SAINT Unearths the Beauty, Complexity of Feminine Ideals
WORDS BY ASHLEY GIBSON | IMAGES BY DALEY KAPPENMAN
Zoetic Dance Ensemble, a sisterhood of contemporary female artists based in Atlanta, both celebrated and challenged what defines a woman in its newest work, SAINT. This evening-length immersive experience, presented on December 14 with two performances, featured choreography by the company’s artistic director Mallory Baxley, live music by Xaviar Lewis, and a stunning visual art installation of fabrics by Morgen Tanksley.
Upon entering the upstairs Ambient + Studios space, I was immediately engulfed by the transcendent world formed by Tanskley’s hanging installations. Little hedges of white and purple squares reminiscent of a patchwork quilt led towards a mystical, midnight blue cavern in the far back corner of the room. A short maze-like area in the center, suspended from the ceiling to the floor, spiraled downward showing off hues of white, orange, and pink. Behind this tall, round installation, thin yellowish streamers hung from the ceiling and the wall between window spaces. Closest to the stage area stood a tunnel half solid blue and half white with watercolor purples, yellows, and lighter blues. Twinkly lights sparkled overhead giving the space an intimate, exploratory vibe.
As guests arrived, they were invited to wander through the space and observe the artists already weaving in and out of the installations. Dancers occasionally further immersed the audience members by physically leading one or two of them hand-in-hand through the tunnel. Dancer, Tori Vincent, with a slow and steady walk approached by-standers with an imploring gaze as if inviting them into some sort of secret world. Some followed obediently while others actually began to improvise and play along with the dancers. The performers’ movement ebbed in and out in an organic, ambient manner with the dancers alternating between traveling the space independently and physically supporting one another benevolently.
Then, a dripping noise and a refreshing “aah” as if satisfied by a cool sip of soda musically signaled an atmospheric shift. The dancers seemingly became more confrontational and antagonistic towards each other. This dualistic pattern repeated several times before audience members slowly moseyed to the seats, which were set in the round, just past the installations. On the fourth side of the open space, the only side without chairs, sat a tall white backdrop with three separate nets of pink, purple, and orange respectively stretched out in vertical lines.
An introductory video flashed onto the backdrop, depicting dancers attired in black two pieces with long hair hanging freely. A kaleidoscopic filter of rainbow hues illuminated the dancers on screen. We were presented with the overarching question of “What is a woman?” through a series of voice-overs and text in the video. This first section of videography cast the dancers in a sensuous, dominant light. The video later shifted to a more soft, natural-feeling scene of the dancers in all white with their hair braided back neatly into buns. The dancers melted daintily into an intimate, hazy fog, and we were introduced to a giant, white net with which the dancers intertwined themselves. Altogether, the video gave viewers a look into the versatile creature which is a woman: the unholy and the holy, something unable to be strictly defined.
The live performance began as one dancer entered with a gooey solo of lunges and descents to the floor. As more dancers filled the space, the dynamics and moods shifted between the performers. One individual approached a newly formed clump of six dancers. I immediately wondered how they would receive her. Was she an outsider? Would she be welcomed in? They looked upon her almost inquisitively, and then their gaze turned more territorial as they walked towards her, causing her to retreat. They slowly stretched out their right arms as if to form a barrier. This gesture grew into a picturesque moment with each dancer individually reaching her arm up before pulling it down to her opposite shoulder, which repeated later became a motif and the closing image of the work.
The unison phrases unquestionably channeled the most audacious girl power and established the strength and value of the modern woman. The music often slipped to the back of my mind as a secondary component while I focused more on the repetitive, overpowering reliance of breath cues by the dancers. The most memorable section of the work occurred when three of the dancers retrieved the nets from the backdrop, each slipping them on like a cardigan before majestically strutting forward, appearing as queens wearing capes. This fleeting, elegant moment of royalty dissipated into a starkly animalistic one as the dancers pulled the nets to either sides of their bodies and flapped them roughly as bird wings.
Baxley’s choreography throughout the work was hard-hitting and fiercely complex. Delicate partnering manifested itself in compassionate embraces and sweeping trust falls. The mood quickly switched back and forth from the more emotional feminine sections to harsher scenes of wrestling and manipulation. After one such scene, a dancer lying on her side tried to stand only to be forced back down to the floor by another dancer who had her hand defiantly on the girl’s hip.
The costume design by Hannah James meshed beautifully with the colors and hues of the art installations themselves. The dancers, all clad loosely in either a two-piece crop top/pants combo or flowy dresses with high slits, eventually shed their colorful garments towards the end of the piece. Doing so, they revealed gray bralettes and nude high-waisted briefs underneath. This seemed to symbolize that a woman’s identity is as colorful and endlessly multifaceted as the costume choice, but there is more to her than the initial external beauty. A deeper strength and natural femininity exist beneath the surface.