Water in the Kettle, a presentation of Motordance and Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works, is feminist musical theater. It is a tapestry of body percussion, sung harmonies, rhythmic dance, and storytelling offered by a collective of a dozen women. Dressed in whites, their tops tatted, or woven, each wears a pair of flat-soled boots. I’m reluctant to call the women performers, as their interplay with us, their guests, and each other seems natural, and non-performative, telling stories as they fold laundry, picking up another’s tune and embellishing it. They represent a spectrum of ages, body types. and ethnicities, seeing and feeling each other as their complicated responsive rhythms unfurl.
Motordance Ensemble dance as prelude to bows; Photo by Jen Norris
Kettle is a creation of Motordance’s Artistic Director, Evie Ladin, whose training is in Appalachian music and dance traditions including percussive dance, harmony singing, string band music and social dance. Ladin is interested in revealing how the polyrhythms of the African diaspora are foundational to the cultural arts of the Southeast United States.
A woman sings a single note which reverberates through the room, a second woman enters across the room, offering a new note. One by one, twelve strong, they layer notes on top of, or beside the others, a glorious harmony develops. The singers dart in and out, via diagonal aisles cut amidst the listeners like the spokes of a wheel, the stage at center. Their lyrics begin with “On” and “In” expanding gradually as new word are woven in, until they have built the phrase “Put A Little Water On.” All the while they are moving, facing in and then out of the space as the tempo increases to a thrilling, unified crescendo.
The Motordance ensemble of seven dancers has a unique and sophisticated skillset, which they show to best advantage with “If Trouble don’t kill me, I’ll live a long time.” The hollow pop of a cupped-palm handclap, overlapping with the sound of finger tips brushing fabric, and the scuffs of boot-soles in motion, create the soundscape through which the dancers move through the space together while singing in a round with at least three vocal lines, feeling the connectedness of each person to the collective, creating a wholeness.
Tammy Chang, playing the roles of both mother and daughter, voices a conversation about the mother’s life choices. She switches a tea kettle from her right hip (mother) to her left hand (daughter) to indicate the alternating narrator. The daughter is interrogating the mother’s motives and feelings about marrying a near stranger, giving up a scholarship opportunity, and moving from Taipei to Cincinnati. The interview ends abruptly with a slam of the kettle to the floor, the mother exclaiming, “Stop asking me if I wanted to do things. We just did them!”
In a steady rhythm, Heather Arnett pats her chest above her heart. She lifts her eyebrows and smiles, inviting the audience to join her. She sings a song about gender violence, entitled “It’s All in Your Head.” This homespun style of music making is infectious and so it is wonderful to be invited to literally try our hands and voices at it. Before we know it, the whole house is chest thumping and singing the chorus, “It’s all in my head.”
While a majority of the music in Kettle is created using only bodies and voices, several pieces include Lisa Berman on banjo and dobro, and hand-drum player Amber Hines. Berman with her steel stringed dobro and finger picks has several marvelous solo interludes, one poignant and soulful, the other full of honkytonk twang.
Performers Linda Car, JJ Hansen and Cynthia Mah take turns sharing intergenerational advice they’ve received. It ranges from trite, to profound, to amusing. A mother advises “It’s best to marry a man who loves you a little more, than you love him,” or a grandmother insisting that, “Ladies don’t whistle, but if you must whistle do it in the bathtub.” This section is hampered by some unnecessary and distracting stage business involving canvas ropes, the only element I would recommend cutting in this otherwise entertaining and thought-provoking hour-long show.
In cartoonish workwear, navy blazers and ties, the women chant a series of words “work”, “rent”, “babies”, “guilt” and “sex”. Each word has its own unique gesture that the women perform. A pledge of allegiance hand for “work”, the back of a hand nestled in the other hand combined with a slightly -bended knee for “baby”. The dance of overlapping gestures is fascinating. The sequence of nouns differs from person to person. As the pace increases, the overlapping syllables create a buzz, as distinct words are lost to the collective.
All evening new sounds and rhythms are introduced, our bodies a seemingly endless source of possibilities in the hands of Ladin and her collaborators. The final piece, “Whatcha Gonna Do with the Baby-O” is performed with all twelve performers seated cross-legged facing us. It features leg-slaps in the cadence of galloping horse hooves, accented by the distinct thunk of knuckles on the hollow wooden platform. It culminates with all on their feet, arms flung to the heavens in a golden light, a joyful end to a labor of love. It is an expression of the sturdy, capable, songful, collaborative life of women in the past and present, in the country and in cities across the globe, united in song and dance.
Review by Jen Norris, published February 5, 2023
Artistic Director: Evie Ladin
MoToR/dance ensemble members: Evie Ladin, Valerie Gutwirth, Keira Armstrong, Tammy Chang , Kristen DeAmicis, Heather Arnett and Sydney Lozier.
Chorus members: JJ Hansen, Cynthia Mah and Linda Carr,
Musicians: Amber Hines (vocal, percussion) and Lisa Berman (vocal, banjo, slide guitar)
Lighting Design: Maxx Kurzunski