Reviews/( and a Preview!) for Cynthia Oliver

BOOM! (evening length)
New York Live Arts, The Painted Bride Art Center, The Reston Theatre, Dance Place (2014)

“Cynthia Oliver’s BOOM! and Dean Moss’s johnbrown” – Barbara Browning and Tara Willis
Posted online October, 27, 2015
Short quote: “Cynthia and Leslie [Cuyjet] were deep in an investigation of unison as a means to hold their own difference and sameness at once – as an intergenerational pair, as brown women with Caribbean–American backgrounds and a mentor/mentee relationship that’s also a friendship, as stand-ins for each other, like the same woman at different times in life but also individuated by being on the same stage at once. Like watching a train move along its course. They literally moved close together through space and went through similar experiences even when apart. The moments of drastic shift felt not only like they changed the situation for the rest of piece, but like they broke in, indented the basic flow and inserted structure. Or broke out.” –

Full review: Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory.

“Dance of the Everywoman” By Andrew Boynton
Published October 31, 2014
Throughout “BOOM!,” Oliver kept changing our focus, from whence we’ve come, to where we are, to where we might be headed. Oliver and Cuyjet are twenty years apart in age, and, dressed similarly, each with her own unruly mop of hair, they could be seen at times as generational points on one woman’s continuum. They are wonderful performers, as accomplished in the theatrical elements as in the dance, as believable in the dramatic as in the comedic.

Full review: The NewYorker

“Oliver and Cuyjet’s ‘BOOM!’: Third time is a charm” By Charmaine Warren
Published 11/13/2014
In “BOOM!”, Oliver scores in her quest to embrace her own mission: to look at the “vulnerable, erroneously confident, humorous, ridiculous.” This dance must be marked down as a dance for everywoman, an anthem to declare and confirm female relationships and then some.

Full Review: The Amsterdam News:

“Two Dancers Portray the Harried Lives of Women” By Merilyn Jackson
Published November 11, 2014
That dancing telescoped so much meaning in every move. Shimmering thighs, jutting butts just short of twerking, stomping in place in temper tantrums, and, always, talking and gesticulating at each other, the audience, or in interior monologues… One broods on how tragically Sisyphean life can be. The two alternately or simultaneously portray a harsh world. “I’m going to punish you,” they say, viciously punching fists down, “and then, I’m going to raise you up.” And just when you think everything’s going to be all right, they’re going to bring you right back down again. Put you in your place.
Full Review: The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Two Besties Feeling the Power” By Siobhan Burke
Published October 24, 2014
Often covering ground in unison — to the steady, clacking bounce of Jason Finkelman’s score — Ms. Oliver and Ms. Cuyjet seem propelled by a common intuition, even when affection yields to grappling. As candid as they are sultry, with a knack for looking us straight in the eye, they ride a fine line between celebrating and scrutinizing their bodies, between being in the moment and trying to escape it.
Full Review: The New York Times

BOOM! (short version)
Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church (2012) & New York Live Arts (2013)
InfiniteBody By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

I will also admit to being captivated from the moment I heard an upstairs door bang and the darkened theater’s left aisle fill with the bubbling voices of two women as half-bright blotches (the near-invisible dancers wearing over-sized white shirts) descended through the dark towards New York Live Arts’ bare space. Once in place, side by side, the women took up that space–expansive in action, splayed off-kilter, owning the land and air rights and, when grounded, gazing sideways like don’t-mess-with lions at rest. Hereafter, Oliver and Cuyjet will be “Tried Patience” and “Unwavering Fortitude.”

In motion, their confident gestures and phrases seemed like some kind of Black diasporan Tai Chi–an enigmatic but resonant long form I longed to learn. The genius and appeal of these two dancers grew from their musicality and sure-of-themselves radiance. And the surprise–for anyone who had not seen the previous version of Boom! offered during Danspace Project’s great Parallels series–came from the fierce spoken word conclusion of the duet which, I think, intended to uncover who these two entities might be. They might remind each of us, in unique ways, of specific people or types or even groups. Who in your life has the power to raise you up at one moment and strike you down in the next? You should leave Boom! feeling a little shaken, a little stirred, even if you’re not immediately sure why.

