By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
American Dance Institute, Rockville, Md.
September 11 and 12, 2015

Jillian Peña’s “Polly Pocket Expansion Pack” signifies a German-made toy for children, a kind of doll-house. That’s all audience members know while taking their seats before a brightly lit stage, occupied in a far corner by a pair of dancers in candy colored attire – one male, one female. They are closely matched in height and physique, suggesting that they could be twins. Arms are interlocked as they move in soft tendus (stretches of the foot). An oversize wall separates the audience from the stage as if to accentuate the effect of peering down and into the doll-house while remaining removed from the action and perhaps any depth of feelings about it.

The pair count aloud and repeatedly call out each other’s names: Alex and Andrew. They move in mirror images that confuse rather than clarify their identities. Separate from one another or fused? Siblings, lovers or rivals? Dolls or fairy tale characters? A stray clue lies in lunges and outstretched arms that could well express a longing for other selves than the ones they inhabit. When Alex leaves Andrew on the floor, for example, it’s as though she is rejecting him.

Many moments of recalibration ensue. My favorite finds the pair in simple sitting poses facing one another. It is distinguished by the slow, deliberate switching of hands in opposition from behind the body to the front. Wrists are elevated, with taut fingers pointed toward the floor. Emotions seethe below the surface. The movement picks up pace, becoming synchronous again. Alex carries Andrew off to the wall. To much brighter lights, the numbers the pair is counting now surpass 600. Alex and Andrew are up against the wall again, this time with frenzied arm movements, pounding and agitatedly calling each other’s names. Occasional body wraps evoke a search for intimacy, though once again it remains elusive.

Behind a scrim, six dancers strike asymmetrical poses that are surreal until we grasp that the poses form a composite of video projections of Andrew. The action is interrupted by the entrance of a second female dancer, Kyli. She joins Alex, forming a new pair that traverses back and forth on a diagonal. Andrew is upset at the change, yet the original pair seems to oppose Kyli for a time or at least stay separate. Andrew retreats to a water cooler planted far upstage, breaking the nonstop dancing briefly. He then joins the two girls. Backs to the audience, they execute tendus on all sides in every position, interspersed with piques. Kyli moves away from them toward the rear wall in fourth (open) position bourrees.

A stream of young female dancers – thirteen in total – floods the stage, leaping on a diagonal toward the back and rounding the stage out of sight to repeat the sequence several times. My daughter Sylvana, who attended the performance despite the impending birth of her first child, suggested presciently that this brigade might represent newly manufactured dolls rolling off an assembly line. She had not even heard the pre-concert lecturer explain the meaning of polly pocket expansion pack.

Peña’s deft use of ballet vocabulary stems from a basic, then embellished barre not unlike dolls that make tentative moves soon stretched beyond capacity. Her musical choices are somewhat confusing, particularly the passages from Krzyzstof Komeda’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (both the title theme and a climactic moment when the heroine discovers to her horror that the devil spawned her child). Peña wisely intersperses other compositions by Komeda, supplemented by The Valerie Project as well as Fripp and Eno. This serves to eliminate any notion of an unfolding plot similar to that of the venerable cult movie by Roman Polanksi.

Dialogue was central to the piece but non-revelatory. It seldom exceeded the incessant counting and intermittent epithets tossed by the pair at each other (“You’re driving me crazy”!) Dialogue also did not explain the nature of the journey shared by the characters other than to suggest a certain darkness. Indeed, Peña may have intended such a lack of resolution. For this reviewer, it was a bit jarring and detracted from the choreography.

Taking license from my colleague George Jackson, who dubbed the original pair “Hansel and Gretel”, the counting marathon could refer to the number of breadcrumbs dropped between their cottage and the witch’s lair. Miniature but dissolving “pebbles” to demarcate their pathway home perhaps? That would make the twelve leaping dancers at the end of the work the equivalent of baked gingerbread cookies magically restored to life. It’s as good an explanation as any in view of the undefined, inconsistent relationships between the characters. Dancers Alexandra Albrecht, Andrew Champlin and Kyli Kleven gave 100 percent to the work that bears their names.

Copyright 2015 by Luella Christopher