Blondell Cummings is such a charming, original, witty, warm and awesomely skillful artist that one is willing to forgive her anything, including the obscurities and shortcomings that undercut her otherwise remarkable choreography.
Cummings presented an evening of solo performance last night at George Mason University's Harris Theatre, rapidly becoming one of the area's most important sites for contemporary dance. She's been choreographing since 1978, often in collaboration with artists of other media, making both solos and large group pieces. In general, her work straddles the boundaries between dance, mime and theater. Even in last night's solo program, the resources she drew upon included gesture, dance, singing, speaking, music, sound scores, elaborate lighting effects, taped voices and prolific costume changes and prop manipulations.
But Cummings unadorned is a one-woman show. The strongest part of the evening was a brief hors d'oeuvre labeled "Moving Pictures," in which she first related how her father's gift of a camera in her childhood changed her life. She was shy, she said, and the camera enabled her to study people from a distance, and to capture moments in time. When she then discovered movement as well, she sought, as an adult, to marry her two loves -- pictorial and kinetic imagery -- into a single expressive form.
Then, alone in a cone of light, she demonstrated the result in a silent, uncanny bit of performance art. Suddenly, she was a woman crying, anguished, tormented with grief, her body shaking with sobs. Slowly, so gradually that no transition was detectable, the tears were transfigured into laughter. Now she was a woman seized by falling-down, hysterical mirth, her body shaking with guffaws. In the space of a few quick minutes, she turned herself inside out, revealing at once, both in her motions and emotions, the singular affinity between extreme feelings at opposite ends of the affective spectrum. The widened mouth, crinkled shut eyes and convulsed torso that were the outer signs of both situations proved how thin a hairline separates the two. Cummings showed all this, moreover, in a pixilated movement style, that is, breaking the movement into molecular instants, as if it were a movie being projected frame by frame. The sheer physical feat was astounding.
"Moving Pictures" was one of several appetizers to the evening's main dish, "Food for Thought," served up in four courses: "Chicken Soup," "Meat and Potatoes," "Tossed Salad" and "Chocolate." The mere concept is so appealingly audacious -- characterizing people and their life styles by the way they eat and relate to food. The work itself, however, is uneven. In its most successful passages, it has the force, focus and clarity of the "Moving Pictures" vignette. But it frequently meanders into inscrutable bypaths, diluting the effect of the whole and loosening its visceral grip.
Still, the work is more provocative than nine-tenths of what passes for new choreography. "Chicken Soup" is a portrait of woman as drudge-housewife, shopping, cooking, scrubbing floors and -- in a wonderful duet with a skillet, a sort of scullery "Don Quixote" -- fantasizing about romance. "Meat and Potatoes" explores male stereotypes, principally a construction worker with his lunch box. The sanctity of food is the theme of "Tossed Salad," as seen from the perspective of the aborigine who prays to the rain god, plants, harvests and paints her body with food-derived pigments. "Chocolate," the terse coda, is a chocoholic's reverie -- Cummings actually impersonates a beckoning mound of chocolate, and at the end, the gaping maw that covets it desperately.