By Sondra Forsyth (@SondraForsyth)
The highlight of “Up and Away”, General Mischief Dance Theatre’s thoroughly enjoyable program on October 11 at JCC Manhattan’s Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Family Auditorium, was the World Premiere of “Recreation”. The piece, with clever choreography by company co-founder Emily Smyth Vartanian in collaboration with actor/sculptor Kevin Reese and set to music by Donna Viscuso, features a large mobile designed with support from the Washington D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and created by hundreds of volunteers as part of the Atlas Arts Center’s “Mobilizing Our Community” project. The General Mischief performers deftly assemble the mobile little by little while they dance without missing a beat or a step.
If you didn’t see this one-of-a-kind event, which served as the finale at the matinée and evening performances this past Sunday, mark your calendar for January 17 (at either 1:15 or 3:45 p.m..) at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as part of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference. Consider bringing along a child or two. The youngsters in the audience at the 6 p.m. show I attended were enthralled by the transformation of random cutout shapes into a giant, rotating overhead “toy”.
The children also giggled and cheered and applauded throughout the first four offerings on the mixed bill, as did the grown-ups. Clearly, General Mischief is accomplishing its mission to reinforce “the power that joy and laughter have in communicating ideas.” To that end, the troupe engages the audience in interactive play guided by the charming banter and instructions of one of the dancers, Andrea Steiner, as a sort of Mistress of Ceremonies. She announced that “the fourth wall is behind you”. This reference to the theater convention of “not breaking the fourth wall”, meaning the invisible “wall” between the footlights and audience, probably eluded many people. Still, her point was well taken by those of us who got it. The magic in a General Mischief production is not meant to be confined to the stage and merely witnessed by the ticket holders. On the contrary, the shenanigans are shared and experienced by one and all.
For the program’s opener, “Buzz – Part II” by Emily Smyth Vartanian to the music of Ozomatli, the performers were lit only by the screens of handheld mobile devices. In this digital age, young and old alike understood the message.
Next up, Andrea Steiner as the Ball Girl in “Hardball” by Vartanian to the traditional “Dueling Banjos”, handed out wiffle balls to people in the audience who later tossed them at the performers. She also selected two audience members, one of them a precocious little girl, to be the impromptu umpires. Performers Jane Abott and Ellen Henry, suspended on bungee cords, never touched the ground as they gestured and gyrated although they sometimes swung perilously close, which elicited delighted shrieks.
During “The Love Trio” by Vartanian to the music of Paul Tillotson, the company members got their first chance to prove that they are skilled dancers. With Wendy Lechuga in the role of the Teacher, four women in tunics executed classroom ballet steps and combinations very nicely, including challenging piqué and soutenu turns in a manege (circle formation) while a fifth woman clowned around attempting to disrupt the proceedings. Later, this time clad in pants and tops and wearing hats, the dancers did a fine job of jazz technique as well. The point of this section, entitled “Shell Game”, was to invite the audience to guess which dancer ends up wearing the only hat with a red lining. We saw the lining once at the beginning, but it wasn’t visible while the dancers adroitly passed hats from head to head while they moved through complicated patterns. I for one found myself distracted by the pressure to try to keep track of the red-lined hat, but most people enjoyed the game. They shouted their answers enthusiastically at the end. The correct answer was Dancer Number Three, and lots of people actually nailed it. Good for them!
For “Suite Shel”, inspired by the poems of Shel Siverstein and danced to music written and performed by Lizzie Hagstedt for General Mischief, Vartanian shared the choreography credits with Madeline Hoak and Celine Rosenthal for two of the five parts. An audience favorite was Vartanian’s “Shoes” in which the dancers put shoes borrowed from the audience on their hands, using them as an extra pair of feet or to slap one another. I must admit that I found the concept of sticking one’s hands into somebody else’s probably sweaty shoes to be a bit disconcerting, but that’s just the stodgy adult in me. The children in the audience loved the piece. They rooted for their own shoes during the mock “fist” fights and pretend tap dances!
The company’s web site declares: “We are serious about fun”. In our world of information overload, General Mischief Dance Theatre serves as a welcome antidote to what often seems to be a constant bombardment of bad news. That’s why I once again heartily recommend that you plan to see “Recreation” in January. Turn off your phone, leave your iPad at home, and let yourself revel in live entertainment guaranteed to brighten your mood as the colorful mobile materializes before your very eyes and the professional dancers move with grace and precision. Don’t miss it!