The Juggler of Our Ladies is a tearjerker. The first 3/4 of this production might leave one dry-eye, but the mounting evidence of a talented family inspiring each other to dance in their own inimitable way is touching.
The production begins with Ellen Graff, a white-haired lady with the charisma of a Vanessa Redgrave, groping her way through Joe’s Pub looking for her table, talking to herself and anyone who might listen. Settling at a table by the stage, she continues to muse while watching three dancers wearing black knee pads and burlesque outfits.
Pictured L-R: Marni Thomas Wood and Ellen Graff. Photo: Alessandro Graziano
The wistful tone in Graff's commentary escalates as she sees her younger self through the performance of Stella Nakada, the graceful, poised, ten-year-old daughter of choreographer/dancer Ellis Wood. Hemmed in by a multi-jointed rod manipulated by the other dancers, Nakada has a brief moment to shine. Through the course of The Juggler of Our Ladies, Wood’s choreography alludes to emotional shifts, passing from innocence, rebellion, and struggles made tangible with straps bound around the dancers who tug and resist each other. When Wood appears, she jacks up the performance with her electric zaniness, in direct contrast to the nobility of her mother Marni Thomas. This grandmother flips ageism in her favor. She makes you yearn for her mastery of stillness and her compelling presence.
Pictured: Ellis Wood; Photo: Alessandro Graziano
As though proving the point, the younger dancers then become ever more frantic, flopping like wild-haired desperadoes. Graff breaks their frenzy by saying, “Congratulations. You’ve made it.” That most desirable, if fantastical, declaration of a supportive ally leads shortly into the showing of a documentary film by Nancy Stevens (We Also Dance, I'm Taking Tango Lessons) with close-ups of the cast members' faces as they speak about their lives.
Wood’s strength is her concept and performance. Once in the companies of Stephen Petronio, Dan Wagoner, and Bay Area Repertory Dance, she studied with her parents Marni and David Wood who both danced with Martha Graham, as did Graff and Stevens. This moving work was commissioned and funded in part by DANCENOWNYC, The Greenway/Leibowitz Foundation, and Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
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