>character study by michelle stortz

>reviewed by yang minn

>date: 27 sep 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre, the substation

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


If Michelle Stortz were a comedian, she'd never have to worry about her audience not laughing. But dancer and choreographer she is, and in choosing to fuse her performances with the spoken word, she's given her audience a delightful - and often hilarious - new way to laugh, er, look at dance.

It is hard to describe what CHARACTER STUDY by Michelle Stortz really is, especially when one is unfamiliar with dance to begin with. It's half an experiment in marrying text with movement, half an attempt to re-describe actions with words, and one hundred percent entertainment.

Of course, Stortz will be the first to play down any notion of multimedia experimentation. The title of the work offers little clue, while the programme notes make only one slight allusion to the amalgamation of forms ("CHARACTER STUDY consists of five works fusing dance, theatre, and text"). Within the pieces themselves, Stortz's energy leaves no doubt that the works are first and foremost dance performances.

Nevertheless, there's no mistaking the attempt to reconstitute the role of text in dance. From the moment Stortz puts on a southern drawl in the first piece, 'Fine Hats', the audience cannot but recognise it is a long way from purist territory. Interestingly, despite the lack of mention of experimentation in the programme notes, they send a telling confession to the audience when the evening is over. Take a second look at them and you'll note that, except for the final piece, 'Framed', which has been "choreographed" by Stephanie Burridge, everything else has been "written and performed" by Stortz or her collaborators.

So that settles it: CHARACTER STUDY isn't just a dance, it's a show. Which is just as well, since this inexperienced reviewer would not know where to start otherwise. To the uninitiated, modern dance is baffling. To the illiterate, it is simply intimidating. How does one read a hop, a sweep of the arms, an arcing of the back? But call a dance a show and suddenly a structural approach looms.

>>'CHARACTER STUDY isn't just a dance, it's a show'

'Fine Hats' starts the evening rolling with an intriguing blend of theatre and dance. Stortz's southern belle tells the audience she wears "shiny black shoes and a fine hat." Naturally, she does not, since she is draped in the white pajamas of a mental institution patient. Loose slivers of narration and short sequences of controlled movements reveal the familiar tale of this former three-time cooking blue-ribbon champion and her abusive husband. In a poignant moment in the piece, Stortz's helpless wife explains the violence - "Because that's what you do when you love somebody" - and withdraws into a corner, quaking. Finally, the battered woman crouches over a piece of the stage and points down, whispering to the audience, "That's my grand-daughter down there, and look how she's all grown up now, and she's wearing shiny black shoes and a fine hat." She verbalizes her desire to see her grand-daughter take a husband who will love her - but suddenly withdraws sharply, her back bent by a spasm of fear.

The second piece of the evening, 'Touch', pairs Stortz with George Chua, as they dance out the various human relationships described in Alfian Bin Sa'at's purpose-written poem. It is perfect for the two dancers, as they display great chemistry together, displaying tenderness when the relationship needs it. The duo's elegant and fluid transitions from one form of relationship to another corresponds well to - enhances even - the poem's more methodological progression, as Stortz's hand, twirling in George's, with one roll of the body across his back, becomes an arm wrapped around the neck. Even when the poem moves into negative relationship terrain, Stortz and Chua demonstrate enough nuances between, say, sibling rivalry (they playfully pounce on each other like kittens) and competitive opposition (they sumo-wrestle with each other). The only downside to this graceful experiment was Stephanie Burridge's recital of an unfamiliar text; considering how well Alfian manages the pace of the next piece, it is especially a pity the honour for this one falls to another. All said, there has never been a better example of "poetry in motion".

'Semiotic Girl' follows, and is a brilliant conclusion to the first half of the show. Stortz mimes out her idiosyncratic role with aplomb as Alfian narrates the story of the title-character waiting in vain for a call from her one-night stand. There is plenty of humour in her exaggerated actions - the scene where Stortz single-handedly re-enacts the stud making love to Semiotic Girl is a real crowd-pleaser - but this is more than mere slapstick comedy.

As the title suggests, there is a deliberate attempt to let the familiarity of signs - and in this case, popular commercial slogans - tell the story. For instance, deciding whether or not to give the stud a ring on his phone, Semiotic Girl comes across a poster that helps her make up her mind. The portent, needless to say, spells "Just do it." Stortz's hilarious portrayal of Semiotic Girl belies the responsibility-free approach to decision-making, and this tension provides an unexpectedly stirring climax. When Semiotic Girl returns home from her day of waiting in vain, tired and heartbroken (her Nike phone call is picked up by another woman), she heads into the shower, where her tears are indistinguishable from the hot water. Reaching for the shampoo, she reads, "No more tears."

Semiotic Girl ultimately succeeds in keeping the audience enthralled because of Stortz's comic timing and Alfian's reading. As a writer that needs little introduction locally, his text shows an assured self-belief, and he confidently lets the words do the talking. His narration is thus unhurried, and allows Stortz to express her comic potential perfectly. For her part, Stortz really has a flair for physical humour, and the aforementioned bedroom scene is one that must be seen to be believed.

If the earlier three pieces are an accessible introduction for this reviewer to modern dance, the piece immediately following the interval reminds me why I don't watch dance performances more often. 'Thread (work-in-progress)' is as abstract as they come, and neither the props (three lengths of yellow, flowing cloths hanging from the lighting) nor the accompanying narration (again recited by Burridge) offer much help in contextualising the performance. After watching Stortz turn herself inside out a couple of times for two minutes, along to some commentary about "hell" and "hope", I gave up trying to make sense of the piece. It speaks volumes that I actually begin to enjoy watching what seem like meaningless routines carrying Stortz around the stage. What is striking about her movement is the way it flows like the kinetic energy of a ball rolling between two slopes. Stillness gives way to a deliberate stretch of the arm, which begins to carry the body forward into space, and unleashes the latent energy into a mass of twisting sinews which, expended, pull taut again, leaving the limbs to wind to rest, till they finally hang loosely from their joints once more.

The evening closes with 'Framed', a concoction of the various dance styles and poses canonized by the golden age of Cinema. Stortz begins behind closed doors, as a starlet in shades tentatively peeking out to elude the glare of the paparazzi. As the blast of Nino Rota's music brings back the fanfare of 50s moviedom, Stortz struts before the audience like the screen goddesses of yore. Only, she begins to teeter and trip as she returns to familiar comic territory, sending up nearly every sultry celluloid queen in the process. Dancing through their various stock poses and classical numbers, Stortz rocks the audience with her lovable homage to the original mistresses of multimedia experimentation. 'Framed' is hypertextuality at its funniest.

Hard-pressed to comment on the success of CHARACTER STUDY's textual experiment, I would posit that Stortz and her collaborators have indeed synthesized the different media far better than I expected. The poetry and theatre, for instance, never stand out from the performance like a sore thumb. But it is suffice to say CHARACTER STUDY is a wonderfully entertaining, accessible and amusing introduction to modern dance. Say anymore, and I'll just be reading too much into it.