Full review:

Self-Mockery in Movement, and Divination in Ritual
Souleymane Badolo and Cynthia Oliver at New York Live Arts
By Brian Seibert
Published: April 28, 2013

What connects the choreographers Souleymane Badolo and Cynthia Oliver? He was born and raised in Burkina Faso. She was born in the Bronx but raised in the Virgin Islands. Whatever African heritage they might have in common, it seems a thin pretext for their sharing a program. But so it was at New York Live Arts on Thursday.

Ms. Oliver’s “Boom!,” a duet with Leslie Cuyjet made for Danspace Project last year, served as an opening act. The two women entered like noisy latecomers, arguing in comic fragments. Their self-mockery was winning from the start and thereafter.

The composition was remarkable for how fluently it moved from chatter to dance to something in between and back. The women, both assured performers, proudly pointed to their posteriors and yelled “Bam!” Crawling, they addressed audience members in biblical tones, promising to raise them up and punish them and make them surrender.

Full review:

The Dance Enthusiast Comic Review:

Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso
Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, October 15-17, 2009
“Come Get Your Fill of ‘wine'”
Infinite Body: A blog on arts, culture & whatever by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
October 16, 2009

How could I possibly miss anything by Cynthia Oliver and her COCo Dance Theatre, let alone a multimedia primer on Caribbean-ness/womanhood/the glory of the body/and the gleeful sacredness of “wining”?

You know wining? I’m not talking about what you sip from a glass. I’m talking about what you do with the lower part of your body in response to calypso and soca and how the African deities radiate their energy through your cells and the garish/gleaming/sparkly/half-tacky-but-don’t-care stuff you wear or half-wear on your pumping, rotating, figure-eighting hips and backside and how that body can come in any size like a big, tall, rangy swan whose limbs seem capable of scraping the balcony rails at St. Mark’s Church and it’s all wine-able and how talking does not preclude dancing and dancing does not preclude talking and how one feeds the other and tells the perennial, necessary tales and how the sacred and the secular do the same and how displacement and estrangement, love and disappointment entangle inseparably as Caribbean folk deal with being among family or out in the world of (and as) Other.

The one-hour piece, opened last evening at Danspace Project, is called Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso. Performers/text authors include A’Keitha Carey, Nehassaiu deGannes, Ithalia Forel, Lisa Green, Caryn Hodge and Rosamond S. King. The entire production team is fantastic, but let me point out Jason Finkelman (sound design and original music), Amanda K. Ringger (lighting) Marcus Behrens (video) and Meckha Cherry (costume design) for special recognition.

How raucous and rad and right this piece is, and its vibrant performers grab hold of you from the first and don’t let go.

“Come test my wine! I dare you! I dare you!” (Destra Garica)

I dare you to test this wine.

Continuing tonight and concluding tomorrow night, 8pm: Reservations at Danspace Project

Calypso Is Fractured, but the Hips Are Intact
(By Claudia La Rocco for The New York Times)
October 18, 2009

Social dance is one of the vital ways a culture talks to and about itself. Political battles, gender relations, historical legacies: the sheer amount of information to be found in a club or dance hall is astounding, as is the (sometimes conflicting) complexity.

Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso A’Keitha Carey, left, and Lisa Green in a “winding” work by Cynthia Oliver at Danspace.

