‘Collision Course – a.k.a. Pillow Talk’ at George Washington University by Rick Westerkamp

Collision Course – a.k.a. Pillow Talk, choreographed by Maida Withers and performed by the Maida Withers Dance Construction Company (MWDCC), is a beautifully complex and thought-provoking piece of dance theatre that is sure to have audience members thinking about it long after the lights go down on the dancers and the pillows. The piece stemmed from an improvisation the MWDCC performed years ago, with pillows and rope. The ideas at the core of that improvisation made a lasting impression on Withers, and this new evening-length work is the result of formalizing the core of that improvisation.

Photo of MWDCCo with Giselle Ruzany in front. Photo of ‘Collision Course – a.k.a. Pillow Talk.’ Photo by Shaun Schroth. Maida Withers Dance Construction Company – Maida Withers Choreographer.

The piece begins with the striking Kelly Bond as a solo figure, in an oval-shaped light, maneuvering herself and her pillow, as if in the midst of a restless night’s sleep. She is in a mesh white dress with white undergarments on a white floor, the signature female costume of the evening. She organically flows from one movement to the next, drawing the audience in as much with her bigger movements as with her subtle gestures. As the solo continues, the movement becomes less organic and more choreographed, setting up the surrealistic romp the audience is about to go on with the dancers.

The next section is a duet, introducing Nathaniel Bond and Giselle Ruzany as characters in this experience. Bond brings to the stage strength and attention to detail. Ruzany performs with wonderful abandon and fluidity. Bond is in a white athletic top and white shorts, the male costume of the evening. The two dancers perform side-by-side, in unison, as if they were having the same experience but in each of their respective spaces, simultaneously. All of a sudden the two dancers squirm together, as if something internal forced their bodies to converge. This allows for beautiful assisted lifts, happening naturally out of their rolling and scooting around on the floor, pillows in hand.

The graceful and grounded Anthony Gongora is seamlessly introduced in the next section, in a trio alongside Nathaniel Bond and Ruzany. The three dancers begin in a tangled web of each other’s appendages, and this amoeba that their bodies form slowly spaces itself out. The dancers traverse the tricky terrain of each other’s bodies and various pillows among the space like pros, never once phased by the challenge of pillows in their path or another dancer. Character traits emerge in this section, such as the organization that seems so present for Nathaniel Bond, the daring of Gongora, and the abandon of Ruzany.

Once the four main figures are introduced, the piece merges from solos, to duets, to trios and quartets quite seamlessly. At one point, a pair of duets travels down a row of pillows, and in this one structure the audience experiences moments of order, chaos, and childishness. A beautiful moment, almost therapeutic in its nature, is when the dancers spin simultaneously, each with a pillow in hand. Imagery of the Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul came to mind for this audience member, and there was a calm that fell on the theatre amidst this tranquility.

Another moment that stood out for me is when Nathaniel Bond meticulously created a pile of upwards of twelve pillows that the dancers ran and jumped into with great abandon. The daring of the dancers, the trust in their props, and the confidence with which they executed these terrific leaps and bounds made for an almost voyeuristic look at something we all wish we could re-create at home after the performance.

As the piece moves forward, Dyllan Mont is introduced in a quintet that fills the whole stage space, and we see the dancers move in and out of simultaneous duets and trios. Mont’s supple spine and expressive gestural work shine in this section. She brings a special presence to the piece, pushing the evening along with a fresh energy. She has mastered the choreography that encompasses this section, and is able to perform with a mature subtlety.

Maida Withers on the main street in Croatia at the Zagrebi! Festival. Photo by Jaksa Bori.

The final section of the piece features the MWDCC guest artists, Billy Andrews, Ian Ceccarelli, Kristi Cole, and Sammy Wong. Cole enters the space with a burst of energy, and performs a solo of graceful precision, as the men scoot, shimmy and cartwheel across the stage in the first black costume pieces of the evening. Eventually, the men create lines and rows in which to lift, roll, and carry the malleable Cole from place to place. The men perform a graceful lift of Cole, first on their backs with their legs supporting her weight, and then standing with her in their arms. As they place her down she throws a pillow at them, signaling the deconstruction of the piece.

At this point, pillows are thrown onstage in frenzy, the original quintet of dancers enters the stage space in black, and all of the dancers pick up and throw pillows around. They roll onto the pillows, slide onto the pillows, and move about the stage in an organized chaos. Cole is the only dancer in white at this point, and the piece ends with the dancers on the ground, as the pillows frenzy settles, and white feathers fall from the sky. Bookended with tranquility and precision, this evening-length dance theatre piece is a must see.

Withers collaborated with a number of artists on this work. The music was originally composed and performed live by Steve Hilmy, who she has collaborated with in the past. The subtlety with which he adapts what he is playing to the mood of the “vignettes” is stellar. At times, he mirrors the vast white landscape of the stage space with sound, and at other times he adds a tribal nature to a frenzied moment of movement. Anthony Gongora also worked on the visual design of the show, which adds so much to the dancers moving through the space. His images create the surreal landscape of the work, often duplicating a real image, blurring an image from nature, or an extreme close-up of one of the dancer’s bodies. Alex Caldiero, performance poet and sonosopher, created beautiful language and striking hypothetical questions that the dancers then answered through movement. Sigrid Johannesdottir created the beautifully simple costumes for the dancers. The costumes resembled pajamas, but not in a trite way, and allowed for the dancers’ bodies to move freely. The lighting by Michael Sperber was spot on. It didn’t interfere with the projections, and directed the audience’s eye where Withers intended the focus to be in each moment.

Withers tapped into a wealth of inspiration with this new work, and hopefully audiences will attend this performance and help propel this work to a run in a theatre season, allowing the piece to grow. The comfortable structure of the piece allows for the movement to be the unexpected aspect. Outstanding moments in the piece come from the subtext in the way the dancers pick up and move the pillows, which would become more specific with an extended run elsewhere in the city. Withers’ masterful choreography breaks the piece into sections as an actor would break a script into beats. Each section represents a new objective.

Kelly Bond by Shuan Schroth (flying).Photo by Shuan Schroth (flying).

At the top of the show, Withers announced that, “We are not sure what this work is about, but we know what we’d like it to be about.” This audience member found a cyclical nature to the piece, what with the solo by Kelly Bond at the start of the piece and the solo figure of Kristi Cole in the end of the piece, the only dancer on the stage wearing white. Is pillow talk timeless? Can we draw similarities between ourselves and out pillow talk at age twenty and at age thirty?

Run Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Explore these questions and more at Collision Course – a.k.a. Pillow Talk. The final show of this premiere weekend is tonight at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre  at George Washington University – 800 21st Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


Read Rick Westerkamp’s interview with Maida Withers.



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