Morgan Thorson’s “YOU” and Bedlam Lowertown both make their debut

Arts / Article

“You” by Morgan Thorson: L to R, Genevieve Muench, Morgan Thorson, Max Wirsing and Jessica Cressey. Photo: Farrington Starnes

Last weekend, “You,” a new work by choreographer Morgan Thorson, debuted at Bedlam Theatre in Lowertown. Actually, Saturday’s opening was a doubly special night, as Bedlam’s performing director Maren Ward reminded us at the close of the show, because “not only did “You” just premiere – this space just premiered.” After a series of “soft” opening events for Bedlam’s new space in April, the venue will be fully operational come May, with a full restaurant and bar, and a packed performance season ahead.

The new theater looks terrific: it’s an airy room, with the exposed brick and high-high ceilings of a post-industrial warehouse space, and a generous bank of windows overlooking the new light rail station and recently restored Union Depot. The show’s seating was situated at both the front and back of the house, on the floor, with the performance space between us in the audience. A pair of red velvet curtains hanging on a track high on the ceiling above bisected the “stage” area.  9 x 22 Dance Lab founder Laurie Van Wieren, who was sitting beside me, took particular note of the oiled, hardwood floor – “perfect for dance,” she said.

The simply staged work features Thorson along with her usual company, Jessica Cressey, Genevieve Muench, Max Wirsing and special guest Emma Barber. The dancing feels at once deeply deliberate and artless — resolutely open-ended. We in the audience don’t just watch; the dancers implicate us in the movement, too. We are made to feel in relationship with the making of the work, part of the shared intimacies of that effort rather than merely spectators to others’ practice.

The dancers, garbed casually in sneakers and comfortable practice gear, stride out, smiling broadly (if a bit self-consciously), eyes up and out to meet the audience gaze, and each other’s, head-on. They pace the room, arms swinging loosely at their sides like power walkers, their crisscrossing paths circumscribing the newly renovated Bedlam space, as if marking its perimeter. The dancers pair up and then separate, nudging and goofing, like unfamiliar kids at play sussing out the rules of engagement. Here’s a hip switch and shimmy; there a deep bend, and then a sprint. A pair of them break off and flail in turn, mimicking each other and upping the ante each time. At the end, the dancers skip through the space with the abandon of children. As the collaborative dance-making unspools and takes shape, the call and response in the movements, the friendly competition of the dancers’ interplay is infectious. These are workaday movements, intentionally unaffected and often apparently spontaneous, improvisational.

The musical accompaniment is varied, shifting like the colored stage lights above us with the evolving moods of the movement – the familiar sounds of the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and the Beach Boys; atmospheric snippets by Chopin, harpist Zeena Parkins, jazz pianist Patrice Rushen.

For the finale, the dancers change into costumes literally cut from the cloth of the theater: all red velvet and edged in gold fringe and tassels. The outfits are charming, cleverly ad hoc and old-fashioned: poofed sleeves, tight bodices and flaring skirts for the women; a sporty fringed neckerchief for Wirsing. Like Carol Burnett as Scarlett O’Hara, Jessica Cressey sweeps into the room last, a curtain rod across her back.

In fact, there’s a lot in “You” that calls to mind what I remember most fondly about watching The Carol Burnett Show: the expansive sense of invitation into the jokes shared among cast members, the plainly evident camaraderie engendered by the work of putting on a show. In much the same way, “You” is by turns ebullient and  moving — a fitting way to showcase the possibilities of this promising new St. Paul performance space. “You” by Morgan Thorson runs from March 22 to 29 at Bedlam Lowertown, 213 4th St., St. Paul. For ticket details and specific showtimes, visit the Bedlam Theatre website, www.bedlamtheatre.org.