As New York City's performers gingerly inch their way back onto the stage, one troupe takes a grand jeté: That is M-Train Productions, the commercial arm of the Pittsburgh-based dance organization Bodiography, which is presenting two works at different venues in Midtown. The one that drew me in, with its multicolored lycra and crimped hair, is Rearview Mirror, a celebration of the popular music of the 1980s. That's the late show, typically playing after the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon performances of The Office! (which appears on the same stage). But the evening really begins several blocks away at the Actors Temple, where Bodiography director Maria Caruso is performing her impressive solo show Metamorphosis.
Have you ever woken up and not known what to wear? It's an experience sure to frustrate many an office worker as we trade in our pandemic sweatpants for the everyday drag of business casual. Caruso captures the angst of this decision (which seems to stand in for far more consequential choices) in this hourlong dance odyssey.
Caruso's full physical commitment is apparent from the first moments of the piece, when she awakens in a luxurious fawn sheet from the Martha Graham Collection at Bed, Bath & Beyond. She tries on a series of sheer dresses, the colors of which seem to evoke different moods: rage, sadness, sensuality. Caruso conveys these feelings with her entire body, which extends and contorts in ways that would leave us mere mortals breathless if we tried. Eclectic music (by Nils Frahm, Kevin Keller, and Garth Stevenson) serves to enhance each segment, whether through paranoid Philip Glass-like ostinati or mellow melodies that wouldn't sound out of place in an underwater level of Donkey Kong.
Caruso is the undisputed star of both Metamorphosis and Rearview Mirror. Her lengthy program bio describes her as "an American born dancer, choreographer, director, producer, publisher, academic, social activist, fitness and wellness practitioner, and entrepreneur." Such modesty (enough to make a Central Asian dictator blush) might help explain her attraction to commercial off-Broadway's own multi-talented force of nature, Catherine Russell, the proprietor of the Theater Center formerly known as Snapple. Russell has been agitating for theaters to open for live performance for months (and really, someone had to). So it is no surprise that Rearview Mirror has found a home at the Center's Jerry Orbach Theater.
Unfortunately, the Orbach is not an ideal stage for dancing, and in Rearview Mirror we discover that some objects are indeed closer than they appear: I observed a toe graze against the low ceiling during a flip, and an extended leg kick into the black drop masking the backstage area. We feel the dancers' pent-up post-pandemic energy bouncing underneath us as the whole floor shakes with each leap and hop. But something about this roughness makes the experience feel more authentic, like watching kids (who just happen to be classically trained dancers) create their own music videos in a suburban basement rec room.
That does seem to be the intended effect from the moment Caruso wanders onto the stage to the sound of the first MTV jingle, wearing a giant wig of permed hair and clutching a prop remote control. As if by magic, the dancers appear before her to radiate pop music bliss. Isaac Ray and Elektra Davis embody an '80s prom fantasy in "Lady in Red." The three non-Caruso ladies (Davis, Renee Simeone, and Carolina Giansante) serve us manic aerobic realness in "Let's Get Physical" (this brought back fond memories, as a well-worn copy of Jane Fonda's Workout lived next to the VCR in my childhood home). Later, Simeone gives her best Black Swan fouettés during the play-out for "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
That magnificent turn (turn turn) aside, Caruso (who choreographed everything in addition to designing all the costumes) does her best work when she strays from the typical ballet and lyrical dance lexicon and embraces the camp of the era and its music. A full-cast number set to Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money," featuring big shoulder pads and xeroxed paperwork flying across the stage, had me in stitches.
Caruso and company deserve credit for not only stepping onto an off-Broadway stage, but gleefully dancing once there. Hopefully, many more follow in their graceful footsteps.