At Tish Carter's evening of "movement installations" at Mount Vernon College on Friday, half the fun was watching the scene changes between dances. Here comes a stagehand with a bunch of coconuts that he arranges carefully around a mound of flour, while another groups a pile of limes, and still another wheels on a tricycle to which a huge oak branch has been lashed, as someone else dumps gravel around a seedling adorned with a red tutu. Two huge trees and three perfect red apples are harmonized into the composition. And finally, an evergreen with its root ball exposed and illuminated is hung upside down on a kind of gallows.
Together it all formed the set for Carter's "TreeStories (Rockabye)," which received its premiere on the program. No piece ever had a more intriguing prelude. When Carter enters, she writhes on the set with a forked branch held around her throat. She steps in the flour, creating chalky trails. Touching limes to her body and whirling them through the air, she confronts the audience before retreating upstage, where she rubs gravel over her body.
Like all of Carter's work, "TreeStories" is characterized by exquisite visual imagery. The sets and props Carter employs create meticulously controlled stage pictures that serve as environments for the exploration of popular myths. Carter is, in fact, more a manipulator of objects than what would traditionally be considered a choreographer -- that is, her primary interest is in visual rather than in kinetic design.
These conceptions are so striking that the ultimate failure of the works is more than usually disappointing. What is lacking is a sense of gestalt. The movement invention does not have the intriguing fancy and inevitability of the design schema. Movement textures and dynamics seem unrelated to the carefully chosen colors and shapes of the decor. There is a sense that the poetic, functional and metaphoric implications have not been fully explored.
A case in point is "Bread Series," choreographed earlier this year. Carter narrates apocryphal family experiences with bread, makes a hair sandwich, manipulates bread with a golf club and wears a loaf of it as bracelets. Obviously, she intends evocative imagery, but the piece fails to make associations with bread as nourishment and life force. When she ends with the cry that bread is being withheld from the Ethiopians and the Sudanese, we are caught short rather than taken aback.
Similarly, Carter's 1989 "Do We Suffer From Insomnia (or do you sleep in the nude?)" is a combination of clever conceits, including a narrator in the person of a naked man wearing a radio over his head. The work is a series of beautiful images in search of a larger animating spirit.
Carter's collaborator on "Insomnia" and "Bread Series," Prosser Stirling, also contributed a premiere. "Secrets of the Invisible Man, Confessions of the Invisible Woman" featured him and Carter as incarnations of the familiar celluloid Invisible Man. Again, it was a work notable more for its wit and whimsy than for its depth.