Stefanie Nelson’s evening-length piece Oddball Zebra seemed less of a cohesive whole and more of a disjointed combination of separate vignettes. According to the press release, the piece was inspired by the “myriad social connotations and moral implications associated with stripes”; this could account for a certain amount of rambling, to be certain, when one considers just how many connotations there are with stripes, but each interpretation was far from clear – and the overarching result was one of confusion. It was as if the six performers were each dancing a different dance.

© Stephen de las Heras
© Stephen de las Heras

The striped theme was at least completely evident in the set design and costuming. Amidst several panels of black marley, one lone white strip contrasted starkly. Katie Federowicz Perez (a last-minute fill-in for Erik Abbott-Main, as it turned out) was dressed in clownish red-and-white striped pants, with a ruffled collar and white face to match. Ms Perez served as a sort of chorus or narrator for the piece, as far as I could tell, often lurking in the upstage left corner and attempting to mimic what her dancer peers executed during full-bodied solos. I was confused by Ms Perez’s role, frankly; as Abby Bender announced the turn-off-your-cell-phone spiel to the crowd at the start of the evening, Ms Perez crept out of the wings and began silently laughing and pointing at Ms Bender. I assumed this would become clear later on in the piece, but it continued to baffle me, even when it was repeated later on.

Most of the vignettes were solos, in which the dancers displayed a firm grip on Ms Nelson’s movement vocabulary – there is a lot of fluid, juicy movement followed by a surprise attack of extended limbs in space and deep pliés in second position. Watching each of the solos, I felt as if each dancer were warding off an attack or desperately trying to prove him or herself. While this was initially interesting, it soon became predictable. Gierre Godley seemed to make the biggest individual impression, infusing even the most routine of transitions with a special satiny smoothness and careful control of his explosive moments.

The few sections of unison seemed under-rehearsed: timing was frequently off, and there was a great disparity in the execution and style of the movement. Each of the dancers, save Hunt Parr, eventually transformed to Ms Perez’s white face, which was complemented by some outfit of stripes. (The dancers began in black tops and bottoms – several wearing button-down shirts – which resulted in their looking as if they worked in the clothing department of Macy’s.) I did catch a few of the “striped” references: all of the dancers came out wearing black-and-white striped shirts with flowers pinned to their chests, as “French” sad music played. But Ms Nelson failed to follow through with this reference. So the dancers were dressed as French mimes: yes, but what about French mimes? If Ms Nelson were simply trying to give a grocery-list rundown of all associations with stripes (as she may well have been doing), then something else was still lacking – some ingredient that would make the piece more intriguing to watch.

A couple of times throughout the piece, short videos were projected on the back wall of the stage. Each video had something to do with black-and-white or stripes, and the videos were very nicely done, but there is always the division of my attention in such instances, and I end up feeling that I have somehow missed what I should have been watching at particular moments, in the battle between projection and dancer. (And the dancers are all fantastic movers, eager to please and quick to action and surely difficult costume changes; I wanted to watch them, time and again.)

I am not sure how much of an effect losing a dancer so near the performance had on the piece itself, but I do think Ms Nelson was just a step or two short of transforming a mediocre meditation on stripes into a thoughtful, truly intriguing piece.