How Frail the Human Heart

Elisha Clark Halpin couldn’t perform as scheduled due to an injury, but her company, ETCH Dance Co, filled the Apothecary with dramatic tension and angst. The program was entitled how frail the human heart, but Halpin’s creations are not for the faint of heart.

Taking inspiration from literature and current events – books like Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Edwidge Danticat’s “The Farming of Bones”  — Halpin makes pieces that explore our darker sides and discontent. The program began with Stepping into Darkness originally a trio with Halpin, but performed as a duet with Megan Moore and Lauren Steinke.

The dancers dive into the conflict, pulling, pushing, dragging one another. It appears to be a duet of dominance, but even after Moore exits, Steinke moves as if plagued by unseen forces. The duet ends with her alone on stage covering her eyes as if shielding her vision from the torment engulfing her. Talking to Halpin after the performance she said the piece was less about what happens to people who are devastated by conflict and war, and more about the people left behind, particularly women and children. She added that she was thinking of places like Darfur and her emotional response to such destruction of human life as she created the choreography. The piece was made in 2009 and the music used was the Kronos Quartet’s “Tashwesh” and “Beloved.”

The second piece on the program, how frail the human heart, created in 2010, consists of 10 sections, all performed by women. Here the text of authors – Plath, Chopin, Woolf — is integrated into the score and grounds the dancers’ interactions with a particular emotional state. Although well-choreographed, alternating between solo and ensemble sections, the piece as a whole stays in the same dramatic tone for nearly all sections. This creates a sense of monotony in spite of changing casts of dancers. Rebecca Oviatt performs a beautiful solo of swirling movements where the momentum of her dancing almost overpowers her. It is a stunning moment when the dancer’s actions connect viscerally to the feeling and mood evoked in Plath’s words: “My body is a pebble to them. They tend it as water tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.”

Throughout this piece the women interact with stones and bricks, stepping on them, spilling them out of their hands, caressing their bodies with their surfaces. The music comes from a range of groups and fluctuates between providing atmosphere and driving the women’s dancing. The performers seem fully invested, committed to the emotion and choreography, but I was not deeply inspired by the performance as a whole. I admire Halpin’s craft: the performance reveals that she has a sophisticated way of building phrases and transitioning dancers on and off stage. She uses thought-provoking texts as inspiration and connects the cerebral and kinetic powers of dance in interesting ways (she is an Assistant Professor of Dance & Head of Dance at Penn State).

But the hour long performance left me with a heavy feeling of despondence, and I could not reconcile the dancers’ smooth movement and physical alacrity with the heaviness of the subjects explored. The dancers seemed to illustrate many of the emotions described by the authors, and represented relationships such as the domineering and the submissive.

My question remains what does a choreographer intend to show by using such topics as suicide, international conflict, Darfur and our emotional responses to these crises as material for dance? Did Halpin set out to reveal what it is like to endure this kind of hardship – and survive?

How Frail the Human Heart

choreography by Elisha Clark Halpin
performed by ETCH Dance Company
reviewed by Kate Mattingly

Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.

Did you see the show?  What did you think?

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