Wire Monkey creates ‘Short Circuits’

by Karen Nelson
Published 10/24/2002
Daily Hampshire Gazette

Photo by Jerry Roberts
Chris O'Connor, left, and Justin Norris rehearse a scene from "X-bar," which spans five days in strife-ridden Palestine. The scaffolding represents the three floors of the building in which their characters live.

It happens all the time. You don't know you need something until you see it at a yard sale. For Saliq Francis Savage, the find was some scaffolding, thrown in with the usual pots and pans in need of new homes. Savage waited about a day before succumbing, but having loved tree climbing and similar physical activity from an early age, he ultimately couldn't resist the opportunity to acquire his very own heavy-duty climbing apparatus.

Now, a few years later, he and partner Jennifer Polins have put the scaffolding to good use as the stage set for their Holyoke-based dance company, Wire Monkey Dance, which has produced about a piece a year since its founding in September 1999. Last year's program, "Endangered Species," was featured in the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, to which Wire Monkey has been invited again this year.
This weekend and next, Wire Monkey will premiere its newest work, "Short Circuits," two pieces encompassing not only choreography set on and around the scaffolding, but also video and original music. The title reflects Savage's and Polins' concern, stated in the program, that "with glacial millennia replaced by mere melting years, and local events triggering global conflicts, the potential for short circuits is increasing."

The choreographers decided to work separately this time, rather than collaboratively as in the past, and they have taken quite distinct approaches to making a creative statement about "short circuits" in today's world. Hence the division of the program into Savage's "X-bar," a piece for three men, and Polins' "Bending Steel" for three women.

Savage's piece is a narrative spanning five days in strife-ridden Palestine, where a Jew (Chris O'Connor), an Arab trying to live a normal life (Justin Norris) and an Arab bent on violence (Dan Bear Davis) live on three floors of a building represented by the scaffolding. The blue hour is the period of half-light in the early morning and evening when people are starting their day and then, later, returning home from whatever the day has brought them. "While the piece is literal, the audience won't get everything," Savage says, explaining that he is aiming for a surrealistic quality.

The three men's story of intersecting lives unfolds against a video backdrop created from animations of recent photos taken in Palestine that the father-son team of Paul and Joshua Boliver of Holyoke have composited with photos of 3-year-olds from that city. "We have to have more than one focus, not just think about those close to us, but also about the rest of the world," Paul Boliver says, in explaining the role of the video.

'Bending Steel'
In "Bending Steel," Polins has set abstract movement for herself and two other dancers, Ione Beauchamp, who has worked with Wire Monkey almost since the beginning, and Fritha Pengelly, appearing with the company for the first time. Polins wanted to work with fabric, so the scaffolding is draped with swaths of cloth in four colors, none straying far from ecru. "It's very feminine," Polins says, "but also a rest for the eyes, changing the dimensionality of the structure." The dance uses aerial and acrobatic movement as well as movement derived from improvisation to demonstrate feminine power and mutual assistance, symbolized by a climax in which the dancers are "all working together to take the structure apart to make space for something new."

The creative path
Far from following a simple path from "Let's put on a show" to its MIFA world premiere, Wire Monkey's creative process weaves back and forth. The final result emerges from innumerable creative decisions made by the choreographers, the video team and the music director, Stephen Katz. For example, as the rehearsals proceeded, Polins would have liked the music for her piece to be finished so she could refine the movement to exactly fit what she heard in the score. Meanwhile, Katz wanted to see the movement first so he could develop his compositional ideas to fully support the choreography.

For Polins' piece, Katz is using his own recorded and live cello and ukelele playing, mixed with singing and a variety of prerecorded natural sounds. The music for Savage's piece is entirely recorded, employing sounds from the environment, commercial sound effects and CD samples. "I use these things for their energy and association value," Katz explains, the idea being to evoke the atmosphere in which residents of Palestine wake up in the morning, cope with a day's worth of hassles and tension, and then return home to unsettled dreams.

To tell the story of his three characters' uncomfortably linked lives, Savage takes advantage of the scaffolding's dual function as a mobile stage set - the structure is on wheels - and as a foundation for movement that allows arms to have as much importance as legs in supplying motive power. The men in the story have to get themselves to work each day, which for the Arabs means enduring humiliating, sometimes impassable checkpoints, and for the Jew means being constantly on edge. The scaffolding is by turns home and outside world.

Wire Monkey rehearses in a theater on Cabot Street in Holyoke originally built for the workers of the Farr Alpaca Company weaving factory, in a building now occupied by the Paper City Brewery. Savage and Polins cleared out the massive amount of old equipment, vehicles and forgotten junk being stored in the theater to make space for something new, which certainly seems in keeping with their artistic mission as they put the final touches on "Short Circuits."

Wire Monkey will perform "Short Circuits: Dances on Scaffolding" at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 17 New South St., at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25 and 26 and Nov. 1 and 2, and Sunday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15; $10 for students and seniors. For reservations and information, call 1-800-224-6432, or log on to www.wiremonkeydance.com.