Color and Collision in Catherine Cabeen’s ‘Fire!’

In the world of dance there are some performers who just steal the show, every single time. Catherine Cabeen is one of those dancers. In her hour-long show Fire! (now running at On the Boards) Cabeen dominates the stage with her stunning presence and impeccable technique. Fire! is a complex and abstract piece of work—there is no straightforward story or plot, rather the piece is rich with the physical expression of emotion and choreography that is admirably danced, but falls short of the 2011 marvel, Into the Void.

Fire! is inspired by the life and work of visual artist Niki de Saint Phalle, more specifically her Nanas series—sculptures of rotund women, often dancing, painted in glaring colors. These colors are the first obvious link—in the second half of the dance, the performers are dressed in brightly colored jumpsuits as they dance; joining in clusters, wrapping together or freezing momentarily in a partnered balance, the women become abstracts of themselves—larger than life, misshapen, bright. They also reflect her “Shooting Paintings” in which she would attach pouches of colored paint to a canvas and literally shoot them with a gun—the explosive result was the work.

Cabeen’s choreography reflects the violence and femininity of de Saint Phalle’s work. She knows about the body and how to move it, especially when it comes to weight and balance. The contemporary choreography combined aspects of ballet (pointed toes, arabesques, port de bras) yoga and modern dance. Dancers clutch themselves, run their hands on their own bodies, but in a sensual, not provocative way, as if to say, ‘Yes, I am a woman, this is my body, and it doesn’t have to be seen as a symbol for sex.’ In one striking scene Cabeen is put into a tube of turquoise yarn, her arms constricted, and she slowly spins her way around the stage, graceful, swaying her hips as a group of dancers weave the free end of the yarn onto a circular loom—Cabeen is untangling herself, but as soon as she is free, the tube has been re-knitted she is once again encased.

The rest of the dancers in the company—Karena Birk, Sarah Lustbader, Ella Mahler, Phylicia Roybal and Jana Kinci—were skilled and had top-notch technique, but it’s almost unfair to put them on the same stage as Cabeen. She is hypnotic, commanding attention with just her eyes. And then she dances. And all else blurs to the periphery. Her balances are exquisite, and each motion she makes seems to be stretching past its own limit without looking strained. She is on display and she knows it—like a preening peacock she will show her colors.

Although less complex than her last On the Boards show, Fire! has a four-paneled digital background by Susie J. Lee that features images related to the piece unfolding on stage—a night sky, dancers in silhouette, gray rope. This work was all about the dancing, the presentation of the body, which seems fitting given that the Nanas were a touchstone for the piece.

Regardless of the many connections that can be made between de Saint Phalle and Cabeen’s work, Fire! presents a picture of women—independent, trapped, escaping, congregating—in a way that is esoteric. Why are they doing this? Where is it going? What’s the end result? Even that is open-ended. But perhaps we aren’t supposed to walk away with hard and fast conclusions. Perhaps we can just appreciate the dance for what it is—beautiful, expressive, emotional movement; a form of art where the body is both the means and the end.

Fire! runs at On the Boards through Jan. 20. 

Above image: Catherine Cabeen and Karena Birk in Fire! Image by Phill Cabeen.