Barbara Mahler describes the process of creating her latest dance as a combination of blind luck and intuitive blundering. "It was Alice's path, running through a tunnel that has to lead somewhere," the New York choreographer/performer says, invoking the girl from Wonderland. "This way, that way, drink this, grow, shrink."
The 49-year-old Mahler is speaking by phone from her New York loft four blocks from the World Trade Center, and it turns out that her personal upside-down period coincided with the 9/11 attack. From her studio she experienced "the noise, the screaming, the craziness"; and the year-or-two-from-hell surrounding that event also included the loss of her mother, uncle, and sister. The solo work that emerged from those experiences, "The Whispering Pages--short dances in white all in a row," approaches the now-familiar theme of large-scale mourning with startling directness. "I went at it with a vengeance, though I didn't have a clue what I was doing," Mahler says.
Mahler, who will share a program with Rosy Simas this week as part of Red Eye's monthlong "Isolated Acts" series, physically embodies the stark drama of Greek tragedy or a film-noir heroine. Described by one writer as "an athletic Joan Crawford," Mahler projects both emotional weight and physical clarity through her dancing. The power of her movement language comes from years of getting rid of unnecessary effort and ornamentation. Picture (if you can) Xena Warrior Princess with a yogic perspective, channeling the architectural purity of the Bauhaus. Okay, don't even try to picture that. Adding to this curious mix is the music of the Platters. "Just for the hell of it, I set part of the dance to their version of 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,'" says Mahler. "The song had it all--fire, smoke, tears, loss."
Like Mahler, with whom she's studied for several years, Minneapolis choreographer Rosy Simas steers straight into her subject like the sure winner in a game of chicken. Intrigued by Paul Gauguin's paintings of women, Simas visited Tahiti on her honeymoon. "Geography is a powerful physical experience," says Simas. "Tahiti was hot and wet, 24 hours a day." Simas used the physical sensation of a place "where everything from volcanoes to foliage is in a constant state of growth and flux" as a starting point for her work.
An equally important stimulus was Gauguin's depiction of women of color in a "natural" state. "These women are comfortable with themselves and their culture," says the 35-year-old Simas, whose cast of 10 women includes dancers, a performance artist, and a visual artist who come from African, Asian, and Mexican backgrounds. Simas, whose own ancestry is a mix of American Indian and Portuguese, sees the piece as more about these performers and their differing viewpoints than about Gauguin. Dismissing some critics who see Gauguin's paintings as exoticized versions of "the Other," Simas insists on their power to women of color like herself.
"If they were just artsy Victoria Secret commercials," she says, "why are so many women moved by them?"