In “Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso,” which ended Saturday at Danspace Project, Cynthia Oliver delves into the riotously beautiful art of winding, a powerful, erotically charged rhythmic dance named for its sinuous, circular pelvic motion. (It’s pronounced wine-in, and spellings vary.) Backed by projected images and Jason Finkelman’s evocative sound design, her six chosen interpreters — all Caribbean women— offer tantalizing windows into winding’s shadings, its means and methods.
And how! These women are sublime, particularly the tall, voluptuously supple A’Keitha Carey, and Lisa Green, a muscular, compact dancer whose sexually frank presence contains a fierce militancy. That potent combination suggests the ways in which a dance that posits women as objects of desire also gives them the means of political resistance. Her strut, both exalted and worldly, leaves you breathless. Religion and the street, such movements remind us, are not so far apart.
Yet “Rigidigidim De Bamba De,” even while acknowledging these women’s strengths, does not always play to them. Rather than letting the dance do the talking, Ms. Oliver too often gives us actual talk, stories of the good girl not allowed to experience the pleasures of carnival, of being the other in a foreign country, of coming back to the place you thought was home only to find yourself an other there, too.
These are heartfelt messages. They are also stock and not aided by the cast’s sometimes muddled or strained delivery. To watch Ms. Green’s hips in conversation with Johnny Clarke’s roots reggae song “Move Out of Babylon” is to learn much more about her cultural heritage and how she uses her body to reinforce and subvert that heritage. It’s a lot to understand, and it doesn’t need any verbal introductions.

“From COCo, fascinating rhythm”
The Dance Place, Washington D.C. February 26, 27, 2010.
(By Sarah Halzack for The Washington Post)
March 1, 2010

Cultural dance can be a gateway to greater understanding of a society and its people, and nowhere is that more evident than in Cynthia Oliver’s new work “Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso.” It was performed Saturday at Dance Place by COCo Dance Theatre, six women of Caribbean heritage who now live in places as far-flung as St. Croix, the United Kingdom and New York. Still, they are connected by their shared love for calypso music and “winding,” a dance where the hips roll and whirl in styles that range from slow and slinky to swift and convulsive.
The dance melded movement and spoken word, with the performers telling fascinating anecdotes about their identities and their past. One dancer told the story of her emigration from Trinidad to Canada; another recalled to great comedic effect a moment from her teen years when she had been out winding at dance clubs and her displeased mother caught on.
At times, dancers would stop the action to deconstruct the steps in a mock-professorial tone. Though these interludes were funny, they weren’t necessary. The movement, rich with sensuality, strength and joy, spoke for itself.
This ensemble has great chemistry with one another and the fun they were having onstage was as apparent as it was infectious. But the evening’s most stand out dancing came during a solo section for Lisa Green, who mesmerized with her frisky charm, fierce strut and silky, low-to-the-ground hip swivels. Even her eyes seemed to be dancing, delivering a gaze that sparkled with allure and flirtation.

Closer Than Skin
“E-Moves Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre and Cynthia Oliver’s COCo Dance Theater” Aaron Davis Hall, NYC April 21-30, 2006
(by Emily Macel for Dance Magazine Online)

Uneasy Unsettling and out of control, Cynthia Oliver’s work nevertheless has a narrative cohesion that makes for effective dance theater. The E-Stablished Choreographers program was a perfect forum for Oliver’s work.[…]

The Caribbean influenced COCo Dance Theatre used similar theatrical elements – dance, monologues, sound, and music – to very different effect [than Arthur Aviles’] in Oliver’s Closer Than Skin. Though portions of the piece were excerpted from evening-length pieces, they worked together as a powerful display of a woman’s struggle with her place in society. Oliver’s solo “Trembling,” began as she wrapped her fingers over her cheek and mouth, like she was being taken hostage. She lashed her head in a fast, whipping motion. Recorded warped voices filled the stage and shoved at her until she could barely catch herself. At times her entire body trembled, as controlled as the flutter of a wing. The delirious dancing culminated in a trio, the dancers braiding together individual motifs. Props like dolls and small empty boxes added a childlike, mysterious quality to the work.


