Motion and Emotion

By Torri Still / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
The promotional materials for the Misnomer Dance Theater describe its work as "emotive imagery, theatrical kinetics, and human architecture." The verbal pyrotechnics are telling: the Misnomer troupe does not fall into any of the neat categories of dance.



Chris Elam '99 (top) and Jessica Howell '98.


Which is precisely the point, says Chris Elam '99, the man behind Misnomer. When Elam, a public policy concentrator who has studied dance since ninth grade, decided last year to put together his own show, he held auditions and signed on Katie Eastburn '98, Nick Goldsmith '98, Jessica Howell '98, and RISD student Abbey Dehnert. The quintet rehearsed ten hours a week through the winter and spring, working on what Elam terms "pointed improvisation": "We would work until we found a good nugget, stop, and throw it into our bag of objects," he says. "We accrued a bag of awesome material."

By the spring, that bag of material had been organized into a handful of choreographed pieces. In a May show at Brown's Ashamu Dance Studio, the Misnomer group performed four set pieces and one improvisational number. The pieces are intentionally ambiguous, Elam says. "If, in rehearsal, it seemed as if something was taking on a mother/ child theme, we'd add something about lovers." Though they lack distinct subjects, all of the pieces combine physicality with physics; of particular interest to Elam is how bodies intersect. In one dance, for instance, two performers act as counterweights, rocking each other back and forth.

Although the dancers take their work seriously, their performances often spark laughter from the audience, especially over the contorted shapes the dancers twist themselves into. The group has also performed at Providence high schools, Elam says, where students reacted raucously to movements they perceived as sexually suggestive. Elam takes such adolescent interpretations in stride. "One of the missions of Misnomer has been to make dance accessible to people who may be unfamiliar with it. I love the fact that the kids weren't afraid to yell out what a more refined audience would not have said."

Nearly a year after Elam's experiment began, Misnomer has dissolved, due to the graduation of most of its members. Elam says he never considered replacing those who are leaving. "The pieces in the show came from the individuals," he insists. "They depended entirely on who we are and how we relate to each other. This was a living creature."

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July / August 1998