Dances for a Small Stage's Nothing Sticks is playfully innovative
A Movent and chuthis production. At the Grandview Legion on Wednesday, August 1. Continues August 2.
Nothing Sticks feels edgy and new, but it takes a lot of its inspiration from the antique.
Choreographer Peter Chu, whose chuthis company took over the entire Dances for a Small Stage program with the playfully innovative full-length work, samples and deconstructs vaudeville-esque gesture and attire. He wears a top hat and tails, and holds an umbrella, but he and his five dancers break down and rebuild the familiar jazz steps into something fractured and contemporary. The music jumps atmospherically from sampled classics like “Big Spender” to Jean Francois Houle’s percussive electronic score. It goes without saying his vaudeville-tinged exploration found extra ambience in the time-worn cabaret of the Grandview Legion.
The U.S. troupe makes ample use of high-tech multimedia, but Nothing Sticks has an appealing low-tech feel. The production opens with a screening of work by pioneering turn-of-the-last-century French animator Emile Cohl, and projections of primitive stick men bob and dance over sheets of cloth that the performers hold, or across the huge central screen—one framed with the old sepia lights of a Ziegfeld Follies–era makeup-room mirror.
Suffice it to say, you’ve never seen anything quite like it. The stick-man idea manifests in puppetlike movement, with all the dancers working Stephen Hernandez like he’s a life-size doll on invisible rods, or with Chu moving Matthew Peacock’s stiff limbs across the stage. Jillian Meyers, the scarlet-haired performer who’s danced with everything from Cirque du Soleil to the Janet Jackson tour, is a charismatic emcee with a magnetic, irony-washed solo set to “Makin’ Whoopee” that ends with her trembling in the spotlight. And there’s a smouldering duet that smudges up against a giant chalkboard.
There’s also a surprise game of Hangman on that chalkboard that the Small Stage audience gamely participated in, and comical use of a giant hook to pull people off the stage. The vocabulary is a seamless mashup of sharp-edged contemporary, pop, slapstick, and old-style jazz. Chu has clearly absorbed some of the influences of Kidd Pivot’s Crystal Pite, whom he’s worked with for years—especially the sense of wit tinged with darkness, the fracturing of movement, and the guts to take creative risks.
The piece is about impermanence, and it’s definitely tinged with some almost melancholy ideas about the fleeting nature of not only art, but an artist’s career. Just watch Chu struggle against the final hook that tries to pull him away. Those fears about the end of a career are at clear odds with Nothing Sticks: this is a work that really marks the promising beginning of a choreographic talent who’s just starting to harness his wild imagination.