Corning Dances & Co.
IT WAS 8 p.m. on Good Friday and the faithful were streaming into the Basilica for the evening's service. Meanwhile, on the other side of Hennepin Avenue, pilgrims of an entirely different sort paid homage to Cabaret Dolls, a dance revue that's equal parts Moulin Rouge, Coney Island Freak Show, and Sex World. While lightning didn't strike the Loring Playhouse that night, there were plenty of hellzapoppin' vibes. A good time was had by all--but mostly by the dancers themselves.
Myron Johnson has had a busy season with Ballet of the Dolls. Just last month the company performed Portraits, a stunning suite of six dances exemplifying Johnson's unique showmanship and high performance values. For Cabaret Dolls the choreographer has let his imagination run wild with the concept of a post-millennium cabaret featuring society's mutations as objects of adoration. This is a meaty premise, which makes it ultimately disappointing that, for all its sheer performance effort, the show stops short of breaking its sequined surface.
As usual, the Dolls go for broke visually. Entering the theater, the audience is treated to a backstage silhouette view of the dancers readying themselves. As the lights dim, Giggles McGirly (Kevin McCormick), a self-styled "collector of oddities, pervert, fetishist, and Irishman," introduces each of his oddly alluring assortment of "hybrid flowers." Among the many stars are Miss Trix (Zhauna Franks), a rock & roll mute with a mouth for a bellybutton; the all-seeing Girl Jones (Jennifer Hart), who has eyes in the darndest places; and Miss Blue (Michael DeLeon), the first entirely man-made woman. Together the cast enthusiastically works its way through 20 production numbers accompanied by countless costume changes courtesy of Lyle Jackson.
While there's plenty to enjoy in Cabaret Dolls, what's missing is subtext. Moments like a hilarious striptease by Miss Blue, Giggles, and Miss Tipsy (Johnson), as well as a Sybil-like dance of madness by Miss Honey Walters (Joel Klauser), are indeed memorable, but once the thrills and shock value wear off the show doesn't seem much different than a typical night on the Vegas strip. A seeming undercurrent of rebellion might have been explored to greater effect, giving the intriguing characters a raison d'etre beyond their sexy personas, gender blur, and clever biographies. Johnson has creativity to burn, but like his character Medusa Extremity, who has "a real flair for over-accessorizing," he also needs to challenge himself more often to find the meaning behind the provocative images he puts on stage.
Choreographer Beth Corning is also a great believer in the power of image. Her dances rarely lack a striking focal point, which makes the installation/performance Legal Innocence a logical direction for the artist to take. Centered around domestic violence, the piece presents the collision between fairy-tale romance and real power dynamics. The work is plainspoken, making its point by relying on simple gestures and empty spaces rather than staged war stories and bleak statistics. This approach succeeds because Corning recognizes that most people inherently understand issues of control, even if they've never been victims of relationship abuse.
The installation aspect of Legal Innocence is a forest of suspended wedding dresses with crisply plastered bodices housing tape recorders that play interviews with battered women. Corning stands on a ladder among the dresses and methodically sews her fingers together. As the first of many "happy ending" lines from such stories as "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Sleeping Beauty" sound overhead, dancers Stephanie Dumaine, Denise Gustafson-Bryn, and Sarah Schneeberger make their own attempts at control with button-down shirts that subversively wrap around shoulders, necks, wrists, and faces. The shirts serve as a potent symbol throughout the piece, acting as enemy, comforter, and emblem of perpetuated violence.
As the sole male performer, Doug Gilbert could be easily cast as an abuser, but Corning chooses to go beyond this role and allow for the possibility of violence by women on men, as well as in same-sex relationships. His solo presents a study of the conflicting emotions felt by both victim and abuser. Likewise, a series of solos, duets and trios for Corning and the three other female dancers signal patterns of repetitive, protective behavior abused individuals use to avoid inciting a partner's anger. The work ends with the performers pacing the stage while holding spoons with eggs in their mouths. One by one the eggs drop and break. A dancer stares blankly at the mess; another tries to pick up the pieces. The last egg falls in the dark. No words could make a stronger statement.
Cabaret Dolls continues at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 332-1619;Legal Innocence continues at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 340-1725. Both shows end April 6.