Remembrance of Vaudevilles Past

by Leigh Witchel

Even if Keely Garfield had been born a century ago, she still would have been a dancer. But not in New York City lofts, rather in music halls across England. Born in London, Garfield is a fixture in downtown dance known for her deadpan humor. She believes in entertainment, and her new work, “Perfect Piranha,” celebrated music hall performers by weaving them into Jeff Berman’s soundtrack. What makes Garfield post-modern is she’s not one to ever sell a joke – or much of anything. She prefers to just let things drop and see who picks up on them.

Garfield entered the rough white space of The Chocolate Factory wearing a smear of blue across her lips, a hostess dress in riotous red print with enormous sleeves, and shiny purple sneakers. She chatted us up in her familiar British accent. “Thanks for coming, hope you like it. None of us can do this on our own, we’re all in it together.”

You might have expected her to start singing old standards or grab a cane and break into a soft shoe. That didn’t quite happen. Instead, Raja Feather Kelly arrived in a turquoise sequined sleeveless unitard and started jogging in delicate steps. Garfield spun like a little girl; it recalled a performance put on by children for their parents. To further populate the playhouse, Emma Rose Brown came in wearing an electric blue puff of a dress. Later she changed into a sequined jacket that looked as if it had been marked down beyond “Final Sale” at TJ Maxx. Garfield reentered wearing a tabard with the Queen of Hearts on the back: Alice in Wonderland meets The Manchurian Candidate. Everyone seemed to have costumed themselves by rummaging in a dress-up box.

The movement stayed simple, with Berman’s long, repeating marimba phrases behind. Garfield galloped, Brown slammed unstably against a wall. More children’s games, only with veiled hostility: Garfield took a swig of water from a mug and spit it out on the floor. She moved to another corner and repeated, but the next mouthful was threatened at us. Instead, it was spat at Brown, who was protected behind a sheet of chartreuse Plexiglas.

Paul Hamilton swaggered in, working a yellow flowered blazer and mimed smoking and lounging while the others got to work drying the floor. The music segued to archival recordings of English music hall songs and “Perfect Piranha” seesawed between dance-theater and purer dance.

Emma Rose Brown, Raja Feather Kelly, Keely Garfield and Paul Hamilton in “Perfect Piranha.” Photo © Paula Court.

The Chocolate Factory was set up so that performance space was deeper than it was wide; Garfield incorporated that into the piece, which receded and returned like waves. After clustering and galloping loudly round the stage, the quartet pounded at the back. Coming at us, their stamps went into a diminuendo, then a crescendo as they retreated. Tinny recorded crooning struggled to fill the background space: “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do.”

The music shifted again to an insistent pounding beat as dancers spun in the air. There was no fourth wall, just free associations. Garfield walked up to someone in the front row, leaned over and whispered in his ear. Then she sat on a folding chair in the corner and draped a sheet of colored plastic over her like a veil.

“It’s hot. It’s unseasonably hot.” She mumbled into a microphone like a Victorian woman writing sodden letters from territories of the crown. The others kept stamping in a corner. The gramophone picked up again, “After the Ball Was Over.” Garfield sang along softly.

The cast spun wildly and tipped into arabesque penchée. It recalled Giselle’s first entry as a wili, but Garfield’s phrases weren’t obsessed with shape. They were about movement and even more, effort.

Back to theater and Garfield’s deadpan, inscrutable humor. Everyone sat in a corner, put an orange washcloth on their head and a mug in their hands. Once you were sufficiently befuddled, they spun the washcloths over their heads. Garfield asked Kelly, “What are you thinking?” Finally, he admitted he was “thinking about Tony” and started weeping. Well, it turned out all four of them were thinking about Tony, and if he was thinking about them and if he would ever return. And bawling. “Wait, I’m confused.” Garfield admitted. Everyone just cried louder. The washcloths came in handy for drying tear-stained eyes.

“SIT DOWN. BE QUIET.” Garfield admonished sternly, but that didn’t last. Instead the seesaw tilted further and further to pure dance. Garfield and Kelly danced a tight, combative duet between plastic sheets ending trapped, breathing hard, their faces against the plastic. A big double solo for Hamilton and Brown swirled around to, of all things, Edith Piaf.

The dance was hermetic, largely made up of gestures we had already seen: a hand placed on the forehead sticking up like a cockscomb. The soundtrack peeled out with church bells ringing and ringing – was Garfield making an apotheosis? Kelly tore onto the stage in a flowered child’s dress and leapt avidly forward and back in assemblées.

Garfield arrived in an ugly Christmas sweater. Really ugly, with epaulets and a snowman on the back. Starting and stopping, her dance was tighter and stayed in place. She pulled up the sweater, briefly exposing her breasts. As she left, the others came on and cleared the stage, returning wearing unitards of yellow, gold and white.

Keely Garfield, Paul Hamilton, Raja Feather Kelly, and Emma Rose Brown in “Perfect Piranha.” Photo © Paula Court.

She rejoined them for a post-modern ballet blanc in yellow. The quartet walked and slid, front to back to front to back, again and again. The sliding and walks were punctuated with a stomp, jazz hands, or a snap. The volume of movement gradually, almost imperceptibly, increased until they started swinging their legs in grand rond de jambe.

Like “Rite of Spring,” “Perfect Piranha” built to a communal excitement, but not too excited. Garfield is British, after all. The four kicked the back wall and turned, but to restart the series of forward and back phrases. Finally, they high-fived and marched in a circle. The lights faded out, but the dancers kept marching until we could no longer hear their footfalls.

Garfield isn’t an artist you look to for a thesis, or a takeaway, though Garfield does open up in the program about her concern for the breakdown in civil communication. “I hit you and you hit me is one way to communicate. Inchoate and tentative, we turn away.”

There were more clues in the soundtrack. At least two songs, “Two Lovely Black Eyes” and “After the Ball Was Over,” deal with the futility of conflict. In the first, the narrator sports shiners from arguing about politics, in the second a man stays single his whole life because he thought his sweetheart was unfaithful, when she was actually kissing her brother.

Yet more than anything, “Perfect Piranha” was an innocent voyage to a world of nostalgia. It mined where Garfield is from, her Englishness and its colonial past. She did that inside the world she lives in today, where racial and gender struggles are out in the open. Still, she avoided conflict in her peaceable, if slightly potty, kingdom. Garfield looked at the past as if turning round to look back at a road we traveled together, neither defending nor judging it.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Perfect Piranha” – Keely Garfield Dance
The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, NY

November 29, 2017
Cover: Keely Garfield in “Perfect Piranha.” Photo © Paula Court.

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