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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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