Triptych By Mollie O’Brien
(MOB Productions) at Joyce SoHo, 155
Mercer Street. June 5 – 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.
For more information call (212) 334.7479.

Emotional life in three poetic acts

By Brian McCormick

Like many who went to ballet school as girls, Mollie O’Brien says she is trying to “undo” her early training. But unlike most choreographers who came to their art by way of dancing, it was composition that opened the door for her to become an artist.

“Composition class was a pretty radical experience for me,” says Ms. O’Brien, who graduated from Oregon State University with a BFA in performance. “Suddenly I had the tools to express my life. In ballet school, I never realized I was good. There is a hierarchy, and in the technically advanced class, I was almost good. But when I got to composition, I was good. It made sense to me. Whatever the teacher told me to do, I could do.”

Emotions are at the core of O’Brien’s intense, focused dances. “I am interested in looking at a feeling through a prism, from as many angles, and out of that, characters spring, as well as a dance plot.” In “Triptych,” her latest project, which will premiere at Joyce SoHo, three distinct emotions get her treatment in a series of duets between Jenny Dignan and Gina Jacobs.

The first section, entitled “Faster Than Dark,” which O’Brien began making after 9/11, deals with the “latent” or “impotent aggression” that she see prevailing in American culture in violent video games and children with guns.

“I was thinking about 14-year old boys, with their parents still in the house and no outlet for their frustrations,” she says.

The dance is marked by quick, unison movements with the upper body still, fast foot work, half and quarter turns, spins with the arms held low, reaching, and awkward gestures. Repeatedly, the two figures come forward, standing center, side by side. One moves her hands in front of her face, watching them as if they hold the answer to some mystery. The other appears gripped by some psychological paralysis, her eyes wide and distant, and mouth agape. They fall forward together out of this meditation, jumping and stamping hard. At times they move like stiff-jointed ballerinas, at others like rock ‘em sock ‘em robots. They move alternately forward and reverse along separate parallel paths. Finally they meet, head to head, moving their bodies, but never disconnecting in a motif that repeats throughout the work.

Ms. O’Brien describes the emotion in “Crushed Raspberries,” the delightful title of second movement, as “disconnected affection—I love you, get away.” Here the dancers come together in all kinds of entanglements, struggling to maintain their individual identities even as they smother each other, literally at times, with kisses, grooming, or touches.

Instability overwhelms in “Summoning the Delicate,” the final installment. “The first two [emotions] are coping mechanisms,” explains O’Brien. “What’s really going on underneath is revealed in the third—fear, terror.” Falling back and forward, off kilter, mostly in a kind of one-off unison, the dancers lurch as if they exist on plane constantly shifting on its axis. Their upper bodies are in control, working hard to keep their balance, as legs falter beneath them, stumbling to find secure ground.

The original score by Shawn Onsgard, which will be improvised live, is an electronic sci-fi blend of buzzing beats, code and signal noise, scratching, wet, windy storms, and Flash Gordon’s rocket coming in for a landing. O’Brien says, “The music is a real partner in the performance.” Naoka Nagata designed costumes for the production and Severn Clay designed the lighting. Also on the program is a new solo for Ms. O’Brien, which she describes as “a step further creatively” in her choreographic process.


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