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Beneath the Surface

At the high point of Hope Mohr’s new hour-long “Horizon Stanzas,” the three dancers announce, in a zombie monotone, “I knew what to do now.” They crawl to the wall to scribble makeup on their faces. Then Suzette Sagisi buries her head in The Joy of Cooking and sobs about mayonnaise, Belinda He maniacally scrubs herself with a kitchen brush, and Tegan Schwab-Alavi stuffs potatoes and squash into her bra. (The vegetables keep tumbling out, making for classic slapstick.)

Performance

Hope Mohr Dance in “Horizon Stanzas”

Place

Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco, California, April 27, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Hope Mohr's “Horizon Stanzas.” Photograph by Robbie Sweeny

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Watching this spectacle, I had the feeling of an anthropological observer and an outsider—along with an eerie sense of grappling with amnesia. In 2014, when Mohr’s company was about to present its seventh season, I interviewed Mohr for the San Francisco Chronicle. Blame overwork at that time or the consuming nature of family life since, but until finding the article archived online I had no memory of speaking with Mohr, or of describing her in print as “a born brainiac”—the San Francisco-raised daughter of a venture capitalist, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and the Merce Cunningham Studios, who earned a law degree from Columbia University and danced in the companies of postmodern giants Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs.

Just after interviewing Mohr, I moved away from the Bay Area, and never managed to see her work, though I followed her career in the press. The intervening near-decade seems to have carried Mohr through quite a public life cycle. The Bridge Project, a presenting program she founded in 2010 as a forum for connecting artists across disciplines and generations, grew in prominence as Mohr increasingly, and with remarkable transparency, addressed racism, privilege, and the ethical questions of leading a company as a white choreographer.

In 2020, Hope Mohr Dance became Bridge Live Arts, a presenter under “distributed leadership” between Mohr and fellow artists Cherie Hill and Karla Quintero, and Mohr stepped down as artistic director to become resident choreographer. In 2021, Mohr published a book, “Shifting Cultural Power,” in which the foreword wondered whether the only solution for white arts leaders was to “curate oneself out of the room.” Then last November, Mohr announced that she was giving up her co-director position with Bridge Live Arts to focus on her own art-making with Hope Mohr Dance.

So goes it with the equity work and institutional reinventions. Knowing all of which only piqued my curiosity: Well, what about the art?

The titular stanzas of this new Mohr work are those of Alice Notley, a second generation New York School poet, whose 1992 book-length The Descent of Alette travels into a subway underworld where the narrator encounters strange creatures and anguishes about “the tyrant of form,” who is definitely male and who, Alette fears, possesses her very body. The printed program distributed at the show’s door gives us eight of Notley’s stanzas, but no production credits. (Those are only online.)

Hope Mohr's “Horizon Stanzas.” Photograph by Robbie Sweeny

The black box space is strung with tattered gold party streamers and lightbulbs. The sound design by Mohr and Teddy Hulsker succeeds in making us feel trapped deep beneath the subway, with its ghostly clangings. Sagisi, He, and Schwab-Alavi crawl about with flashlights strapped to their heads. They roll vigorously to a lovely musical selection of monk-like polyphonic singing. (None of the recorded music is credited.) Sagisi, who comes from a pop background dancing for the likes of Beyonce, is particularly compelling, warping into tortured backbends. There’s a repeated movement phrase of pleasing kinesthetic complexity—jumping sideways in parallel while arms swoop and torque the torso—and it becomes a unifying element through all the disparate sections.

There are little semi-sexy dances to the White Stripes’ “White Orchid” and TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me.” The dancers aggressively copy and direct each other; they also don owl masks and make owl shadows until, while speaking Notley’s lines, their owl and non-owl selves re-merge in a tragic critique of classical mythology. No doubt there are more specific profundities to be pondered if one goes deeper reading Notley—but does one want to be left, after a dance, saying to oneself “well, maybe it feels more interesting if you go and read the whole poem”?

I ask that as someone who reads contemporary poetry, someone fortunate enough to have studied in a writing MFA program visited by many living poet-heroes. (I’ve happily considered myself a lowly prose-wielder lucky to gaze up to the poets on the higher plane.) I’m an Anne Carson fan. (Mohr has worked with Carson’s poetry at least three times.) I’m happy when a dance propels me further into the literary work that inspired it. And yet—that didn’t happen for me in “Horizon Stanzas.”

Hope Mohr's “Horizon Stanzas.” Photograph by Robbie Sweeny

Though “Horizon Stanzas” makes no statements and undertakes no didacticism, something about it feels sealed. I am not sure what it leaves the audience to question. Without meaning to (I think), it leans on the prestige of its sources. Mohr’s online bio of Notley quotes the poet’s essay “The Poetics of Disobedience” and its description of The Descent of Alette as “an immense act of rebellion against dominant social forces.” So is there something wrong with me (and my unfamiliarity with the poem) if I did not feel the immensity of that rebellion in the dance?

In the postmodern dance work that stays with me from recent decades, moments of vulnerability sear themselves upon my brain and leave me questioning the weirdness of life—Miguel Gutierrez hovering his ass above a flame while singing Kate Bush comes vividly to mind. The work doesn’t have to be that naked or graphic, I suppose. But for me it doesn’t stay in mind—or heart—without that vulnerability, and an invitation to questioning.

When I spoke to Mohr in that forgotten conversation back in 2014, she told me she’d realized that choosing “to make a piece about [an] idea is not the same as finding the ideas through movement.” She said, “I like the idea that you’re offering the audience a set of questions. You’re not giving them a packaged answer.”

Perhaps my amnesia fittingly echoes Alette’s; that’s not a layer of irony I can address here. More immediately, I do think Mohr and I share a lot of the same desires when it comes to art, even if I did not feel those desires fulfilled by “Horizon Stanzas.” I didn’t leave the dance feeling much. I didn’t walk out burning with questions. But I am curious to further follow Mohr’s work over the coming decade.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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