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THE HOUSE WITHOUT MERCY
It was December 18 and I'm never one for those saccharine holiday music shows, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in Catherine Gallant's "Escape from the House of Mercy" at St. Michael's Church, 225 West 99th Street. The church's second floor auditorium room, soon to be renovated I somehow heard, was reversed for this dance concert, with seating on the risers and the show playing against the curving wall that usually (I think) becomes the back of the seating. This space is a little run down and it gave a richness to the setting of the piece: House of Mercy, a home for "abandoned and troubled women" that began in the 1850s at 86th Street near the current Riverside Drive and later moved to Inwood Park, where it operated from 1891 to 1921. It was one of various institutions lining Inwood Park that served alcoholics, drug addicts, tuberculosis patients, petty criminals, runaways and “women of ill repute." A girl could get locked up there for years for such "offenses" as dancing in public or walking alone at night. To keep them in line, inmates were punished with starvation diets, head shaving and restraints. A pretty good history is here: https://myinwood.net/house-of-mercy/
Choreographer Catherine Gallant created "House of Mercy" to mine the inmates' feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness as they relate to the present in the drive for social freedoms and equity. Gallant's evening wasn't storytelling. There was very little that was representational. What you saw, I believe, could be described as conjuring souls of the women who suffered and perished there, doing it impressionistically and rendering them in contemporary movement
At the opening, there were lights form the sides of the playing area which allowed me to savor the texture of the ceiling. Then projections of women entering through the door. The dancers appeared from all corners of the room, all carrying blue sashes. All were long-haired and of differing physiques. There was a scene of them wiping the floor with their hair, which poignantly matches a poem, "Ash" by Tracy Smith, that was recited for its creep-you-out value. It says in part:
"House like an engine that churns and stalls
House with skin and hair for walls."
The full text (it's worth sharing!) is:
Strange house we must keep and fill.
House that eats and pleads and kills.
House on legs. House on fire. House infested
With desire. Haunted house. Lonely house.
House of trick and suck and shrug.
Give-it-to-me house. I-need-you-baby house.
House whose rooms are pooled with blood.
House with hands. House of guilt. House
That other houses built. House of lies
And pride and bone. House afraid to be alone.
House like an engine that churns and stalls
House with skin and hair for walls.
House the seasons singe and douse.
House that believes it is not a house.
I admired how Gallant's nine dancers embodied the inmate women. Nobody seemed upper-class; everybody was believable as the downtrodden unfortunates in the place. They wore dark green aprons and at one point, rolled themselves up in floor coverings made of gauzy tulle material, mimimg screams from the enveloping gauze. It was backlit and pretty. I wrote in my notes, "This is cool stuff." One dancer, Megan Minturn, frequently commanded my focus. Ms. Minturn had a solo later, with a pregnancy indicated by her belly being enlarged by this gauzy material. Other dancers drew out the fabric, indicating babies being taken from their mothers. It was what I think was one of the few "literal" moments of storytelling.
In other memorable moments, Catherine Gallant performed a duet with a rope. The ensemble identified themselves with the names and ages of women who had died there. One dance had the dancers on their hands and knees and crawling, teacups and saucers balancing on their backs. At one point the entire ensemble was entangled in a rope; another time in a clothesline of white shirts.
The evening sent me back to read up on The House of Mercy. The agonizing history of that institution will put you in a shocked space--kind of like when you read "Gangs of New York" for the first time. (You did read it, didn't you?)
Well done, Ms. Gallant!
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