Gwen Welliver’s newest piece, Beasts and Plots, is hard evidence that Ms Welliver has the enviable ability to transform a seemingly mundane series of movements into an imagination-inspiring, fantastical world in which I nearly convinced myself that I’d just glimpsed the cousin land of Narnia by the dance’s end. Transformation is most special when it happens almost without the audience member realizing it, which appears to be Ms Welliver’s particular talent. An example: near the piece’s opening, Stuart Singer – who repeatedly assures me that he can command the stage with his unique combination of aloofness and affability – gives a nearly inaudible monologue that is replete with gesture. At first, the gestures are pedestrian and complementary to the obviously intriguing story he is telling to the alternately alert and bored Beth Gill; as the story progresses, however, and Mr Singer grows more animated (as Jake Meginsky and Bill Nace’s sound score of snapping twigs and metallic rattling obscures his words), prancing around the stage with his back to the audience. As he grows more and more enthralled with the story he is telling, what began as conversational movement has somehow, suddenly escalated into a dance of its own.

Gwen Welliver © Ian Douglas
Gwen Welliver
© Ian Douglas

Ms Welliver makes good use of the props she employs in her piece, conjuring a landscape but not quite ever defining it. Mr Singer first appears wearing two elephant-trunk arms made of brown paper; once unrolled, these later become the canvas for a body outline made with crude pencil. Julia Burrer turns up in a shuttlecock headpiece, resembling a unicorn, and there are several chairs arranged in a semi-circle upstage left. Reid Bartelme’s costumes are absolutely perfect: the dancers are clothed in tunic-esque layers and peacock patterns and vaguely medieval pantswear.

Ms Welliver appears intermittently throughout the piece, often in the role of some sort of power-wielder: she commands others to move and occasionally dons a hockey goalie’s mask. Her movement is surprisingly two-dimensional, almost as if the dancers are moving along a bas-relief. I thought to myself more than once throughout the piece that it could be alternatively titled “Arms”, as port de bras is everywhere. Although the dance retains a mostly formal presentation, there are moments of unexpected humor. Ms Burrer’s unicorn headpiece, for example, is a nice indication that nothing here is being taken far too seriously. A rapid prancing section, in which all the dancers pony as if their lives depend upon it and haphazardly smack into each other, is a nice dynamic change, too.

Ms Welliver’s program notes explain that she is infatuated with lines, hence the ambiguous word “plots” in the title. I suppose her clearest lines are in the powerful slicing of Ms Burrer’s beautifully long arms and in the full-bodied extension of Mr Singer when he appears to undergo a small death and has his body outline traced by Ms Gill as he lies beneath the sheet of brown paper. Ms Gill is an interesting character in this piece: often, she observes the action, quietly, it seems, drawing her own conclusions, participating when she feels like it, and gleaning knowledge from the actions of others. She is the most conventionally dressed, in a conventional blouse and skirt for much of the piece. I found myself wondering if she were the child figure in this fantastical story – the one who is turning the pages and occasionally becoming so absorbed by the tale that she is literally dragged within it. Much of the piece is ambiguous and also quiet; it was a nice change of pace from the flashy and the naked of late.