Review: Horizon Stanzas a new dance by Hope Mohr – Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco April 27, 29 & 30
Updated: May 1
In her new dance Horizon Stanzas, premiering at the Joe Goode Annex April 27, Hope Mohr creates an epic feminist battle. This world is unbalanced. Kept in the dark, their destination unknown or manipulated by others, the performers’ fight against tyranny and conformity is depleting but essential. We feel the women’s resistance as they are forced to contort and display themselves in order to conform to expectations.
Horizon Stanzas is inspired by Alice Notley’s book-length poem The Descent of Alette. Mohr finds deep inspiration from this source material, as she did with Ben’s Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2019).
Above (L to R): Suzette Sagisi, Belinda He, Tegan Schwab-Alavi; Photo from Hopemohr.org
The printed program is its own statement, meant to convey artistic values rather than cast lists. In it, Mohr shares the first two short pages from Notley’s poem, allowing the audience to experience the text, both its content and its unique style. Written in short phrases, each surrounded with quotes, as if in conversation, these compact passages lay the ground work for an endless subway ride, upon which one’s soul rides. The cover of the program features an uncredited ink drawing by Mohr of headless figures, their arms thrown to the sky.
Mohr’s dances are captivating and intellectually rigorous. Through the use of sound and light, Mohr, Lighting Designer Del Medoff and Sound Designer Tony Hulsker, transform the Joe Goode Annex into a cavernous, otherworldly space as alien as a subterranean tunnel and as confined as a prison.
Omnipresent mechanical noises echo through the void. A cone of light skims along the black sidewall, becoming a circle as it approaches the backwall. In the glowering duskiness the source of the light and its movement is unclear. Obscurity is a tool of the tyrant, while light is an essential resource in progressing toward freedom.
Two more beams of light cut through the space revealing the body parts of a total of three figures. Wearing miner’s headlamps, they crawl on their hands and knees. Streaks of light define a vertical vastness and a horizontal closeness while also blinding us occasionally as they look around.
An ethereal female chorus, reminiscent of Gregorian Chant, welcomes the addition of more light as sodium vapor worklights create a warm glaze. Rising to scuddle on hands and feet, buttocks in the air, three women are fully revealed. Dancer/collaborators Belinda He, Suzette Sagisi, Tegan Schwab-Alavi wear costumes by Schwab-Alavi. The uniform blackness makes it difficult to distinguish initially, but I am guessing that each represents an archetypal woman. He wears a feminine twist on business-meets-evening wear, stylish pants with a form fitting semi-sheer top. Sagisi in booty-shorts that lace up the sides could be a sex worker or a college co-ed. Schwab-Alavi signifies a homemaker in her housedress.
A stool, representing the tyrant, the male force the women are fighting, is placed downstage center. Though the only male performer in the show appears as a voice most often repeating the words “warm’ and “leatherette.” The women make their hands into small shelves that poke out under their breasts. They try on sassy model walks, and skip in huge awkward leaping strides. Contorting themselves into uncomfortable shapes, legs jutting unevenly, their arms swing frantically, hands clawed and then fisted. The words “let’s make love before you die,” are heard as Sagisi skims along the wall.
As the bell of a church or government house keeps time, a short narration introduces the idea of an owl coming to help the women when they meet the tyrant. From darkness, a face agape floats in the bright circle of a flashlight. Is it screaming in pain? or horror? or laughing with excitement? The narrow emotional edge between pain and pleasure is revealed. Next a brief shadow play emerges on the side wall. One figure towers menacingly over the other.
These episodes are powerful for their clarity and brevity. The intervening blackouts set a cadence perhaps similar to the breaks in phrasing of the source poem. A woman’s voice conveys the disturbing tale of a female artist, a painter, who worries that the tyrant owns all form and thus invented her.
The three individual’s movements begin to mimic each other’s. As they unite their grace and confidence grows, increasing the height of their skips and the strength of their battling arms. Schwab-Alavi stands, her feet anchored to the ground in the grip of another’s wrapped torso. Struggling, she extricates one foot. The dancers speak for the first time, each declaring “I understood what to do now.”
Donning women’s warpaint, eye shadow and broad lipstick, they confront societal expectations. One scrubs with a sponge, while another weeps copiously into a huge cookbook. Scwab-Alavi places a large flesh colored bra over her dress and stuffing the cups with heavy bulging root vegetables. Potatoes and acorn squash tumble clumsily out as she moves. Struggling to find balance, with twisted feet and off kilter poses their warped bodies resist.
In a three-dimensional white paper mask, Sagisi becomes the wise owl. On bended knee, head titled in curiosity, arms open-winged, she observes. The others continue to battle, flinging themselves at the wall and stabbing at ghosts, before becoming owls also.
The forces of good triumph as the women stand united in a golden light. Masks removed, they share a stanza of Notley’s writing, alternating the speaker to match the short phrases in which it is written. They describe emerging from the subway into a swirl of blurred wings, their own owl selves disappearing into themselves. They report knowing “he must be dead” “he no longer lies between us” “the light has been made new.” And so this harrowing journey ends in the light, the tyrant vanquished.
Mohr’s work communicates on many levels, and provides much to reflect upon and discuss. What I have represented above is how I interpreted the performance. While I have chosen to write with certainty, the variety of interpretations of the work is vast. How fortunate we are to have this artist in our midst.
Review by Jen Norris, published April 29, 2023. Correction May 1, regarding Notley poem.
Link to program info: https://www.hopemohr.org/horizon-stanzas
new dance by Hope Mohr inspired by Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette
Premiere: Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
April 27, 29 & 30, 2023
"Whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice." - Louise Glück
Dancer Collaborators: Belinda He, Suzette Sagisi, Tegan Schwab-Alavi
Choreography: Hope Mohr
Text: Alice Notley, from The Descent of Alette
Sound Design: Teddy Hulsker & Hope Mohr
Lighting Design: Del Medoff
Masks: Ella Noe
Costumes: Tegan Schwab-Alavi
Excerpts from The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley copyright 1992 by Alice Notley. Used by permission of Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
This premiere of Horizon Stanzas was made possible through the support of the Zaccho Dance Theatre's Artist in Residency program, Bridge Live Arts, and generous individual donors.