Promotional MANUSCRIPT by Franklin Sirmans [This article was commissioned by Creative Capital as part of a special promotional campaign featuring projects by grantees from 1999 to 2002.]
© 2002 Creative Capital Foundation. All rights reserved.

Cynthia Oliver


While the term “diva” has become a ubiquitous moniker for female singers, it began as a title bestowed by adoring fans, not behind-the-scenes marketing men. In the spirit of true divas like Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin, dancer and choreographer Cynthia Oliver brings us AfroSocialiteLifeDiva, her newest interdisciplinary dance performance. Like these renowned singers, AfroSocialiteLifeDiva equally embraces joy and pain while using the body as a vehicle for emotion.

The title was coined by rocker Vernon Reid, who affectionately anointed Oliver with this label after watching her flow with ease in diverse New York City art crowds more than 10 years ago.

AfroSocialiteLifeDiva integrates movement, story, and sound as it explores the union and disunion between mothers and daughters. Moving freely between past and present, the dance-based performance follows the emotional and spiritual changes of an Afro-Atlantic family across generations, from Harlem through the American South to the Caribbean. The piece interweaves stories that originate both in myth and in the experiences of the dance’s five performers, including Oliver herself. There’s the mythical character of Marie Laveau, a New Orleans voodoo priestess who is said to have looked identical to her mother. In addition, dancers Renee Redding-Jones, Cynthia Bueschel, Blossom Dudley, and Maria Earle bring their own memories of their relationships with their mothers to the work. “I have them do assignments that relate directly to the themes of the piece, so that who they are and what they have experienced also is a part of the essence of the work,” Oliver says.

The choreographer, raised in the Virgin Islands, also contributes her part. “All my work is by some measure autobiographical,” she says. “Yet AfroSocialiteLifeDiva really isn’t about me. It’s about mothers and daughters and love and loss. My mother’s family is just the jumping-off point. AfroSocialiteLifeDiva is a work that looks interculturally to see how the image of woman has traveled and transformed from one body to the next throughout history. More so, it is about how family history is inscribed upon the bodies and psyches of women in a family.”

Combining large-group choreographic sequences and individual anecdotes, the piece ultimately communicates the story of a single heroic woman. The individual performers are manipulated by the movement of the group as if each only represents a single facet of a composite person. Deviating from a simple narrative structure, Oliver clearly has more ambitious goals in mind. “I am interested in pathology, in the slippages we all manage every day that accrue and allow us to connect with one another and make lives for ourselves: enduring deep shit and the humor that helps us live through the challenges.”

Like her mentors David Gordon and his Pick Up Company and theater pioneer Laurie Carlos, Oliver employs spoken word and music as an integral part of her choreographed works. “The performing is layered and enhanced by live music,” she says. “The guys of Straylight Trio — Jason Finkelman, Geoff Gersh, and Charles Cohen, my longtime collaborators — will create a sound environment that will assist us all in full immersion.” Straylight’s ambient world-music tones will help set the emotional tone of AfroSocialiteLifeDiva.

Oliver has been creating dance and performance works since 1993. Best known are because she was (2001), Unremoveable Jacket (1997), and Wake (1995), as well as Death’s Door (1996), for which she received a Bessie Award. The 40-year-old dancer has also performed with numerous choreographers of note, including Ronald K. Brown, David Gordon, and Laurie Carlos. Oliver was also part of Prowess Dancearts – a collective of women dancers, singers, musicians, and writers that supported the works of other artists of color as well as producing their own. The group was primarily comprised of expatriates of the Urban Bush Women – a company that Oliver managed. She currently teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It is Oliver’s vital mixture of media, collaboration, and subjectivity in her choreography that makes her work so important. “I see my work as a pool where the postmodern, Afro-Caribbean, African body, voice, and story meet, all with a very vital dash of humor.”

