Peerless Performance

Stephanie Nugent performs One: An evening of dance/theater. At the Diavolo Performance Space, Los Angeles, December 10.

It’s not new news that Santa Barbara’s Stephanie Nugent is a powerhouse of a performer, a prolific dance-maker and an articulate communicator of her chosen art form. s_nugent.jpgYet performing solo not at Center Stage Theatre but in the cavernous yet intimate black box space at the Brewery Arts Center in downtown L.A., she shifted into a whole new realm of power, taking command of the stage and devouring space with more impact than her slight frame suggests should be possible.

One is a compilation of four solo dances, each of which explores issues of personal identity, psychological and spiritual development, perceptions of the physical body and the body’s deeper yearnings. Presented in this way, the four pieces read as a progression from literal to metaphorical, external to internal.

In a sense, Nugent is always asking the same questions in her work: Who am I? What is it that makes me who I am? How do I relate to others, and how do I define myself in relation to them? Her expressive, dynamic movement vocabulary also carries a kind of constancy—a stylistic familiarity that grounds the viewer in a world that makes sense. Yet within that world she achieves as astonishing range of dramatic tones—all the more so when props, costume, and vocal elements join the mix.

In the opening piece, In the Shadow of the Red Brick, Nugent explored the ways in which her family legacy has formed her personality, using playfulness to probe her own habits, preferences and compulsions. “I’m still terribly stubborn,” said a recorded voice, as Nugent lunged around in a polka dotted dress, trying to control a miniature chair. Ultimately, her movement revealed her as she sees herself: at turns confident and sexy, shy and wanting to please, attention-seeking, emotional. Her wildly variant moods as expressed in movement were as telling as the script.

When Nugent returned to the stage for Circa One, it was as if she had entered the next phase of maturity—no longer focused on her relationship with others, she lowered her face and held her hands near her belly, holding an invisible substance close to her core. In sections, she closed her eyes, feeling the space around her with fingers outstretched, searching. Rather than looking for herself within the confines of what is visible and tangible, she pushed out beyond the limits of her body, seeking something hidden.

It was in Wintering that Nugent really split open the raw and painful center of it all, plunging herself and the audience into the terrifying and yet utterly natural ritual of turning inwards. Likening the experience of adolescent introversion to the phenomenon of hibernation, Nugent appeared in a swath of white fabric, which she bunched around her thighs in clenched fists, her body taut with frustration and fear. She moved like someone at once ravenous and mortified by her hunger, craving connection and paralyzed by self-doubt. Standing at the front of the stage she stammered, howled, and yelped, producing the harrowing noises of a tortured animal. Later, she clucked and cooed like a fledgling owl as she picked her way through the barren, wintry landscape of a pile of dead twigs, finally standing again at the edge of the stage, pleading for re-connection. Wintering cast Nugent in a more harsh and exposing light than usual; the effect was deeply moving and deeply memorable.

As its title suggests, Untitled Interior continued the journey from the exploration of identity in the external world to the innermost realm of being. Nugent was inspired by her studies of Iranian laws regarding women’s use of the veil to hide or expose the body. Untitled Interior placed Nugent as a body among sweeping, gauzy fabric sets. At first clad in similar material, she removed her sheath dress to dance topless. Though her body was more fully revealed, she appeared distant, traveling into a selfless space where movement seemed devotional and reverent, and the body became a vehicle for prayer.

Santa Barbara may claim Nugent as a local artist, but it’s clear she’s making a splash in bigger ponds as well. With plenty of appearances in town throughout the coming year, you’ll get more than one opportunity to catch her work here at home. Nugent is one artist whose identity you can’t afford to overlook.

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