Betzi Roe and Sadie Weinberg are mother and daughter, and their shared bill at the Vine last weekend displayed their unique sensibilities: Roe, in “Floodplain,” offered a tightly choreographed piece for a cast of 11, while Weinberg’s hang-loose, process-oriented “happiness: an experiment” involved just three dancers, although audience members were at times invited to join them onstage. The program also showcased something Roe and Weinberg have in common—a gift for choosing music.
Roe created “Floodplain” primarily to selections from the Kronos Quartet’s haunting album by that name, which features work by composers from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Eastern Europe, and includes instruments from those cultures. Weinberg’s music is heavy on pop classics like “Moon River,” “Over the Rainbow,” and a break-your-heart mashup of Judy Garland singing “Get Happy” and Barbra Streisand on “Happy Days are Here Again”—and yes, there’s a snatch of Pharrell Williams’s already-iconic “Happy.” Both scores felt absolutely right for these very different dances.
In “Floodplain,” Roe worked with the concept of the fertility of flood-prone areas and their changing landscapes depending on the river’s cycle, in seven sections titled “River,” “Seeds,” “Soil,” etc. A constant video backdrop, which Roe created, sometimes shows a broad river valley or trees, swaths of land, a river in flood; one section focuses in slow-motion on a seed pod opening. Video is hugely tricky to use in dance—the blown-up visuals often distract from the living bodies onstage—but the images of these quiet places in nature are lovely.
And the choreography echoes the video, so the two elements complement each other. Dancers become seed pods bursting open, four pink-clad petals unfurling, etc. … which is both a virtue and problem. Drawing closely from the natural world leads to some delicious moments, like Robby Johnson and Kathryn McLean curling the edges of their feet in “Seeds.” But, if unfurling like petals sounds like an overworked dance meme, it is. Much of the choreography is quite literal, making it the least memorable part of this mix of music, video, and dance. One exception is the final section, which opens with a solo in which Lyndsey Gemmell repeatedly heel-toes into a delicate, tilted lunge. She continues her impeccably focused movement as the other dancers enter and do dervish-like turns around her. The section is titled “Driftwood,” the video is of a rushing river, and while you can see Gemmell as driftwood, the connection is subtle and leaves space for a larger perspective—as Gemmell maintains focus while everyone swirls around her, she is not merely driftwood but something more essential, a still point in the midst of chaos. I wanted more of that.
Weinberg’s “happiness: an experiment” is a “process” work, in which the three performers—Weinberg, Heather Glabe, and April Tra—play with the conventions of performance. They sit a table at the front of the stage and join the audience, or gather around the table and pour coffee from a silver pot. As Glabe and Tra seem to measure space, they talk through their movement phrases. Tra does brief explorations in response to recorded prompts: “Find the space between the opposites.” Rubber duckies appear. And there are several opportunities for the audience to get into the act.
This is the kind of work that can be way more interesting to participants than to an audience, but “happiness” succeeds in being an engaging piece. Weinberg has created a solid underlying structure, evident in the beautifully balanced score, in which some songs play for just seconds at a time, and several tightly choreographed unison sections—and what a delight to watch these three deft, powerful movers.
[php snippet=1] There are some pointless bits, for instance, cards with four questions—e.g., “Did you have lunch before you came here?”—that they collected from the audience but didn’t use. Still, for all the playfulness, Weinberg gets across a deeper sense of how we yearn for happiness, and what a gift it is when it comes our way. I had just written, “This is chewy,” when they brought out cookies and popsicles and ended by inviting everyone to have a snack.