“Viva La Diva! Oliver Delivers the Icons” by Gus Solomons Jr.
(The Dance Inside, Flash Review 2, 1-28, 2003)

New York- As we enter Dance Theater Workshop’s Bessie Schönberg Theater, eight oval panels glow from the dark at the rear of the stage. They depict women of color in delicately detailed wood-cut prints by Erin Tapley. The icons – unified in theme and size, although drawn in slightly different abstracted styles – remind you of stained glass windows in, perhaps an ultra hip southern country church.

Cynthia Oliver’s new ‘AfroSocialiteLifeDiva,’ part of DTW’s Carnival Series, is a stream of consciousness evocation in eloquent words and delicious movement of generations of black women. The text, brilliantly devised and deconstructed by Oliver is profuse and continuous, sometimes so rich with imagery and idiom you just have to let it go and enjoy its flavor without trying to comprehend it.

Five women enter in silhouette, one alone and the other four in couples, one partner carrying the other. Dancing in beautifully crafted unison and counterpoint, they take turns verbally describing and physically impersonating members of an extended family of women. They’re dressed in Adrienne McDonald’s form-flattering, multi-textured, earth-toned clothes; shawl skirts over slacks with fitted tops.

Oliver, a tall and substantial earth mother with sharp features and caramel-colored skin, and Renee Redding-Jones, more sturdily built and even more nurturing with rich coffee complexion, are such powerful stage personas they constantly arrest your focus. Their every move embodies the experience of living as triumphant black women. While the other three, Blossom Leilani, Maria Earle, and Cynthia Bueschel, all younger women, are no slouches in either vocal projection or dancing ability, they can’t match the sassy, savvy presence of the more mature pair.

In one recurring motif, the women tip toe around, as if wearing too-tight high-heels, hands dangling form limp wrists, hips switching proudly from side to side, over-talking each other about their diva-like assets. Music composed and performed live by percussionist Jason Finkelman, guitarist/composer Geoff Gersh, and Charles Cohen on an electronic synthesizer called Buchla Music Easel, add color and texture to the women’s flamboyant action.

These are utterly empowered women, recalling their role models” Redding-Jones is ‘Nana’ gesturing and grinning cordially like a fine lady at a cocktail party or a church social. Beuscschel[sic] and Earle wield dainty purses and cavort with ‘attitude’ in ‘A Holy Roller Named Pimp.’ In an arch and funny monologue, Oliver recounts her mother’s admonitions about proper behavior for a lady: Poise. Etiquette. Stand with feet at right angles, hands on hips, breasts thrust forward to create the most provocative esthetic impact; keep your knees decorously together whenever you sit. She and the cast illustrate with over-the-top exaggeration.

A similar dynamic tone throughout the seven continuous sections of the fifty-minute work mutes its overall impact. Still, ‘AfroSocialiteLifeDiva’ is a wittily written, soulfully performed, exposition of womanhood, distilled through the prism of Oliver’s unique sensitivity. And the performances of Oliver and Redding-Jones are definitely not to be missed.”

“Journeys: On the Town, On His Own, Through Family History. Wine, Spring Water, Tea” by Deborah Jowitt
(The Village Voice, January 22-28, 2003)

“[….]In Cynthia Oliver’s ‘AfroSocialiteLifeDiva'(at Dance Theater of Workshop January 23 and 24 and February 1 and 2), genealogy is sliced up and reconfigured in entrancing, sometimes confusing ways. That the grandmother, mother, and full-of-herself, bad-ass daughter of an African American family are played – sometimes jointly – by three black women, one white one, and a Hawaiian helps to both distance the subject and intensify it. As they dance juicy, outflung phrases, they also sing and talk – sometimes like a Greek chorus, sometimes bandying ‘she’ and ‘I’ about until the mother lives in the daughter, and the concept of observer and observed quakes like jelly.

