I Y'am What I Y'am

WHAT DO POPEYE the Sailor Man and Persephone, the hapless goddess, have in common? Well, Popeye's belle Olive Oyl spent half her time as a hostage to the bullying Bluto, while Persephone became a hostage of Pluto. In a more immediate sense, both figures appear in dances by Dylan Skybrook and Alyce Finwall during this weekend's final Momentum:New Dance Works concerts. Neither of these venerable cultural icons, it should be said, appear in their usual guises--the macho seafarer and the tunic-clad maiden. In Finwall's "Persephone," the eponymous heroine is decked out as a Catholic schoolgirl in a pleated skirt and starched white blouse. And Skybrook's skewed rendering of the Popeye theme song--"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man; I think I'd look better with a tan; I must admit I have no plan"--casts a certain "whatever" malaise over the plucky optimist.

While Finwall and Skybrook share a penchant for theatricality and a genre-bending approach to dance forms, they speak the language of dance with radically different dialects. Finwall, a Minnesota native who currently dances for Myron Johnson's Ballet of the Dolls, gives the myth of Persephone's abduction by Pluto and her descent into the underworld plenty of high drama and passionate intensity. The nine dancers' bodies are taut with the tensions of mother love and godly lust. They express Olympian-scale emotions in supercharged modern-ballet terms: writhing extensions and ingenious lifts tempered by softer gestures of intimacy.

Finwall updates the myth by dividing the character of Zeus among four dancers to amplify his status as an all-powerful male figure, and by casting herself as Pluto. "I'm making the character very sexual, somewhat androgynous," says Finwall, who also admits to imbuing her underworld with "a creepy incestuous twist."

Eating that pomegranate makes a girl naughty: Penelope Freeh as Persephone
Eating that pomegranate makes a girl naughty: Penelope Freeh as Persephone

A former gymnast inspired by Johnson's eclectic and hard-driving ballet aesthetic, 30-year-old Finwall likes to challenge her dancers both physically and emotionally. "I'm a bit of a masochist," she insists. "I tend to push them to the breaking point."

Skybrook, on the other hand, tends to go with the flow. Or, as he puts it, "get deeper into my own habits--the way I like to move." His work "1,000 Ways" is a fairly sprawling take on evolutionary and cultural growth, spiritual awareness, and hanging out. (In the last scene, everyone gets communal and washes dishes together.)

"The piece begins with the stress of being a cell, locating oneself within the struggle," explains the 32-year-old Skybrook, a laid-back guy with a highly developed sense of irony. "By the dish-washing scene, everyone has realized that it's just an easier time not trying so hard."

In this Gen X saga, five dancers mix street-dance and martial-arts forms with a lexicon of gestures suggesting angst and rage, but drained of emotional content. These performers are who they are: disengaged, relaxed, almost cheeky in the way they throw off movement. At one point, a woman hits another hard and repeatedly in the chest. Yet the blows don't faze her; they don't even register (though she does look a little annoyed). It's a scary, amusing, and definitely disconcerting moment--which is Skybrook's intention.

Along the way, he throws in some videos of Zebra-fish embryos ("little critters with involuntary tremors," explains Skybrook); some spiritual aphorisms by Adi da Somraj, Skybrook's spiritual mentor; and some dancers constrained by harnesses, which he equates (roughly) with the struggle between free will and predestination. And in the end, is Somraj's exhortation to search for "the one particular wave pattern determining one's particular experience" really so far from Popeye's mantra "I y'am what I y'am"? Or from Persephone's preordained struggle to wrest spring from the implacable heart of winter?

 
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