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Reframing American Cinema

The set is a mid-century living room. A green lamp and a bookcase rest downstage right; a typewriter and an abacus lie upstage on a desk. Cushioned chairs sit invitingly among scattered suitcases which are stuffed to the brim, and a single wooden chair sits center. This is the opening shot of Kayla Farrish's “Put Away the Fire, dear, pt. 2,” a second draft to the dancer/choreographer's exploration of American film and archetypes, which was presented as part of the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival in the lower east side.

Performance

Kayla Farrish's “Put Away the Fire, dear, pt. 2

Place

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York, NY, April 23, 2023

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Kayla Farrish's “Put Away the Fire, dear, pt. 2.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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Farrish is a powerful, multi-talented artist who has danced with a number of prominent contemporary companies including Kyle Abraham's A.I.M. and Punchdrunks' Sleep No More. She was named a “Break Out Star of 2021” by the New York Times, and as a choreographer has recently presented original work at a number of leading contemporary theaters in New York.

“Put Away the Fire, dear” is interdisciplinary dance theatre. Farrish begins the show seated in the wooden chair, reciting poetic narrative. The other dancers—a group of five, including Farrish—speak throughout the piece, too, in dialogue and monologue. Costumes and props play a major role in establishing character, and music and projections break in and out to accompany them.

The discipline Farrish is most concerned with in this piece is, of course, film: Using references to historical movies, the piece explores the line between live performance and film and asks, “what's at the end of an archetype?”

Kerime Konur in Kayla Farrish's “Put Away the Fire, dear, pt. 2.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

In considering these questions, Farrish turns specifically to classic American cinema. Early on, Farrish and two fellow dancers jump on and off chairs and march forward. With big smiles, they perform the iconic “Good Morning” scene from “Singin' in the Rain.” It's a cheerful rendition with a darker ending: After the last note, the dancers' smiles drop immediately. They run forward and bounce back, befuddled and discouraged to discover there's no escaping the imaginary screen.

This attempt to break out of the movie would imply that the dancers can see beyond the camera, but they're not convinced that the audience can see them. At one point, dancers pass around an empty wooden frame and look through it into the audience. “I hold this frame to be seen,” they say. The movie hasn’t captured the whole picture.

Visibility remains a major theme throughout the piece. Farrish focuses her work with a particular lens, centering the narratives primarily from the point of view of a Black American woman, or Black American women, an identity regularly stereotyped and misrepresented in American cinema. She intends for the work to “give voice, imagery, and life back to BIPOC folks and the marginalized communities.” Using a varied soundtrack including popular jazz music of Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, the dancers pop in and out of performative roles, smiling and flirting with the audience but quickly demonstrating the vulnerability, sadness, and fear that remain after the number is done.

Kerime Konur in Kayla Farrish's “Put Away the Fire, dear, pt. 2.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

“Put Away the Fire, dear,” in its second iteration, raises a number of important questions. To begin with, what are the strengths of different mediums: What can live theatre do that movies can't, and vice versa? When should each be used as a form of expression, and what happens when we mix many forms together?

Secondly, where is the line between archetype and stereotype? Archetypes represent human truths while stereotypes diminish humanity. “Put Away the Fire, dear” sets out to distinguish and address the two, especially as they relate to the representation of BIPOC in American cinema.

Because there were so many parts to the work, sometimes the archetypal narratives could be hard to follow. The spoken parts, especially, were difficult to understand as they were often recited over music and song. Maybe we were supposed to feel this way: In the second act, a voice teases, “Your mind must be racing trying to put the pieces of this story together.” The voice was right—I became disoriented—but these disorienting parts led to more confusion rather than discovery.

Kayla Farrish in “Put Away the Fire, dear, pt. 2.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

What was revelatory was the performance of Farrish, who as a dancer is incredibly compelling. For an hour-and-a-half, two-act show that included speaking, singing, and plenty of dancing, she appeared to have an endless well of energy. Bursting onstage for solos and duets, she was effervescent but also grounded, with phrasing that was extraordinarily musical. Though some parts of this second draft of “Put Away the Fire, dear,” could seem unclear, Farrish, herself, always provided a burst of clarity.

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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