A “Rock & Mortar” Remedy

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December 6, 2019

If I have any beef at all with Epiphany Dance Theater’s piece “Rock & Mortar” — which you should definitely see — it’s that the piece could do more of what it does. The audience is told at the beginning that they will be part of the show, and indeed, we follow the dancers through Z Space, experiencing different settings, and there are moments when a dancer might ask you to tie their apron strings or give you a sprig of rosemary, yet I think there is room for even more fourth wall violation. And though place is purportedly a theme in the piece, actual geographic location is more a point of departure than a container for this unruly piece, which also lacks a coherent narrative through-line, a sense of a character changing over time and experience (though you could argue that that is the purview of drama more than dance). I get these quibbles out of the way so that I can celebrate what works so well — the repetition and variation of the phrases danced vigorously and beautifully, the projections, the integration overall of word and movement, the derring-do of dancers (particularly Nehara Kalev) climbing everywhere, the often-gorgeous singing, the striking sets full of ghostly laundry.

Jenny McAllister, left, and Allegra Bautista in Rock & Mortar. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

I feel a review full of run-on sentences coming on. Bear with me. There is something orgiastic in this work, and the through-line transmitted is the presence through the eons of female bodies as sites of labor, of healing, and of madness. The stories sung and told often feature grandmothers — their remedies, their physicality, their enduring offering. Somewhere in the world there must be a place where an old folks home shares space with a pre-school (or hey, let’s make that happen) the very young and very old are living in that rich liminal space that is close at once to the ground and to the cosmos. Such a place would be a site of tremendous healing. Grandmothers are present in this piece as holders of tradition, knowers of herbal remedies, as the root in our troubled and contradictory America that connects us genetically, directly, with the old country. The ancestors have never stopped speaking through us and to us, and we are reminded that the traumas of previous generations do indeed live on in us, in our haunted cells.

Recorded voices offer recipes for remedies, including one for depression, that elusive chemical state that can enchant its sufferers into believing there is no place for them in the world we walk through. One of the things I love about this piece is the way it celebrates the miracle of physicality, the sense that our bodies are both cage and portal. At one point you will discover that the bank of seats in the main stage area has been covered by a great white sheet, as if audiences through the ages have left behind a residue of their spirits. Jenny MacAllister appears at the top of the ghostly embankment, dressed in a black winged costume, to tell a tale of the beauty of a grandmother’s corpse, and of a changeling child welcomed, despite her oddness, by the abiding love of the crone.

Jhia Jackson, center, in Rock & Mortar. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Epifano and her dancers brought reminiscences of their respective ancestors to the creation of this piece, tapping into an embarrassment of riches in America, the endless immigrant stories. One of the challenges this country has never resolved is our relationship to multiplicity. The stupid doubleness of our national narrative — theoretically  we welcome the ragged and despised of elsewhere (OK yeah, right now this theory seems particularly divorced from our daily reality), yet Americanness means something that severs, rather than cultivates, connections to the past. “Rock & Mortar” feels like an antidote to our current backsliding changeling moment, when nationalism dresses as patriotism and freedom is so deeply confused with consumption. I wanted to grab hands with the dancers and do the hora and the tarantel and the Shaker ring dance, to celebrate the women who hold their own bodies and the bodies of others as the ultimate location of resistance. Go see it yourself and don’t hold back on the foot stomping and singing along to “bella ciao”.

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