Leigh Donlan reports:
“I need to see the crawling after the howling.”
Maurya Kerr is directing a rehearsal of beast, her latest work for her company, tinypistol, and it’s not quite the aesthetic that you’d expect from a former Alonzo King LINES ballerina. “Don’t take his hand!” she yells at dancer Robyn Gerbaz while the other dancers continue to pace around like animals, encircling Chris DeVita, who is writhing on the floor in an unspeakable agony. But he needs help, I’m thinking to myself, squirming in my chair. Why won’t she let them help him?
Because Maurya Kerr is not creating dances to please her audience, or to make them comfortable. In fact, the more discomfort the audience feels, the better, because that usually means they’re learning something new. After years of performing ballets for passive audiences who recline in chairs and consume the prescribed entertainment, Kerr is interested in engaging the audience on a much deeper level. She wants people to think, to question their experiences and their expectations of those experiences, particularly relationships. Most of the relationships we see at the ballet are Disney-like fairy tales – skinny, white damsels in distress with feet bound by pretty pointe shoes, being saved by the heroic white male. “I’m really interested in depicting relationships in a real, substantive way,” she explains. “I feel that ballet is so… sanitized. And it has nothing to do with real life. Those are not the kind of relationships I have.”
Kerr acknowledges that her choreography is in part a reaction to these generally accepted aesthetics of ballet. Which is why her company motto is ‘anti-pretty.’ It’s her belief system in life and in movement. “I’m trying to create a different definition of what women are and what women do. I feel like there is a tyranny of ‘prettiness’ in our culture today that has nothing to do with actual beauty. What is accepted as pretty is very superficial and idealized… Beauty to me is very animal. When I look at animals I think ‘that is beauty.’ They are in their bodies. They aren’t self-conscious. They are honest. And I feel like we need to animalize ourselves to get in touch with that.”
Kerr danced with LINES for 8 years. After three hip replacement surgeries within a six year span, she was forced into an early retirement. “I think the two hardest years of my entire life were coming through that period. And figuring out who I was and what I wanted to do and that I had value outside of dancing. I feel like I came out… different.” When she began to choreograph on her own, she found that she needed a new language, a new vocabulary of movement to express what she was trying to say. And what a beautiful language it is, one of brutal honesty and humility. No movement feels forced or inorganic to the dancers.
Most of her dancers have been with her since the company’s inception in 2010. Some of them came from the Lines professional dance program, others from crossed paths within the dance community. But what struck me about their rehearsal environment was the trust and respect felt amongst everyone, and the lack of pretentiousness. Kerr’s ‘anti-pretty’ philosophy seems to foster a safe and nurturing environment in which the dancers aren’t competing to achieve an ideal look. Everyone is their own being with their own unique voice, and Kerr allows them to make the movement their own.
When I ask Kerr what the audience response has been to her works, beyond the usual discomfort, she replies that “I think a lot of people probably think my movement is ugly. But I’m not trying to be something. The nature of women standing up for themselves isn’t… pretty. This is the movement that comes out of my body. So if people just want to be entertained this is the wrong show to come to. A little disclaimer there.”
tinypistol performs the world premiere of beast with a reprise of Kerr’s Wantful September 25-27, 2014 at ODC Theater. For tickets call 415-863-9834, or go to www.odctheater.org.