was no way in which they weren’t intertwined. In a world where solitude is increasingly decried as our scourge, Lieber and Smith were a reminder that, although it’s hard work, we don’t have to be alone.

As for the title “Basketball” – I haven’t a clue.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

COIL Festival 2017, PS 122 at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, NY
January 9 , 2017

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