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Review: staibdance’s “fence” is a challenging, important new work

In a dark interior space, dancers reached to embrace one another but stopped short, as if yearning to love but holding back, their quivering stillness prolonging the instant.

It was one of a barrage of unsettling moments in last Thursday’s world premiere of fence, a new work created by staibdance at the Dance Studio theater at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

fence is an important work for staibdance, the Atlanta-based contemporary dance company founded and directed by choreographer George Staib, a professor of practice at Emory University [Full disclosure: Staib is a contributing writer for ArtsATL]. During the company’s 11-year lifespan, Staib has attracted some of Atlanta’s finest contemporary dancers and artistic collaborators. Consistently, the company’s biannual performances have been among the most thought-provoking works around. Each work has been startlingly original while delving relentlessly into difficult human issues with a group of dancers and collaborators driven to push their artistic boundaries.

fence is staibdance’s first work to receive funding from New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, in the form of a $45,000 grant for creation and national touring plus $10,000 in operating support.

An important work for this customarily polite Southern city, fence is a gritty and intense confrontation of a dark moment in Staib’s personal history. Memory has been a source for previous works, notably Attic (2015), which tapped experiences while growing up in pre-revolution Iran. Moat (2016) recalled his family’s relocation to rural Pennsylvania, where Staib faced anti-Middle Eastern sentiment and bullying in school.

fence bores deeper into this fraught time in Staib’s childhood, recalling an incident at the Tehran American School Staib attended as a nine-year-old child. In 1976, two anti-government terrorists lured two teenage male students to a remote part of the campus’ perimeter fence and fatally stabbed them.

In fence, Staib has translated the experience into a dense, nonlinear, multilayered investigation of power — what it means to take it and to lose it — and then, how to get it back. With that idea is the idea of “otherness,” the dismissal of personal histories and the theft of joy, freedom or life itself. fence also looks at the callousness that power can breed.

Inside fence’s shadowy realm, boundaries — whether in the form of Sara W. Culpepper’s moveable sections of iron fencing, dancers’ skin or Greg Catellier’s permeable lines of light — were repeatedly put up and then crossed. At one corner stage entrance, oversized metal fence posts were broken into sharp points at the top, others descended from the ceiling. A twisted swath of chain-link fence hovered in the black box space’s opposite corner.

The dancers (Virginia Spinks in this photo) pulled together in mobile solidarity to deliver the piece’s powerful imagery.

Ben Coleman’s textured soundscape imposed ominous tones, Middle Eastern rhythms and hard-driving electronic sounds on the space. Fragments of spoken poetry, distorted and repeated, evoked buried memories that pushed up into the conscious mind.

The dark interior was greeted with needles of light projecting dozens of tiny flickering white circles that scattered and clustered with seeming randomness as they journeyed across the floor.

Dancers in Tamara Cobus’ costumes of black, grey and metallic mesh filed in along a diagonal line of light, walking with deliberate forceful speed, like so many souls entering a playing field. Some broke out of the line to run in frantic circles. Others jerked and contorted, impulses thrusting jagged pathways through their bodies while Nicole Johnson rolled on the floor in slow motion.  

Laura Morton knelt and spread her arms at hip height, palms turning upward as in prayer. She threw herself toward James LaRussa, who caught her sidelong. That catch was later repeated in rhythmic succession along the line, which became a charged zone where laughing, raging or sad facial expressions were amplified to absurd extremes.

Nicole Johnson jerked and contorted as if a bad memory ripped through her body. Her performance was crystal clear in intent yet soft and vulnerable to a riveting effect.

Jimmy Joyner took control, rolling fence pieces between people, which sometimes put them behind bars. In a circle of light, Joyner and Anna Bracewell Crowder pushed through a series of poses, one-upping each other’s archetypal shapes — a crucifix here, a Greek warrior there. Bracewell Crowder spoke of feasting on barbequed canaries and smiles cut from faces, referencing a poem by Ahmad Shamlu and quoting the poet’s line “I want a howling hurt.”

Johnson appeared center stage in shadow, surrounded by teeming masses of lights. She wrenched her body this way and that, grasping the side of her rib cage as if a knife were thrust into her, then fell as the tiny lights enveloped her like a sea of souls.

The ensemble pulled together in mobile solidarity, leaving Joyner and LaRussa alone onstage. They reached out to touch one another — a hand to a shoulder, another to the side of the ribs, the face and so on, until their arms had firmly knotted together. They pushed against one another, struggling to ascend into an upper field of light.

fence was not an easy work to watch, but it was an important one. It stirred a restlessness deep in the psyche. It challenged people to enter a dark realm and wrestle with its demons, ultimately, perhaps, to reach back to the moment when two teenage boys lost their lives and then work to restore their power. The process demanded more strife than joy, but the effect was liberating.