“5,6,7,8…,” a combination of dance and spoken word poetry at the Cabaret this weekend, begins with words condemning words themselves. In total darkness, creator/choreographer/star Tiffany Rachelle Stewart DRA ’07 intones: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul… Tell me how you feel without words.”
There seems to be some implication that spoken language is inadequate, unable to fully convey the range of emotions involved in what the Cabaret’s Web site bills as, “a woman’s journey through history and the labyrinths of love.” Movement, Stewart suggests, is the only way to fill that void of expression.
Even before the lights go on, Stewart sets expectations high. The performance is divided into ten vignettes, each corresponding to a moment or mood in the protagonist’s life. Eight of these pieces are dance, while two (not including the opening) are spoken word. The first appearance of the poetry, which does not occur until after about three-quarters of the fifty-minute show, is unexpected and effective, partly because of the surprise after six straight dance numbers. There is clearly a narrative evolution from one vignette to the next, although some of the snippets are clearer than others. For example, the evening opens with a surprisingly chipper, irreverent look at body image issues. Stewart and another dancer (Lisa Birnbaum DRA ’07) pantomime binging and purging, accompanied by a cute song called “Fatso.” The movements leave little to no room to guess at what Stewart is hoping to convey. On the other hand, the moodier, mellow pas de deux, “Colorblind,” while clear in tone, does not have an obvious placement in the protagonist’s story.
The dancing was well done and, for the most part, very crisp. None of the performers were weak links, though the seven supporting players were not so much characters as backdrops for Stewart’s personal evolution. The simple lighting and staging were very effective, and the costumes matched the tone of each piece. The technical elements, like the other actors, were also overshadowed by the protagonist. Stewart could be wearing sackcloth under fluorescents and still get her point across to viewers.
Throughout ninety percent of the performance, though, I was left wondering less about the narrative progression than about whether Stewart remembered what she had said at the beginning. Each vignette relies heavily on the words of the music to which it is set. The choice of music is very effective — notably in the very sexual number, “I Wanna Be Ready,” in which the lyrics serve to establish a comparison between religious and erotic awakenings — but seems antithetical to what seems to be the message. The choreography is often subordinate to the songs themselves. Oddly enough, the songs are listed in the program with no credit given to the musicians, who seem to be the stars of the show. For most of the performance, Stewart demonstrates her prowess mainly by choosing appropriate sound tracks.
However, the show takes a sharp turn in the second half. There is a movement away from a vague progression of lovers and friends, after which Stewart takes on new topics: slavery, racism, Nelson Mandela, and the narrator’s experience as an African-American. Stewart’s spoken poetry is where she seems most comfortable, and her confidence pays off. The rhythm and lyricism of her words are impressive. And yet, she is not telling us how she feels without words.
It is not until the final vignette — an irresistible hip-hop outburst — that the promise of the opening is fulfilled. Here is a song where the lyrics are almost indistinguishable behind the beat. It is a number with no story. Feeling is at last expressed through movement, and that feeling is joy and confidence.
If “5,6,7,8…” is any indication, actions do speak louder than words. The poetry helps to express where the narrative is moving and to make clear Stewart’s objective: to find herself –“me without you” — but it is movement, which, as she tells us, “never lies.” In contrast with the vignettes which depend so much on the lyrics of their accompaniment for a sense of story, the relative power of movement stands out all the more. The pleasure of pure rhythm will have the entire audience nodding their heads, and putting the deeper messages about society on the backburner for a while. As a story of a life and a people, “5,6,7,8…” is probably accurate in the proportionately small time devoted to catharsis and discovery compared to searching for a way to express oneself. However, as a Cabaret performance, it is impossible not to wish we had had a little more time with the joyous, confident person we don’t get to meet until the very end.