A silvery throne with a bemused beauty seated in front of it: Catherine Cabeen’s dance composition Fire opened this weekend with her contemplating tarot cards to a portentous voiceover narration. We know from the program this piece will focus on the choreographer considering her career, while referencing the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, creator of a surrealist Tarot Garden in Tuscany. Cabeen looks every bit the tarot-card Empress, with her flawless, elongated form, exquisite feet and Tamara de Lempicka–worthy profile. Her stage presence captivates. And that’s before she even begins to move.
In a clinging, full-skirted dress, Cabeen harkens back to her Martha Graham company training as she flows through heroic stances, with occasional hints of Hindu goddess or Egyptian queen. Then the shimmery throne shifts and crumples as five female dancers in metallic body suits emerge and the hour-long choreographic journey ensues.
Since founding her own company four years ago, former Bill T. Jones dancer Cabeen has been continually at work, creating more than 20 pieces in collaboration with other local artists and composers. Her latest piece, Fire, is part two of a trilogy dedicated to visual artists that began at On the Boards in 2011 with Into the Void, based on French new realist Yves Klein. As a choreographer Cabeen has taken on ambitious projects with strong historical foundations, yet she still seems to be struggling with the transition from dancing other people’s work to making her own.
In Fire, the company dancers play well against the elegant scenic design by Jay McAleer, a backdrop with four broad panels of shifting video imagery (digital media by Susie J. Lee, Rodrigo Valenzuela, and Soyoung Shin) and three broad diagonal bands across the floor. Val Mayse’s costume designs are both stylish and smart. At one point Cabeen wraps herself in the deflated foil throne and transforms it into a bouffant, silvery gown.
It’s already well established that Cabeen is a gorgeous dancer, with endless extension and uncanny control. But in a way, her choreography suffers because of it. She is still thinking like a dancer, inside herself. As the piece progresses her movement vocabulary grows repetitive and the narrative falls into well-worn tropes: the fates spinning, a babe in arms, a hand making talking gestures over her head. Her company—Karena Birk, Sarah Lustbader, Ella Mahler, Phylicia Roybal, and Jana Kinci—appears primarily as a frame for Cabeen. All accomplished dancers, uniformly sized a hand shorter than the willowy Cabeen, they act more as a counterpoint than an ensemble. For all the explanatory text in the program, the dance itself doesn’t communicate well.
Cabeen has an avid following and many of us will be tuning in for the final part of this trilogy, date still to be determined. Yet I found myself wondering if, for all her charisma as a dancer, Cabeen would develop her choreographic skills more surely if she took herself out of the mix.
Dinner with a Side of Performance Art at On the Boards