All art is to some degree autobiographical. Any creation tells us something about its creator. But some art is more explicit, depicting or revealing the artist as she sees herself, or in the case of Killian Manning’s new work, exploring the milieu that shaped her.
Manning was born in 1956; she is 56 this year. Her age makes looking back and taking stock almost inevitable, and the numerology makes the undertaking feel cosmic and lucky. In her 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, which is the final show in this season's Other Voices series at Manbites Dog Theater, she explains and—yes—celebrates herself by animating a cast of famous 50s characters, and her mother. In fact, the dance-theater work can also be taken as an extended love letter to her mother. At her daughter’s insistence, Cathy Manning joined the cast for their bows on Wednesday's opening night, shifting her feet in the same signature movement that Killian gave character Cathy on stage.
And there are voices in this dance. In fact, the dance feels secondary to the theatrical exposition (but it is not a drama). After a little introduction, Manning parades her characters onto the stage one by one, and each does a little movement riff by which we shall know them. Manning has chosen these people to represent an imagined zeitgeist of her natal year (and beyond), but it is as interesting to think about who’s not there as who is. The only dance artist included is ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Not, for instance, modern dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, who was certainly making news in 1956. Grace Kelly (Elisabeth Johnson) gets a role, for making the transition from actress to princess, but Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar that year for her work, goes unmentioned. The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gives what you could call the keynote speech (Derrick Ivey, reciting from "Howl," in the show’s most gripping moments), but there’s no equivalent musical giant like Charles Mingus, who released the amazing Pithecanthropus Erectus album that year. Instead, there’s the young Elvis and his new release, “Hound Dog.” The point is not that Manning’s choices are wrong in any way, but that this is her version of her 1956. She has shaped it to fit the woman she has become.
Manning mixes straight biography with a soft-edged magical realism, some of it quite charming, as when President Eisenhower dances and chats with Cathy Manning, or when J.S. Bach appears to her for a long conversation in which he explains that Killian really is musical, it just all comes out in the dances. There are a number of pleasant and enjoyable dance sequences in this work, but none of them are special, not even Margot Fonteyn’s (and really, she should have been wearing pointe shoes) or the well-conceived duet between Bach (Jonathan Leinbach) and Glenn Gould (Matthew Young).
Most of the cast are not advanced dancers (a fact all too obvious during ADF season), and even if they were, they would still be contending with the concrete floor—it is no wonder if there is a slow tentativeness to their movement. Some of this may have been purposeful, to enhance the dreamy magical quality, but it made for a lack of brio.
As interesting as her idea is, it is not quite adequate to carry the production. I admire Manning for keeping on keeping on making new work. But this show points up how difficult that must be, what with a full-time job, few dedicated funds, no foot-friendly theater space, etc.
There is just not enough time or money to take it all the way. No aspect of the show is fully thought out. For instance, two media screens hover in the background, showing pictures from 1956. For them to have been really effective, Manning would have needed many more images, a flowing river of images, not a short repeating cycle. The script would have benefitted from a little ruthless cutting—I never could figure out what Diane Arbus was doing in there, and her actor, the unflappable Marcia Edmundson, seemed equally at a loss. Marilyn Monroe didn’t seem too sure about what she was doing, either, and that’s out of character for actor J Evarts. The sound was not exploited for emotion, but stayed quite even in volume and texture throughout. I longed for it to thunder out while Bach and Gould danced their duel, and I really longed for Manning herself to project some volume during her speeches.
For all its unevenness and lack of kinetic glory, 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation is still an enjoyable evening. It is good to look back, and see how far away we are not from the times that formed us.