The women – handsomely dressed by Adrienne Wood [Adrienne McDonald] performing under Erin Tapley’s vivid paintings of female generations to excellent understated music composed and played live by Jason Finkelman, Geoff Gersh, and Charles Cohen – are marvelous. I love to watch Renee Redding-Jones and Blossom Leilani, reeling in and out of poses like friendly sisters, merging like mother and child to come. Love to note the different ways the women attack movement and words: Leilani lean and precise, Cynthia Bueschel poised and sturdy in her steps, Stephanie [sic][Maria] Earle joyously lusty, Oliver with flyaway gestures and complications, and Redding-Jones with matter-of-fact power. When they double-image a character, that character becomes all the richer.

Oliver’s text is both witty and sentimental. Perhaps because of her pursuit of obliqueness, some lines evoke hallowed generalities about birth, death, and not-too-bad family life. At other times, as during a tirade by Redding-Jones – now the tough, new generation woman (‘I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than the Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia!’) – specificity emerges, shaking its fists and swinging its hips.”

because she was

“And DanceDanceDance at the Kitchen” by Susan Yung
(The Dance Insider, Flash review Feb 2-9, 2001)

“The second ‘Talking Dance’ program at the Kitchen, curated by Dean Moss and seen at its Wednesday opening, proffered a few different approaches to the use of language in dance performance. Several choreographers/companies integrated text into the performance almost as a formal element. Others directly engaged the audience in dialogue – if not literally, then by telling us a story or otherwise involving the content of the text as part of the work. Another tack was to treat text and dance as the subject matter itself. It is clear that the use of language can add layers of meaning. However, that alone does not insure more meaning or richness. In some cases, it can obscure the work or complicate it beyond its parameters.

[….] In ‘Because she was…’ Cynthia Oliver, accompanied by live guitar and percussion, basically loses it as we watch, weaving in and out of lucidity, casting spells and attempting to chase away demons of one sort or another. She drops in African/island/American signifiers of both dance and text, loading a simple ‘mm…hmmm’ with a number of potential interpretations, and patterning words into rhythmic structures as engaging as her dance.”

“Art of Moving the Mouth Along with Those Feet” by Jennifer Dunning
(The New York Times, Saturday February 10, 2001)

“The fusion of movement and spoken text was the subject of ‘Talking Dance,’ a two-part series at the Kitchen. The big guns were fired in the first part. What followed, in a performance devoted to younger or newer groups and individuals on Thursday night was for the most part a series of dismal misfirings.

There were three strong pieces and performances. Foofwa d’Imobilite addressed the making of a ‘talking dance’ and its fashionable video component in his solo ‘Iuj Godog?’, notable for its intriguing phallic costume, designed by Suzanne Gallo, and the intelligence and charm of its self depreciating humor. Lilliane Tondellier designed the handsone lighting.

The weave of text and dance was achieved less traditionally, with words serving as both text and aural accompaniment, in Cynthia Oliver’s ‘Because she was…’ and Katie Duck’s solo from ‘Love Poems.’ Ms. Duck’s voice and Alex Waterman’s score for cello and electronically produced sound had a murmuring quality that complimented Ms. Duck’s purposefully desultory movement style in this mediation on love.

Ms. Oliver achieved the same effect with word fragments in ‘Because she was…,’ set to a score for Afro-Brazilian percussion and guitar performed live by Jason Finkelman and Geoff Gersh. But the complex woman or women Ms. Oliver evoked did not emerge completely until late in the solo and then almost too boldly.”


“Shemad:Women Bearing Demons at P.S. 122” By Tamieca McCloud
(Flash Review 1, 5-20, 2000)

Intricate, lyrical, complex — qualities in women too often boxed and labeled “madness” when we are too afraid to look deeper. Cynthia Oliver’s “Shemad,” seen last night at P.S. 122, beautifully and painfully portrays the physical affectations and vocal outbursts of emotional disturbance. Ms. Oliver’s group of “madwomen” took the audience on a trip that brought with it images we often try so hard to pretend don’t affect us — are not a part of us. The very real images of women bearing demons.

