REVIEW: ACW Dances presents “How to Make a Methodist Salad”

REVIEW: ACW Dances presents How to Make a Methodist Salad
by Michelle Hayes

There are certain objects, places, food and much more that can bring childhood memories back into our present day. For me, blueberries always make me think of my dad who loved anything with blueberries, or the blueberry bush my grandmother had in her back yard. Likewise, objects like Beanie babies magically take me to a place of imagination and playing house with my childhood friends.  ACW Dances “How to Make a Methodist Salad” elicited sweet childhood memories.

When walking into the Gunston Black Box Theatre, the audience was greeted by a large stage space with a small school desk center stage, a teddy bear (the size of a three year old) with a storybook, and a white box fan. The lighting created the illusion of sunlight streaming into a child’s bedroom.

The autobiographically inspired evening length work began with a movement-based solo by Artistic Director Abigail Wallace, playing the role Midwestern Girl, wearing non matching pajamas and pink pig slippers. She began squirming with big arm and leg swings in front of the white box fan and paused every few counts to potentially feel the breeze of the fan, which was not on at first. Continuing to squirm with discomfort, Wallace began talking into the fan about how it was a hot, sticky summer day with “NO” air conditioning. This fun imagery sparked the memories of talking with my brother in front of a blowing fan as a child– we would sit there for  long periods of time entertaining ourselves.

The soloist visited the teddy bear and the small school desk reminiscing about her childlike ways. As she sat with the teddy bear, Wallace read the children’s book in a similar choppy way as she had talked into the fan, pausing every few words. The way Wallace hugged the bear brought me into her world of innocence and compassion, and also expressed a desire for comfort that young children often experience. It was nostalgic to be brought to such a sweet, comforting and innocent place again.   

I was brought back to Wallace’s world when she began speaking about memories of a Methodist salad, that was often made for funerals or church gatherings. She delivered the stories with sarcasm and humor as if it the memories associated with the salad were a comical but significant part of her childhood. The movement itself was simple with light, flowy, swooping arms and legs that were merely subtext to the spoken word, as the verbal text was needed to discern the story.

As Wallace continued by listing the ingredients to the Methodist salad: sour cream, mini marshmallows, mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and depending on who made it, coconut shavings, a women playing the Matriarch, entered with a cart and bowl up stage left.  With each ingredient came a detailed description and slight preparation tip. Four dancers (the Chorus) entered in an assembly line fashion with each ingredient described. Swirls, bumping each other, piques and balancés were a part of the humorous movement vocabulary. Costumed in floral dresses, the movements of the chorus were playful and childlike, yet mature in their manipulation of the ingredient bowls. Soon the salad was created. As Wallace described the salad, I was reminded of times when I had seen, but not tried this dish. A slight distaste entered my mind as this salad did not sound appetizing to me.

All the dancers left the stage except the Matriarch at the cart, who then performed a solo dance. Her focus was often down, but her choreography covered the entire stage with gentle and airy movement — like a delicate brush of the arm. Though dressed in all black, her gestures and fluttering reminded me of butterflies on a warm summer day. There was also a heaviness to the often rounded over shape she would slump into, revealing the heaviness of adulthood that was growing throughout the story. The dancer carried the image of a mother figure reminiscing of the good and bad times she had made this salad. I was more intrigued by the seemingly random visits from the chorus dancers to the salad cart.

This section then transitioned into a group piece continuing the playful, warm summer day feeling. Sautés, arabesques, and arm reaches to the sky were common movements motifs. The dancers weaved in and out of each other in circular patterns, as if they were young girls chasing butterflies.

As the chorus paused in a small clump close to the audience, out of nowhere, tutus were thrown on the stage for the dancers to put over their floral frocks. Continuing with the childlike and whimsical choreography, the chorus danced an entertaining, light-hearted piece, mocking a five year old ballet dance class recital piece. This section was creatively crafted with head tilts, quick pointed feet, slight imbalances and moments out of unison. Though this choreography was definitely more advanced and precise then one might see a five year old perform, it was the juxtaposition of technical steps and purposeful mistakes that brought me back to watching kids dance. I was beginning to see a through line of the piece as Wallace shared important aspects of her childhood.

Then the other five dancers began telling their stories about the Methodist salad, or as some call it Ambrosia salad. The relationships created through movement and story telling drew me into the performance at this time. The more the dancers talked about the marshmallows, sour cream, pineapple and potential coconut shavings mixed together, the more I remembered why I had never eaten this salad. I had seen it at church gatherings or graduation parties, but could not see why it was such a popular dessert (or salad).

It was a nice surprise to hear the perspective of other dancers regarding their Ambrosia salad stories in contrast to Wallace’s memories. They were similar in sarcastic tones, but each brought their own voice to the piece.

The tone of the choreography evolved to reflect an internal struggle through the tension and pull in the arm and leg extensions. Wallace, along with two of the chorus dancers moved longingly on a low level as the two chorus dancers took Abigail’s flowy dress off, leaving her in a nude leotard. There was a sense of time passing and stripping of childhood though this transition. The flowery dress was replaced with a dark laced dress. This costume change seemed to clearly symbolize the transition from girl to woman. Agony was seen in the lunges, arm reaches and deep hinges. The dancers exited leaving Wallace to another solo, this time of leaving childhood and memories behind which created some sadness. Arm placements created jagged shapes with sharp elbows in contrast to the beginning filled with smooth round-arm gestures. Wallace’s gaze was often down but when she looked up, the audience was invited into the emotion of her struggle. Even though there was internal conflict, movement was still airy and had a feeling of time passing. It made me think about how time is needed to move forward into womanhood and the inevitable cycle of life.

The piece ended with a duet between the Matriarch and Wallace. The Matriarch had played the role of anchor through out the whole piece and Wallace seemed to be taking on this role through grounded movement, deep lunges and the upper body contractions that had become customary movements of the Matriarch.

A pleasant and relatable evening length work by ACW Dance filled my thoughts with childhood memories and nostalgia for the comfort of home. Though I did not have specific memories of this Methodist salad, I did recall the memory of my grandmother’s lime green Jello and pineapple cake. I related to the often overwhelming feeling of having to leave behind childhood in order to grow into womanhood. It is likely that the memories elicited through this dance could be part of a shared history that has shaped who many of us are today.  “How to make a Methodist Salad” is a great reminder that we should continue to look forward but not forget the past.