A Well-Built House Stands Up

Photo by Deborah Schlidt
Photo by Deborah Schlidt

Members of a large Catholic family who experienced childhood in southern Louisiana during the 1950s, sisters Becky Beaullieu Valls and Babette Beaullieu build upon a rich soil of memory for their dance theatre collaboration, Memoirs of the Sistahood. Nearly two years after the debut of Chapter One, the duo has delivered their second installment, Chapter Two: House. A video recap opens the show. Even to the uninitiated, however, the visual prologue is nonessential. This production is sufficiently distinct. Like a house, it is intelligently designed with pattern, substance, and mortar structured around a supportive framework.

Of course, every house needs a hostess. In a vintage cinch-waist dress, narrator Kathy Hallmark delivers an introduction with the saccharine, matter-of-fact tone of a 1950’s television housewife. “All houses are dwellings,” she quotes Paul Oliver’s reference book on vernacular homes throughout the world, “but not all dwellings are houses. To dwell is to make one’s abode: to live in, or at or on, or about a place.” Like Oliver’s book, Chapter Two: House, examines different types and ways to dwell.

Valls glides between choreographic modes as easily as one might move from room to room. She begins with a minimalist, pure movement approach, then displays skillful confidence as the work shifts to burlesque. In Act I, which examines dwellings as structure, Valls shows restraint, choosing not to hide or overdress the circles, lines, and spatial devices that form the skeleton of her choreography. Later, Busby Berkley inspired formations give way to a lively mambo, danced by sepia-toned housewives armed with cornflake boxes and kitchen gadgetry.

Veteran performers, including Valls herself, anchor the company. Dancers, Toni Leago Valle, Jenny Dodson (formerly Magill), and Joani Trevino are consistent in their actualization of Valls’ smooth, expansive movement style, and they transition easily to comedic and presentational delivery.

Clearly, the collaborators are all on the same page with House. Deborah Schlidt’s dreamy film collage weaves in and out of the action as naturally as any performer making an entrance. Images of various types of dwellings, from hovels to tract houses, segue to demolished and water-logged homes. Reclaimed by nature with the brute force of Hurricane Katrina, these homes (or ones like them) may have given up parts of themselves for repurposing in Babette Beaullieu’s found object sculpture and set pieces. Dancers first appear in costumes the color of clay and mud. Attentively designed by Cherie Acosta, these basics are detailed with netting and natural fabrics that echo the weathered patina of the doors, windows, and boxes Beaullieu has fashioned to represent the family homestead. Among these pieces, a playful dinner scene and a bed of sleeping children are given a hazy luminescence by lighting designer Kris Phelps that recalls precious home movie footage of the Beaullieu family.

It all works together, even as these collaborators rather craftily bring their 1950s backdrop to the forefront. I Love Lucy clips play dreamily as the childhood game of playing house transitions effortlessly to a satiric portrayal of real life domesticity. Text from Housekeeping Monthly’s “The Good Wife’s Guide” illustrates the expectations and constraints placed on women saddled with running a home. Fifties era musical selections such as the Dean Martin classic, Sway, fuel the wry comedy which culminates in a kitschy “mobile home” show. The dancers flaunt their best runway sashay in a segment that in lesser hands could have capsized the production.

The milieu of 1950’s iconography remains upright however because Valls and Beaullieu, with their collaborators, thoughtfully maintain a through line. It is no small feat to coalesce this array of concepts. Chapter Two: House reaches coherence because the team has built a solid framework and follows-through with strong images and clear ideas. The enchanting and harmonious collaboration brought the audience to their feet on opening night.

Memoirs of the Sistahood, Chapter Two: House continues next weekend, Oct. 23 & 24 at Barnevelder Movement Arts. Click here for ticket info.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

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Nichelle

Nichelle balances careers as a dancer, instructor, writer, and mother. She is a seasoned performer whose strength lies in bringing dramatic

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