At times the ensemble moved together, seeming comrades or acquaintances in shared experiences. In other moments, they were separate and critical. In those instances, there came to light a difference in one that enabled the others to separate themselves — to pretend they did not share her level of madness. The accompanying text made you take a second look at each woman and reconsider your initial reaction to her outburst. To consider the source of her madness.

Most memorable was a double-duet entitled, “The Washing,” performed by Ms. Oliver, Renee Redding-Jones, Melissa Wynn, and Cynthia Bueschel. This section provided a moment which was incredibly tender, and simply lovely. Ms. Oliver gathered a strong ensemble for this work, including herself, the women mentioned above, and Rhetta Aleong. Visually these women were very different and each managed to command attention in a way which complimented each other and the work rather than distracted.

Also to be noted is the music accompanying “Shemad,” created and performed live by the trio Straylight. They did a great job of presenting music which was neither lost nor overwhelming. It was very much a natural part of the performance. “Shemad” continues through tomorrow at P.S. 122.

“Madness Descending” by Heather Depres Burak
(lgny (October 7, 1999* Issue 116, p. 40)

“Billed as a work depicting women and madness, Gabri Christa and Cynthia Oliver’s LUKoSiMAD seemed more about the elusive act of self determination. Presented at Dance Theater Workshop’s Carnival Series, the program included one group piece by each choreographer and collaborative duets. These Diabologues,” magnetic in their ritualistic and stark movements, ride the line between feral incarnation bemusement. Appearing self possessed, urbane and clean, the two women morphed between feminine and animalistic, with burps, mouths, facial ticks, and shallow coughs that grew too ugly hacks. Eyes shifted, giggles became guffaws, growls.

[….] With a heady dose of humor and irony, Cynthia Oliver investigated the individual rituals that turn into habits and patterns, known only to the self, that come up against the equally routinized social patterns of complicity and scorn. Her piece, SHEMAD, opened with a flock of women, whispering and shushing each other. Amidst laughing, teasing and egging each other on, they attempted to move forward en masse across the stage. They spoke over each other while Oliver’s poetic narration mixed with music, told of “hush, groan, suck teeth, holler, mad, bad, bitch, evil, dancing women, happy women, couldn’t give a damn…” With their fingers wagging, they talked themselves into a cacophony while switching places and waiting for cues from each other. More than mere distraction, it became clear that all this commotion is, in fact, very important business.

In one section, two dancers gossiped while another dancer (the fierce Melissa Wynn) came on laughing half sentences, hysterical, and then crashed. She gets back up, like she is pushing sand around in circles then goes down again. Like a baby falling but not bothered by scrapes, we wonder if she will cry after each fall or continue. Touching her own face and laughing, the two women came back on stage shaking the proverbial finger, mocking, and spying; “It was a man, it was a woman, it was work, children, her attitude, ’cause she was smart, ’cause she wasn’t…” The women’s gestures of copying and laughing evolve into sound/gesture score accompanying Wynn’s so-called hysteria. But as their mimicking becomes more frenzied, they seem crazy, not her.

Ending the piece, the narration rumors how this woman went mad, “it was a stream of excess….” Yet, she and the others are not victims. She repeats, “name me, blame me, you can’t contain me, call me Mad, call me Mad, call me, call me…,” incantations half-way between a mantra and a call to war.”

“The Vibrancy of Rhythm: Black Choreographers Tread New Paths Through Old Territory” by Deborah Jowitt
(The Village Voice, September 21, 1999)

“[….]Oliver’s text for SHEMAD is not always easy to grasp. Voices natter over other voices, compete with percussionist Jason Finkelman’s intriguing score (played live by his ‘avant world’ trio Straylight) and drop into the honey accents of the Virgin Islands. Oliver introduces us to her compelling cast by having them propose, one by one, visions of women. But ‘one by one’ is misleading; every image offered – some of them wild – elicits umms and yes, yess, laughter, instant actings-out, and interruptions. They embark on a great botched race in which nearly everyone jumps the gun and doubles back, eventually throwing even the destination into question. They dance, arms and legs beautifully akimbo. What are the shapes of madness? Is myth useful madness? Melissa Wynn staggers spectacularly around, throwing her skinny limbs in all directions; Is she any nuttier than Oliver and Rhetta Aleong, who stand like two village aunties, gossiping about her in banshee voices? What’s behind Renee Redding-Jones’s crazed state of mind? Why didn’t she ‘get on’? Cynthia Bueschel dances along side her, suggesting and then retracting probably causes.

