‘Pleated’- MFA Thesis Concert by Stephanie Miracle at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

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Walking into the Dance Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, I was excited to attend Pleated, Stephanie Miracle’s MFA Thesis Concert.  My excitement stemmed from my interest in Miracle’s work, having thoroughly enjoyed Fork, her duet with Kate Folsom (Rehearsal Assistant on Pleated) in the Choreographers Showcase earlier this year. Miracle had my interest piqued from the moment I entered the Dance Theatre. The audience was situated on pillows, mats, and chairs in the area of the space I had previously seen used as the stage space. The stage space, which I would later discover to include the audience area as well, was the area usually taken up by risers for audience seating, but with the risers folded up against the wall. Above the audience’s heads was a beautiful installation of clouds, pristine white and grey. On the house right side of the space were black mesh curtains with white folded, perhaps origami discs attached. Right before the lights dimmed for the start of the performance, I read Miracle’s biography in the program. As a practice, I try not to read the program before I see a performance, letting my observations guide my experience, and using the program later for a reference point or to gain insight. I noticed that she mentioned she was the oldest of three girls, a phrase that could be easily glanced over, but is particularly central to Pleated.

The cast of Pleated embodies the tenets of Miracle’s work, from an outside observer’s perspective of course. The dancer must embrace the idea of exhibiting a certain level of frenzy in the body without giving oneself over to it wholly. The dancer should be an adroit technician with a strong sense of line in her own body. The dancer should possess a certain level of daring, both in their performance qualities and in being open to climbing on each other and the architecture of the space. A sense of physical and emotional abandon is helpful, but backed up with the sense of one’s own body to know how far is far enough versus too far. The dancer should be verbally aware, able to speak loudly and clearly in performance, while also being able to ground the text in a sense of realism. Last, but certainly not least, the dancer should be playful and willing to go on an artistic journey. Now, these are not singular to Miracle’s work, but the combination of these characteristics were adroitly and elegantly displayed by Chelsea Brown, Robin Neveu Brown, Unissa Cruse-Ferguson, Nicole Y. McClam, Phyllis Liu, Patricia Mullaney-Loss, and Elizabeth Barton in the performance of Pleated, making me think that these ideas would transfer to other artistic endeavors with Miracle.

Pleated is a journey, through vignettes, of three sisters and their friend as they transition from childhood, to adolescence, to young womanhood. The cast is comprised of the younger selves of the sisters, the more mature selves of the sisters, and their friend, portrayed by one dancer throughout. Using similar color motifs, the younger and older selves of the same person are easy to identify after a while. June (the oldest), performed by Chelsea Brown and Robin Neveu Brown, wears shades of yellow and brown. Violet (the middle), performed by Unissa Cruse-Ferguson and Nicole Y. McClam, wears purples and blues. Maggie (the youngest), performed by Phyllis Liu and Patricia Mullaney-Loss, wears green. Kate (the friend), performed by Elizabeth Barton, wears a striped turtle-neck of brown and pink and a black skirt, which set her apart visually but didn’t make her stand out unnecessarily. Miracle’s eye for costuming is truly remarkable, in both her combinations of colors, patterns and textures onstage, as well as her unique mix of prints on one dancer, without her looking like she has cataracts. Miracle’s casting was wonderful as well, in pairing not only visually similar dancers together, but dancers who possess similar qualities in their movement and performance. The cast employs a wonderful sense of proprioception onstage, both in their proximity to each other and their timing with one another. Their characterizations are wholly human and the theatrical devices come across organically.

Vignettes of different movements and themes are reminiscent of various points in one’s life. A rather frenetic and irreverent solo combining running and talking at lightening speeds through the audience and the stage space, looking up at the clouds to discover what animal(s) they look like, and taking pregnant pauses to catch one’s breath and get excited by something else in the room is very reminiscent of childhood. The use of the risers as bunk beds, with the dancers whispering, reading books and magazines by flashlights, and hanging limbs off of the edge brought back images of childhood bedrooms and summer camp sleeping arrangements. Sequences with the older selves discussing situations and altercations from their pasts, with the use of the physical bodies of their younger selves, illuminated the tendency to reminisce about one’s childhood later in life. Hindsight truly is twenty-twenty. The older selves insert themselves into the physical picture and gain a somewhat skewed vantage point on a situation that they think about from time to time, or perhaps haunts them in their present. The moments highlighting the older selves reminded me of my favorite quote from the HBO series GIRLS, which is as follows: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” These vignettes explored a range of ages and vivid experiences that presented a universal feeling in their specificity.

As I watched Pleated unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the film Now & Then, which shows a friend group of women as adolescents and as women in their late twenties and early thirties. The dual cast of the same characters wasn’t the only comparison I drew between both pieces of art. One of the strengths of Miracle’s work is the ability to layer multiple heartfelt emotions in one piece. There were sequences of warm nostalgia, eerie uncertainty, and almost crippling self-doubt, but no one emotion was ever over-emphasized or maudlin. Miracle also strikes a beautiful sense of universality, due the specificity of her choreography. As a man watching this piece, I never once felt like an outsider, but rather I experienced the work as the performers executed every movement, and was transported to various places in my life. I felt the strong sense of the female experience in this piece. I find it a credit to Miracle’s gifts as a choreographer that she also portrayed and conveyed the ideas of growing up and looking back separate from gender with a female cast.

Pleated is not only an entertaining evening of modern dance, but it also both visually striking and emotionally introspective. This piece showcases Miracle’s many gifts as a choreographer through clear and concise vignettes presented in a non-linear way. Miracle uses choreography to ask questions about movement and life. My favorite observation of Miracle’s work is that it seems as if the dancers approach the movement from the same idea, physically and/or emotionally, but that she allows and celebrates the different ways in which each dancer’s body accomplishes the task at hand. There is a confidence about her work, and she isn’t one to play down to her audience, so she doesn’t feed you the answers to her questions. I believe that she relishes in the uncertainty of not always knowing the answers to the questions she poses, and as such she comforts her audience in that uncertainty while they search for the answers. The use of “games” in this work is representative of life as well as the “games” that can serve as choreographic exploration throughout the artistic process. What becomes of “games” when you realize that you are the only one still playing? I don’t know the answer, but I am still thinking about it hours after leaving the performance. She also explored the idea of being lost. Is that situation worse for the person lost or the people doing the looking? Again, I don’t know the answer, but I am intrigued to continue thinking about it. I look forward to more opportunities to ask questions, explore familiar situations, and be entertained by the creative prowess, adept compositions, and artfully stimulating choreography of Stephanie Miracle.

Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes.

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Pleated plays tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 PM at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is located at Stadium Drive & University Boulevard, in College Park, MD. Purchase tickets online.

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