‘To Be Danced’ program at mignolo dance center combined humor with intensity

Marissa Aucoin and Nathan Forster perform in “Power Play,” which was part of the “To Be Danced” program at the mignolo arts center, Oct. 13.

The Oct. 13 premiere of “To Be Danced,” presented by the ReFrame Dance Theater and mignolo arts at the mignolo arts center in Metuchen, was perhaps the funniest, most intense and most joyful set of dance performances these reviewers have ever seen. The multimedia program was made possible by the mignolo arts co-production series.

The mignolo arts center is an intimate venue, in which audience members have to take off their shoes before entering. Dancers were seen warming up as audience members trickled in through the only entrance, creating a sense of oneness with the performers. In one corner of the room was a piano, foreshadowing the interwoven experience of music, dance and poetry the audience was about to participate in.

Five pieces were performed.

‘Power Play’

“Power Play,” which came first, was both a parody of and tribute to American football and the culture that surrounds athleticism and pride in our country. The piece commenced with Nathan Forster and Marissa Aucoin warming up on the “football field,” doing burpee exercises and vocalizing their efforts. Wearing mustard yellow shorts and black, bulky knee pads, the dancers transformed the space to manifest their reality of playing football. Their movements included handing off and throwing a real football as well as grabbing and pulling at each other.

Combining athleticism with graceful dance movements, they shuffled and threw the football diagonally across the stage, creating a sense of the intensity and speed of the sport while poking fun at its traditions. Both players lined up for the coin toss in incorrect positions, and both fell when not provoked to do so. A vintage-style football announcer describing plays added to the authenticity of the piece, and helped to envelop the audience in the performance. The music, costumes, lighting and choreography mimicked the experiences of going to a football game.

A countdown to begin the game was followed by mocking and playful behavior between the dancers as they tugged and pulled, fought for attention, and moved in unison in thematic rolls and rapid partnering. What might be considered aggressive partnering — doing inversions and rolls — was countered with playful jeers and bright smiles.

The dancers were competitive and full of attitude. A whistle was blown as Sargant Fury’s cover of the “Flashdance” song “Maniac” played. Turbulent gestures were exemplified by the dancers pushing each other, again giving a sense of intensity and aggression.

The piece ended with Forster on the floor, upside down on his shoulder, while Aucoin continued to do conditioning drills, the apparent winner of the throughline of the piece, which was the unspoken contest of attention.

Manatsu Tanaka in “Rose From the Cerebral Cortex.”

‘Rose From the Cerebral Cortex’

This was a multi-level and intensely dynamic solo, choreographed and danced by Manatsu Tanaka. The symbolism and significance of the piece could take days to analyze and grasp.

This highly unique piece started in total darkness. The dancer entered stage left with a string of brightly lit white rose lights wrapped around their head. They were accompanied by spoken word poetry with intermittent beeps, intensifying the melding of the physiological with the psychological. References were made to a Japanese queer novel in which white roses are related to “the part of you unknown even to yourself” as well as “igniting neurons to make motions rise.”

The dancer’s movements began slowly and supplely, as if they were a panther. They lowered to the ground, looking at the floor as if seeing their reflection in a pond, as visions of petals and underwater experiences were vocalized. They crawled gracefully toward the audience. Cool lights came on, emphasizing the warm lighting of the roses. The dancer slowly began to unravel the roses around their head. The dynamics of the piece included the dancer performing fluidly, in contrast to high points of emotion, when they moved more mechanically.

As they pulled the string off, they appeared to be both partnering with the string and avoiding it. The internal struggle of introspection and self-realization played out in front of our eyes through the intensity of the movement.

The dancer gathered the roses and brought them to their face, breathing them in and then staggering backward. There was a mention of a snake on the floor, and they removed the roses. All lights on stage became bright as the dancer removed their shirt to words of, “Oh baby, take it off!” The dancer began to travel frenetically and yet with great flexibility and strength, diagonally on the stage. The internal struggle was clear to the audience, and the dancer writhed with effort. Moments of intense breathing and falling to the ground gave way to the music stopping, and the dancer, like a lithe cat, moved to the shirt and pulled out a crumpled paper covered with musical notes. Their breathing was heaving, as they gently smoothed and flattened the paper and tenderly folded it into an origami swan. They flapped the swan’s wings and placed it next to the roses and shirt; the lights went down.

The origami swan is a great example of the complexity of the symbolism in the piece. Once the paper has been crumbled, it is forever changed and can never be a smooth sheet again. Regardless, the paper transforms with the change, having been folded into a new creation. Just like how the paper has evolved, so has the life and self-understanding of the dancer. Like the aforementioned novel, the dance can be interpreted as an awakening of the soul. By placing the swan, roses and shirt together, the dancer honors who they have been, who they are, and who they are becoming.

Nathan Forster in “Posts From Nowhere.”

‘Posts From Nowhere’

The opening of this dance foreshadowed its whimsical and multi-faceted nature — guitarist Jason McCue was tuning his instrument and the lights were warm, bordering on red. Forster scurried onto the stage wearing a pair of red, heart-shaped glasses.

Within the piece, there were moments of narration by a character named Andrew (played by Forster). In the first of many blog posts, all starting with “Dear Void,” he decided to move to small town America after “25 years of bad decisions” (alluding to the character’s 25th birthday).

Forster, as Andrew, began his blog posts optimistically, ready to commence his new slow lifestyle. Dressed in a black, rose-patterned shirt, cut-offs and the aforementioned glasses, he posed and gestured, reminiscent of the vogue style of dance. His theatrical behavior — with small, rapid hand movements — was hilarious. Likewise, he minced steps in small circles at times and broad steps around the stage at others. Throughout the piece, the music was evocative of traditional Spanish guitar, known for its dynamic flare. As the music swelled, Foster’s exasperation swelled with it.

