Children of Hobbes: Disorder and Order
Review by Todd Courage
For her Quicksilver Dance Company, Mariah Steele choreographed Children of Hobbes, an evening-length work presented at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley on November 17–19, 2017. Children of Hobbes, loosely referring to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theory, was made up of three sections (Conform, Conflict, and Conscience) and was competently performed by four women (Hannah Marks, Hannah McNany, Jenna Valez, and Oona Wong-Danders). In the program, Ms. Steele quotes from Hobbes’ famous 1651 treatise Leviathan as a metaphoric means toward an end, drawing parallels between the philosopher’s distilled notions of the dangers of “competition, fear, and glory” and today’s socio-political reversal of long-standing civil traditions, the collapse of the cooperative “group” in the interest of the individual, and the ensuing pitfalls.
Throughout the performance, the ways in which Steele illustrates the echoes of Hobbes’ enduring principles are many. She begins the piece with three dancers delineating space with slow and simple movement patterns, a repeating shape suggesting wandering ghosts or angels. Under stark lighting, the bodies were dressed in unremarkable pedestrian separates, neutral in tone and practical in nature. While they slid among and beside each other, the women audibly hummed a somber tune in unison. Although eclipsed by the visual thrust, I still appreciated the experimental character of this “sound effect” and how it might inform a viewer’s initial perception. This introduction did indeed allude to societal conformity and yielding.
Soon a fourth dancer joined the spectral trio and a compelling section of slicing arms unfolded, barefoot and raw. Next emerged a haunting solo that seemed to comment on tension and surrender, flexation and release. This was a welcome prologue to the following installment involving a dramatized dress-up party: three women histrionically dressing themselves and each other in varying pieces of colorful clothing. Properties hold all the potential of enhancing a work, but how they are incorporated also presents the risk of trivializing the main action. Reconceptualized, this bit of theater might better serve the dance, an ironic observation as it pertains to the unifying themes of the piece. Predictably, a fourth dancer enters, is seduced by the group, but ultimately asserts her individual power through an eventual reclamation of self.
Procuring the talents of lighting designer Linda Baumgardner was a clever choice on the part of Ms. Steele. With a limited lighting plot – 13 lamps – Baumgardner was able to transform an upstairs studio into a sublime venue worthy of the best artistic scenarios imaginable. Each nuanced shift supported the diversity of the evening, determined more by intensity than color, to cathartic effect.
Steele’s strength lies in her more simple movement ideas. A passage as uncomplicated as a row of women walking slowly upstage lent the piece a needed formality, sustained and deliberate. During these moments, the audience was able to digest the earlier dissonant parts juxtaposed against such intelligible and elegant quietude. In this way, Steele took advantage of the choreography as a way to punctuate the group as a unit, trading the unruly or anarchistic for harmony, cohesion, and balance.
Another spellbinding moment involved one woman crawling across the floor, the austerity of which was amplified by a single woman ambling nearby, the fallen and the proud, a cogent tableau symbolizing layers of social cooperation. Once again, uncluttered form occasioned significance. In retrospect, when Steele’s vision assumed its most abstract, non-projecting message, it was at its clearest.
Steele’s use of space was economical and deftly considered. Four dancers came onto and went out of the room in a variety of ways: dark niches, hallways, and doors. Questions only arose when a dancer exited to a visible corner, vanishing but not really vanishing, standing rigidly in an unlit recess. This informality, too, might be re-conceived for the future. Limitations, spatial or otherwise, can give birth to endless interesting solutions for the daring artist.
A solo for a tall, striking young woman was of particular note, powerful by nature of its stationary placement (downstage left) and the commanding focus of the dancer. Other well composed moments included intermittent “sculptures” of multiple bodies, kneeling, leaning, standing, and falling, that conjured ideas of community, differentiation, conflict, support, and even death.
The final montage was an allusion of overlapping consciousness, displayed by the simple stacking of three heads, ear to ear, underpinned by sacred music. Through this dimensional abstract “the children” merged, three became the greater One, consolidated as a resonant emblem of a more hopeful future.
Children of Hobbes was a sincere undertaking in concept, physical research, delivery, and wholeness.
Todd Courage (MFA Dance: Creative Practice) is a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and dance scholar. Other influential interests include Art History, Literature, Food Culture, and Philosophy. He is currently artistic director of courage group and continues to build a diverse repertory of work in the San Francisco Bay Area.