Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith
April 8–April 9, 2022
Leafing through the electronic program for the limited run of Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith’s Gloria at New York Live Arts, I found the most illuminating information not in a description of this particular work, but in the “Biographies” section. (Gloria was originally commissioned by the Abrons Arts Center via the Performance AIRspace Residency and premiered in 2021.) This work feels most powerful considered within the larger context of Smith and Lieber’s fifteen-year choreographic partnership and ongoing exploration of feminist themes. Their collective biography describes a creative process that strives to “use abstract dance to break down patriarchal systems of female degradation through physical paradigms,” and this work successfully embodies the ongoing dialogue between its co-choreographers.
Lighting design by Thomas Dunn opens the show with a brightly-lit stage, but later cues shades of pink and blue, corresponding with tonal shifts in the performance. Costumes for both women include bright, patterned shorts and leotards, with garishly matching makeup. The overall look is high-femme ’80s, a sort of full-coverage aerobics chic that stops short of alluring; Smith confirms the vibe with her pale athletic sneakers, worn throughout most of the performance. Such bold choices of light and garb contrast sharply against the unadorned third floor studio space where we watch, directing us to focus intently on the performance and disregard our physical surroundings. A musical score by James Lo intersperses Laura Branigan’s 1982 classic “Gloria” with a variety of commonplace sounds (including alarms, birds, and waves crashing). The score’s deconstructed elements and fluctuating volumes serve to alternately entertain and assault the audience’s ears throughout the performance.
Both dancers run onstage and launch into repetitive aerobic movements, rebounding to the beat with more jauntiness than grace. The duet’s staging reads as quarantine-friendly, eschewing traveling movements or complex patterns in favor of self-contained vertical bounces with large gestural arms. The general effect is of a big dance that could exist in a small space. The dancers exude a comfortable familiarity as they share the stage, but don’t directly engage with one another or the audience. Their physical distance feels notable, given the shared choreographic history of heavily intertwined (and sometimes nude) contact improvisation.
Gloria is indeed an “endurance dance”; both women appear tired fifteen minutes in, and drenched in sweat by twenty. Lieber ventures a sloppy jeté and a noncommittal layout at some point, but the movement prioritizes repetition and exertion over technique. At points, both dancers gyrate, rocking against the stage or the air in an abrupt shift from fitness to seduction. At another moment, they stroke themselves, but without any particular target. Perhaps all of this speaks to the themes of objectification and a feminist reclamation of the physical body, as Lieber and Smith exhibit and exhaust their bodies without offering them for connection or consumption.
Later, the dancers move into a more physically intimate space with each other, stacking their bodies to create geometric shapes for the viewers. Lieber hoists into a shoulder stand, tracing Smith’s torso with her toes, then stretches her legs and scoots across the floor in a suggestive straddle. After several grazing explorations into each other’s space, Smith sits on Lieber’s head. Then, Lieber strokes Smith’s hair and face, in what may be the most earnest gesture of connection in this performance. They mirror each other while shifting through shapes on the floor, with feet nearly touching, and then present their open crotches as applause ripples through the sound score. For a moment, the pair has melded into a single reflected self. Ultimately Smith crawls over Lieber, and the piece ends as they curl up together.
Though Smith and Lieber have been creating dance together since 2006, throughout Gloria (aforementioned mirroring aside) they appear to have resisted the urge to merge. Each dancer retains her own style in improvisation-based movements, and implements different choices to connect with the audience. Lieber’s presentation feels triumphant, with more explicit crude shapes and intentional eye contact with the audience. Meanwhile, Smith’s energy feels perseverant, grounding the piece like a metronome with even movements and consistent internal focus. It’s tempting to imagine how the audience might experience the same work, if it were reworked as a solo with either woman. (While the piece would likely retain its power, it would be a very different experience in each case.)
In a 2019 interview, Smith describes the pair creatively as “sort of always, like, steeping in our own history.” And that’s how Gloria feels, like they are deep in the tea, and we as the onlookers are lucky to experience the end of its lengthy brew.
* Baryshnikov Arts Center, 2019. BAC Residency | Molly Lieber + Eleanor Smith | BAC Space Fall 2019 [Video]. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/383355647