In the Waves
Martha Sherman,

Anna Sperber found riches in “Wealth from the Salt Seas.” Though not slavishly attached to watery images, her dance was filled with ebbs and flows: a mix of Sperber’s signature combination of control and abandon. What was especially satisfying was seeing her dance her own movement, inhabiting the welcoming stage of the Chocolate Factory in a not-entirely-solo performance filled with the ripples and shifts she has choreographed most recently on other dancers. Although most of the movement was hers, she did have a partner: the remarkable soprano Gelsey Bell, who moved across the stage to balance Sperber’s movement. Other times Bell would scrabble against the walls or up the platforms as she keened and moaned an eerie vocal score.

The audience was arrayed on all four sides of the theater, as if Sperber were in a pool and we were dangling over the edge. From the start we were present for her. She made eye contact as she silently walked around the space, owning it and her own body: exploring her face and nose before her arms exploded from her upper body in harsh, jagged movements offset by the tender check of her hands on her cheek and chest.

Sperber retreated to a corner where an unused elevator shaft marked one of the Chocolate Factory’s most idiosyncratic architectural features. She turned her attention to that large hole, to allow Bell an entrance and spotlight of her own. Bell moved across the room’s diagonal, leaning into the corner as buzzing and hissing sounds filled the space. There was an insistence about Bell’s vocalizations, like body breaths forced from her, that made us all aware of our breathing as well.

In addition to Bell’s score, there was a bells score – cowbells gently but insistently ringing. In one of Sperber and Bell’s duets, they moved from a crawl into poses on the floor. They folded together, the motions of their hands and bodies accompanied by a melodious cacophony. Although most of the movement in between belonged to Sperber alone, the two were movement partners later when they climbed the wooden platforms on opposite corners of the space. Here, Bell heaved in deep breaths before singing a single powerful note, while Sperber shifted and posed from the top of her platform opposite. They were connected, and it felt unsettling, a little dangerous, like the response to a siren’s song.

In another evocative image, Bell walked along the edge of the stage with a mirror, flickering the surface to catch the light and project it onto the floor – like sunlight hitting water. Throughout, her vocal permutations continued to shift (buzzing, hissing, dolphin calls and whale song, pops and whirrs, tongue clicks, or the rustle of a stick pulled across the brick and pipes of the walls.) Sperber found just as many permutations of movement. As smooth and powerful as her body can be, she was just as likely to shiver her hands and limbs, or fall into a leisurely amphibious crawl across the stage.

In a dramatic central scene, Sperber uncoiled what looked like rubber tires in a corner of the space, unfurling long black eels of material that she hooked behind her neck. Like a Chinese ribbon dancer with dense, weighty ribbons, she whipped the long black tails, sometimes in parallel, sometimes into undulating patterns of their own design. She doubled and quadrupled the lines, and the heavy momentum of the material was luxurious.. The moving limbs seemed alive.

The imagery of the final scene recalled Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent,” as Bell pulled a huge golden cloth from the elevator well, and the lights dimmed to allow the cloth to glisten. It was also weighty and rich; the performers folded it across the diagonal of the stage, trapping Sperber at its edge “in the capriciousness of summer air.” To Bell’s clicking, dripping sounds, Sperber was subsumed within the shifting plane of gold. As she rippled underneath, the cloth billowed briefly over the edge of the audience, then fluttered up to reveal the two artists, standing side by side, fading into the golden light.

Martha Sherman for – April 17, 2018