Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Five women harmoniously twirl about the stage in synchrony, advancing and retreating en masse. Two girls balance glasses of water on their heads, and one treads lightly on sticks at the front of the stage.
From these actions, what would you assume about them?
“Sticks and Stones,” a dance performance co-choreographed by Kate Speer ’08 and Rachel Oliver, poses questions about assumptions, relationships, and the nature of groups and love. Their cast of five women held three performances this weekend as part of the Philly Fringe Festival, after a six-night run in the Boulder International Fringe Festival.
The show began when audience members walked in the door. They were given a plastic cup with a pencil and notecard inside, which read “People assume that I…” After filling in the blank, the audience was instructed to pin the notecard to a clothesline on the stage and deposit their glass. The dancers interacted with the water glasses, engaging in “playtime” and abstract movement. The water glasses were filled, almost ritualistically, throughout the performance.
In a series of dance vignettes, the group explored the idea that how we perceive ourselves differs from how we perceive each other, and how that difference affects our relationships. The first piece depicted a woman struggling with her relationship. The words she spoke as her body contorted and fell across the stage conveyed the meaning of the dance: “Trust… follow you?” Through her movements, she made the audience feel her compromise, her give-and-take.
Another scene explored the concept of love and connection between people. As the two dancers twined around each other, their words mirrored the emotion and expression their bodies conveyed: “I love you unconditionally, on one condition: that you love me.” The two dancers supported, used and embraced each other, drawing the connecting lines between themselves through movement.
The final scene mirrored the opening sequence with water glasses, suggesting that the performance had come full-circle; the water glasses returned to empty, and the dancers returned to their previous motions. They then read out what audience member s had written on notecards, accompanied by chaotic yet synchronized motions.
The grace with which the dancers conveyed these sometimes ugly movements created a performance that was aesthetically astounding, albeit simple. The group’s Colorado origin gave itself away in the blue-gray color scheme, pervasive use of water, and actual sticks at the front of the stage. The minimal props onstage illustrated a distinction between nature, man and man-made things. Soft folk music like Iron and Wine kept a mellow backdrop to the chaos that sometimes pervaded the stage.
Speer said that the idea for the show was conceived based on the idea of love, and how we use words to show those we love what we mean. “We thought of a show where the artist asked the audience to [shout] out what people said to them when they felt completely loved,” she said. “It made me think of things friends had said, that no matter what they love me.”
Words can be just as much hurtful as loving, an idea that Speer and Oliver portray throughout the performance. The show’s title comes from the old expression, “sticks and stones.” “My mom would always tell me words don’t hurt you, but actually, they do,” Speer said.
Speer said that in creating the show, she was “thinking a lot about that lovely movie ‘Mean Girls,’” and thus created a “clip of females who pass judgment on others.” In one of the vignettes, the dancers demonstrate what inclusion and exclusion look like. The simple yet cutting idea that the leader in a group is no longer wanted was articulated through upbeat music, dancing in harmony, and physical fighting. This concept which girls are traditionally portrayed as using words or emotions to convey was expressed through motion, creating a physical picture of what is usually only an ideation. The scene ended with a water fight, asking the question: what will we do to belong?
The vignette style of storytelling Speer employed, she said, was influenced by her time at Swarthmore, where she majored in biology and dance. “I’m still trying to figure out how to make art matter and not sit on a shelf collecting dust,” she said. “At the moment and at Swarthmore I focused on narrative, whether literary or more abstract. Pieces of stories are what the audience can connect to.”
This is the first time Speer has produced work for the Fringe Festival, but she was involved with the Philly dance community for three years after graduating from Swarthmore. Speer worked as the Financial Coordinator for the Mascher Space Cooperative, founded by Liza Clark ’03. The Cooperative is artist-run, allowing small dance companies to share the space more affordably. Speer is based in Boulder, CO, where she pursues an MFA at the University of Colorado. She returned to the Cooperative’s space this weekend for the Fringe Festival.
–photos by Heather Gray Photography