Oliver speaks out to us near the end; ‘How you going to contain me? Are you gonna call me mad?’ Society has done that to females who ventured out of their prescribed roles… Oliver makes madness a rallying cry.”

Unremovable Jacket

“Seeing Race As A Life Sentence” by Jack Anderson
(New York Times, Wednesday, December 17, 1997)

Choreographers usually celebrate the body. But in ‘Unremovable Jacket,’ which Cynthia Oliver presented on Sunday night at Performance Space 122, the body was often treated as a suspicious or even repellent object. The jacket Ms. Oliver referred to in her title was human flesh itself. All flesh is unremovable; so, too, the production pointed out, is each individual’s skin color.

That realization inspired Ms. Oliver to create tense worried choreography for herself, Tandum Lett, and Karen Graham. The dancers also collaboratively devised a spoken text. The accompaniment, which combined live and taped sounds, was composed by a combo called Straylight, with Jason Finkelman, Geoff, Gersh and Charles Cohen as featured musicians.

The performers’ nervous intensity helped make ‘Unremovable Jacket’ disquieting. The dancers kept pacing warily and regarding one another with suspicion. Repeatedly throughout the piece, they would cover their mouths with their hands as if in amazement even horror.

No matter how feverishly they moved, they could not shake off their bodies, and the sense of imprisonment was intensified in a scene which Carol Mullins’s lighting divided the floor into squares: one for black people, one for whites and one for people whose racial or ethnic identities are considered unclassifiable by lovers of rigid categories.

Although the work lasted only an hour, it seemed repetitive at times, and a parody of a fashion show was a labored attempt at grotesque humor. Yet Ms. Oliver did convincingly equate one’s flesh with one’s fate. As her text put it, flesh ‘wears you out.'”

Death’s Door

“When Words Count” by Deborah Jowitt
(Village Voice, October 31, 1995 * Vol. XL No. 44)

“In Cynthia Oliver’s Death’s Door(P.S. 122, October 12, through 15), the dancing is not so reticent, and the text is more oblique. Three gorgeous women – Oliver, Renee Redding-Jones, and Osunwale Tandum Lett-Murray – dance alone and together throughout the piece. Their legs slice up the air; they move. Oliver – once a knockout in David Gordon’s Company, still with Ronald K. Brown’s is a less experienced choreographer than [Susan] Marshall, but although the binding movement and words into a whole are less secure, there are moments of great power and beauty.

Oliver’s text reveals its meaning elliptically, working backward: alluding to prayer, conjuring up funerals, then moving from each woman’s testimony about particular deaths to thoughts on dying. They play witnesses, not characters; their cryptic memories of death affect the dancing the way private grief might color an ongoing litany of prayers. Through repetition and variation, gestures gradually reveal the emotions of the text. Like a Greek chorus, the women sometimes snatch out of the air words spoken or sung by Helga Davis, fragmenting them into whispers that shudder around one another. Music improvised by guitarist Geoff Gersh, and percussionist Jason Finkelman (both of Straylight) lays a floor of light rhythmic patterns and mostly gentle sounds that evoke rain forests (Finkelman’s array includes marimbas, drums, gourds, bells).

The power of the dancing almost succeeds in knitting the text together. But not quite. Intense whisps of meaning cling briefly to a gesture, a dash through space, a woman, a life – and slip away.”