Review: The Convenient Woman, a dance-theatre production by Teresa Chapman

Teresa Chapman and Leslie Scates

photo by Peter Norton

When I heard Teresa Chapman and Leslie Scates talking on KUHF’s The Front Row about The Convenient Woman, Chapman’s new work now playing at DiverseWorks, I had a sinking feeling. Not another piece groaning about the pressures society puts on women and they put on themselves. Why does this drive me crazy? First, there are way worse problems confronting us, and there are really easy ways to avoid this. Don’t put on those high heels, forgo Botox, and quit buying magazines that make you feel inferior.

I attended the press preview/dress rehearsal of The Convenient Woman. Once the piece got started I could see that choreographers Chapman and Scates were playing with a much more illusive territory than their comments suggested. They may have started with the above mission, but drifted off as the process evolved. Just a note here about how artists describe their work and how premature it is to name the ground while it’s still forming. The ideas that get us going don’t always end up being the ones that sustain.

The Convenient Woman is a promising first draft, raw in places, and possessing differing degrees of resolution in its various parts. The piece sprawls about the stage, looking a bit like an unkempt apartment, a pile of unsent note cards clustered in one corner, a small gathering of unidentified objects in another. Extra people come and go, (students from University of Houston’s Womens’ Studies classes), for no apparent reason. Visuals by Frederique DeMontblanc start and stop. All in all, The Convenient Woman plays out in a casual, unslick way; and there’s something charming, almost intimate, about it all. Rough around the edges seems right. As they clean up the concepts, I hope they keep the messy house feel. Woman are complicated people, our living spaces are dense and often unstructured environments. Still in progress, The Convenient Woman is still looking for its reason to be, yet strewn about its boundaries lay signs of a more realized work.

Chapman and Scates give the piece its punch. As two of the most captivating performers in Houston, they make a good match, both in terms of their physical contrasts and methods of dancemaking. Chapman is a technical powerhouse and brings an athleticism to her dancing which includes such eye candy as high extensions, whip-fast turns and an intense stage presence. Scates, well schooled in various improvisational techniques, possesses a more nuanced touch; her clarity comes from a different place, less based in traditional dance forms. She dances as if listening to the space to tell her what to do next. It’s very alluring. And it’s nothing short of a marvel to watch these two dance so well in high heels. The chemistry between the team provides much of the work’s interest. But I want to know more. Why are these two women together here? How do their lives intermingle? Whose story are they telling? These are some of the questions that came up, remain unanswered, but piqued my interest.

The piece deepens when they let go of preachy material and drift into more abstract shores. Sections of dancing where the two fight for the space, caress and support, speak more to the complexity of the subject. Scates slides wine glasses down an ironing board into a metal trash can during her moving monologue about how the bad parts stay and the good parts disappear. (Isn’t that the truth?) It’s here where the piece takes flight, moving into a more delicate examination of their respective lives.

DeMontblanc’s live camera projections added to the homegrown feel throughout. Sitting casually in the corner she manipulates magazine cutouts of luxury goods. A perfectly groomed hand rearranges the bling in a moment of visual wit. Later on, a video of Chapman gradually wearing more and more make-up leads to a near grotesque mask. DeMontblanc responds almost like a projection DJ. Her presence adds to the piece’s made-before-our-eyes feel.

There are overly muddled moments as well, mostly having to do with the text and heavy-handed content. Both have had considerable immersion in Liz Lerman’s dance/text matching procedures, which serve them with varying degrees of success. The process known as equivalence provides a way to inject text into dance making. The problem is that the method produces such a predictable result so that everyone sounds pretty much just like Lerman when they use it. Unfortunately, Chapman falls into this trap. Later on in the dance, the text finds its way into the movement in a more organic way, free from the limits of an overused methodology. A yoga class finds Chapman in tree pose while she spouts ridiculous advice from “J”’s 1960s man hunting manifesto The Way to Become a Sensuous Woman. It’s cute, but doesn’t add much. The one live web piece on plastic surgery also felt like a vestigial limb, totally unnecessary.

Despite some glitches in execution, and need for some serious editing and re-shaping of ideas, visuals, and methodologies, there’s an excitement to this trio. They are all getting to know each other and we get to watch. I like that, and there’s a boldness to showing a work still fresh in the forming. They left a trail of their process, evidence of the road they traveled. As time goes on, the unnecessary parts may fade away, letting the the work’s heart come through. The Convenient Woman feels like a beginning, a solid start, to both a body of work, and a continued relationship between these three compelling voices. I left wanting to know what they will do next.

Teresa Chapman presents The Convenient Woman April 10-11, 2009, at 8:00pm at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. Tickets: $8-15. For more information, call 713.335.3445 or visit www.diverseworks.org.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

Read Nichelle Strzepek’s review here and her interview here.

Read Jacqueline Nalett’s DSH Flash Response here.

Read Toni Valle’s DSH Flash Preview here.

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