As Forster’s character began to feel more and more excitable and unable to stay still, McCue ingrained himself into the dance with movement. The guitarist provided not only musical accompaniment, but also bounced, jumping right to left with the dancer, making the scene even more comical. Motifs within the piece included holding one arm above the head as Forster looked into the audience, as well as his continuous walking on relevé. Preceding each blog post was a curtsy and flick of the wrist, evoking imagery of turning a page to the next entry in the diary.

Andrew’s movements got bigger and more desperate. He turned to the audience and rambled on about exasperation and perspiration, eliciting laughter. Using small finger movements, with fingers and toes stirring in rapid circles, he simulated the action of writing the blog.

Day 40 provided a desperate yet amusing meltdown for Andrew, with the guitarist following suit. Forster screamed, then talked directly to the audience. As he got up off the floor, he cleaned his glasses and looked somewhat embarrassed about his outburst. Day 120 was a trip that included an introspective look on modern life, leaving the audience to contemplate the banality of boredom and routine.

After Day 500, the guitarist sang of a consecrated room. Nowheresville had become home — maybe there is a privilege and stability in living the slow, “boring” life. Maybe.

Emmy Wildermuth and Rachel Calabrese in “In Which We Find Ourselves.”

‘In Which We Find Ourselves (excerpt)’

This dance was performed by Rachel Calabrese, Sawyer Newsome and Emmy Wildermuth. No lights were on at the start of the piece, although the audience could see there was a dancer carrying another dancer over her shoulder. Purple lights confirmed the trio in this piece consisted of a man and two women — at first, the man was motionless as he watched the others. The duet performed by the two women was thoroughly engaging, with both so intertwined that they seemed unable to move without the other.

This thoughtful and mesmerizing duet included constant motion as the two tenderly moved as partners on the floor, standing and rising together, back-to-back at points. The continuous interplay made this part of the piece particularly striking.

Certain motifs become apparent — such as when the women’s hands reached out together toward the audience — and were repeated throughout the dance. The couple put their hands onto each other’s foreheads, slowly, seemingly in a comforting way, almost as a way of acknowledging or understanding the other person’s intimate feelings.

Newsome, the third dancer, held himself up with effort, falling and rising to join the couple, who ran to push past him, but then instead made him join them. There was tension, but also connection. Audible breath enhanced the force that seemed to be holding the three together. Both a giving and a tension appeared between the three. Spinning, using each other as shelves, lifting and pushes were done fluidly, with great expertise. Backward rolls were both synchronized and flips were done at different times, on the floor and on each other.

The choreographic themes in the trio formation made it difficult to understand the relationships between the dancers — for most of the piece, they pushed each other away, but they always came back.

Of course, this was an excerpt; the bigger piece perhaps tells more of the story of the relationships. The trio certainly appeared to have more conflict than the duet at the start.

Toward the end, each dancer fell away from the other two and came back. All three twisted and flipped away at different times, and the pushing head motif appeared again, but this time almost aggressively. The women went back to their original positions and reached their hands again to the audience, as the male dancer backed away toward the piano. The lights then went black.

Michelle Lukach and Nathan Forster in “Cake.”


Forster and Michelle Lukach performed this piece to a soundtrack compiled of multiple tracks ranging from classical music to clips of audio from baking shows. Their use of monologue while they danced evoked amusement and delight.

The two entered the stage together, rolling a cart with cake and cupcakes. They positioned it upstage while sighing, smiling at each other and looking at the audience, which should have been a clue to the frisky demonstration to come. Gordon Ramsay’s voiceover was the audio, discussing the texture of caramel and whisking and folding, while the dancers, in jean shorts and white tops, did what could be considered a dance-like circus act. Their bodies mimicked the words, turning into baking instruments themselves. They did penguin dives and shoulder stands; Lukach balanced off-center as Forster moved around her. Eventually he came to her and mirrored this position. Both once again simulated the tools of the kitchen — Lukach became a whisk and they both acted as the cake mixer, whirling and shaking. Forster ended up flopping into a shoulder stand; Lukach picked up a cupcake and threw it, beginning a declaration of her dislike of cake, with Forster physicalizing her comments.

Music about birthday cake transitioned the piece into the theatrical, where baking shows were heralded as the purveyors of cake loving, and appreciation of cakes abounded. Cake baking is a tradition that transcends cultural differences, each generation having its own recipes and secrets baked into the batter. The pair stared in silence as they rubbed their hands with sanitizer, each second dribbling by, until the audience was unsure just how long they would wring their hands. Perhaps the length of two happy birthday songs? They then took a piece of cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to the audience. When it was time to sing a name, Lukach asked an audience member, “What is your name?” “Tom,” he replied, upon which Forster and Lukach sang two totally unrelated names, resulting in raucous laughter from the audience.

The pair crouched around the cart, spreading purple frosting on the cake. Suddenly, Forster started frosting Lukach’s face; she returned the favor by shoving a piece of cake into his face. Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” played in the background. The audience was somewhat aghast. The dancers’ bodies again become different baking instruments. Crumbs littered the floor as the pair fed each other, and some crumbs flew into the audience. We were all part of the fun!

The performance support team for this event included production manager/technical director Elanna Etemad, who handled lighting deftly in this intimate setting.

Of the 50 or so members of the audience, most were previously familiar with the mignolo art center, whose mission is to bring together artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. They envision a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary arts community that transcends the traditional boundaries of not only artistic disciplines, but also of social constructs like age, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and sexuality.


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