When Joy French first started advertising her dance performance, Crack and Yoke, she noticed something interesting: "People kept coming up and saying, 'Oh, is it about eggs?' even though there's no mention of eggs on the poster, and it's spelled 'yoke,' not 'yolk.'" It seemed that regardless of spelling, people are hardwired to make certain associations.
Turns out, French's evening-length work is, in part, about eggs, and explores another kind of hardwiring; specifically the biological and cultural imperatives we associate with fertility, and more broadly, with womanhood.
"I have a lot of good friends my age who don't have children, and some who do," says French. Not a mother herself, but at that late-20s-early-30s juncture, she began pondering the complex and emotional terrain that women occupy when it comes to career, family, and social and personal expectations and desires.
"I was curious about the fertility of the mind versus the fertility of the body," she says.
And she began wondering if the two truly present a dichotomy as society often suggests. This pondering soon sent her back in history to search for a precedent. She found in Greek mythology stories that resonated with her.
"I knew of goddesses of fertility in myths, but I wondered if there were such beings as goddesses of infertility," she says. "What I found were the female monsters."
Medusa and her Gorgon sisters—portrayed in the dance by French, Ashley Griffith and Jen Stearns-Delong—were physically infertile, but powerful and dangerous beings operating on society's edges. In Euripedes' Greek storyline, Athena slays the beastly Medusa.
But French wasn't ready to dispatch Medusa so swiftly, nor cast Athena (Jes Mullette) in such a cold, straightforward role. Throughout the dance, Athena abstractly embodies fertility and death, inspiration and tough love. When she binds Medusa in ropes made of bras, panties, purses and high heels, the scene is not goofy as it perhaps sounds, but is instead remarkably poignant.
This blending of props and movement, subtle theatricality and thoughtful costuming is what makes this not simply a well-choreographed dance, but a smart piece of social commentary.
Throughout, the dance seamlessly melds the serious with the playful; a handclapping, patty-cake-esque series evokes thoughts of childhood, but is punctuated with moments of gravity when members of the giddy sisterhood are called away. A repeated "off to the races" theme highlights the spectacle that often surrounds conception, pregnancy and childbirth. But Medusa and the Gorgons infuse these sequences with a questioning air, and create their own community outside the confines of tradition.
It should be noted that the trio work that Medusa and the Gorgons perform is truly spectacular. Using the Downtown Dance Collective's performance space to its fullest, these three women move flawlessly together, at one point carrying on improvisational dialogue during a complex sequence, and at another embodying the powerful goddess-monsters in a fast and intensely physical section.
This goddess-monster section also offers a good example of one of the other stand-out facets of this piece: the music. French worked together with local singer-songwriter Amy Martin to create a score of entirely new music. And while Martin does sing on a few tracks, including the lullaby-esque "Athena's Theme," much of the music bridges genres and showcases her other instrumental talents, including trumpet and accordion. That the music and the dance were created in conversation with one another is readily apparent, and gives an already striking performance a well-polished, professional feel.
French's work is a rare treat for Missoula; it's infrequent that a choreographer creates an evening-length piece here in town, and that dancers who are not affiliated with the university get a chance to perform. Although she received her BA here at UM and was a company member with Headwaters Dance, French left Montana to get her MFA at the University of Colorado. From there, she easily could have moved on to bigger and brighter performance meccas; but she came back, and fans of dance in Missoula should feel lucky that she did.
Crack and Yoke continues at the Downtown Dance Collective Friday, Feb. 25, and Saturday, Feb. 26, at 8 PM nightly. $10/$8 students, seniors and youth.