GUEST FEATURE: “Through the Glass Ceiling” by I.C. Movement Project at Strathmore


I.C. Movement Project
Studio Theater at Strathmore
North Bethesda, Maryland
August 6-7, 2016

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Celestes and xylophones (or chimes); marimbas, rattles, and woodwinds; piano (even toy), violin, cello – these are a few of the instruments whose sounds permeate the score composed by George Shaw for the world premiere of “Through the Glass Ceiling” by the I.C. (Ivy Chow) Movement Project on August 6-7, 2016 at the Studio Theater at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland. Electronically processed (synthesized) to a large degree, they create a dreamlike patina that is summoned by Chow to deliver a strident narrative of women as puppets in a dance world dominated by male directors. Chow expresses open chagrin over the lack of gender equality at leadership levels in the art form of ballet (as with other aspects of society, she adds). A pre-show recitation of statistics undergirds her thesis, which she identifies as the motivation for choreographing “Through the Glass Ceiling” in partial fulfillment of the MFA degree at George Washington University.

Since the feminist angle has garnered much attention in press commentary surrounding the rollout of her brand new company, including Dance Journalism Project’s preview and review of the work seen at Strathmore in August – this article will take a slightly different tack and focus on the artistic/technical level of both the music and choreography in Chow’s ambitious work.

Ivy Chow hails from the Washington, D.C. region, receiving early performing opportunities with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. She earned a degree in ballet performance from Indiana University, where she studied with such luminaries as Terrence Orr, Cynthia Gregory, and the late Violette Verdy. From these and other teachers, Chow learned musicality and precision, skills that later informed an expectation of strong technical backgrounds from her company dancers.

The Washington School of Ballet, CityDance Conservatory, New School University/Joffrey Ballet, Point Park University (Pittsburgh), and SUNY Purchase (among others) figure prominently in the resumés of her dancers. Their technical prowess is evident from the very first moments of “Through the Glass Ceiling.”

Opening scenes evoke the mood of “La Bayadère” (arabesques and attitudes en promenade) as the dancers advance in parallel lines. They alternate between tableaux and synchronized movements that make them appear like dolls – unison bourrées en pointe, then a mechanical jerking of upper bodies and arms from overhead to forward positions. Repetitive ensemble work suits Chow’s dramatizing of the subservience of female dancers to the men at the helm. Assemblés and angled arms are reminiscent of early Balanchine as memorialized in his choreography of “Serenade” (in C for Strings) by Tchaikovsky.

The sudden interjection of the patriarchal male dancer in their midst (portrayed by Ryan Carlough) recalls the storied impressario Lermontov of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in “The Red Shoes.” This domineering character dances with the women one-by-one and flings them away – one in a supported pirouette, one in a turning fish dive and a last one in a waltz. All five circle around him, then he sinks to floor as in a slumber.

There’s a duet between the man and a masked female in soft shoes. Three women, now wearing tights and tank tops on pointe, resume the multiple bourrées, sequencing (each dancer following another) and jetés pulled back into moving crouches. This is Chow’s most interesting “modern” section, even though it’s mostly a series of poses, many of them on the floor. The dancers roll and form unusual shapes, using splayed and shaking fingers, fists, and shoulders. Flexed feet jab and circle almost at right angles above the dancers as their backs remain on the floor.

At several junctures, the male protagonist is led across the stage by one of the women. These interludes mark his slow transformation into a less noxious director. A second male character (danced by Kevin Pajarillaga) makes a strong entrance with barrel turns. The music becomes more percussive, incorporating what seem like gongs and perhaps a zither. Chow wisely turns to counterpoint in the choreography, providing a respite from the unison staging. Two women surround the man’s jumps with their splits, using his body as a springboard and supporting his airborne maneuver in a turn. This second male character executes barrel turns and a breathtaking jeté ciseaux en tournant (turning scissors leap).

In a draconian vignette that struck this writer as unnecessarily literal, two of the female dancers drag ropes strung with pairs of pointe shoes across the stage. A technical highlight of the piece, notable for its bravura and angularity, is performed by Shannon Quinn, who is joined by Therese Gahl. They dance in unison until chased off by the pompous male (Carlough). A second pairing of the protagonist and Alexandra Keen offers sinewy curls, a cabriole and multiple partnered lifts.

The five female dancers and the empathetic male (Pajarillaga) are now costumed in filmy purple skirts cut from the neck, with a skirt banded at the waist for the man. The second male dancer joins their circle in grand pliés à la seconde (deep knee bends). This section, later explained to me by Chow as an incremental building of community, exudes a tribal ambience that comes across as overdone. The many grand battements ecarté and freeze-frame moments, though meant to show a transition from the mood of group displacement to acceptance by the male leader of the women’s equality, seem cloying and excessive. Indeed, the enormous contributions to the dance world by just leaders of ballet companies now situated in the Washington region over the course of many decades – the late Mary Day and Julie Kent (The Washington Ballet), Jane Bittner and Patricia Berrend (Olney Dance Theater), Suzanne Erlon and Elizabeth Odell Catlett (Metropolitan Ballet Theatre and Ensemble), and Hortensia Fonseca and Michelle Lees (Maryland Youth Ballet) to name a few – suggest that the thesis of the all-commanding male-at-the-helm may be somewhat exaggerated.

Even in Chow’s “modern” sections, despite the syncopation (almost a calypso at one point), the dancers rarely diverge from propounding feet to floor on the downbeat of every measure. In an upstage tableau that strays abruptly into a semi-contact improvisation, the piece draws to a close. It ends with unison stepping in a line to downstage and the sound of breaking glass to a final glissando of strings.

Chow seems at her best when crafting straight classical ballet moves, as in her large and smaller ensemble work of the first half. She remains a work-in-progress when choosing distinctly modern moves, demonstrating that they can be executed on pointe – as in the early trio of women in tights and tank tops. She is less effective when attempting “fusion” choreography of the two genres. Should this prove to be her methodology in the future, Chow possesses the intellectual gifts and technical range to mount even more compelling choreography – perhaps without a narrative! Nonetheless, such an ambitious effort as “Through the Glass Ceiling” while still a student augurs a promising future in choreography for Chow.

Shaw’s alternately high ranges on his keyboard instruments and trudging downturns in pitch for the percussive ones match Chow’s robotics and synchronized moves. To the Western ear, his composition may reveal traces of tinkling gamelan (Javanese or Balinese) music, pausing and racing to a mostly syncopated beat. Shaw is a self-proclaimed geek who grew up loving comic books, cartoons, sci-fi/fantasy/adventure films. (He once announced that he wanted to become more famous than the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and perfect the enterprise of time-travel.) A virtuoso musician in his own right, Shaw plays guitar, clarinet, and a variety of exotic woodwind instruments. Methods and techniques evolved from his study of film scoring and composition at University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, particularly its program in scoring for motion pictures and television.

In addition to Carlough, Pajarillaga, Keen, Gahl and Quinn, dance artists for the Strathmore performance include: Kristina Ancil Edwards, Katherine Creed, Heidi Erickson, Elizabeth Gahl and Kyoko Ruch.

Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher