New gestures of suffering in Daina Ashbee’s Pour

A review of a remarkable dance show starring Paige Culley.

Paige Culley in Pour

As the audience shuffles into their seats before Daina Ashbee’s Pour begins, a presence calls out from the dark stage in a frightening warbly soprano. We can see, but barely, a naked torso stretching out in the fuzzy black, and already there is a feeling of great apprehension. Pour is, after all, an exploration of women’s pain and of the fortitude they possess in enduring it.

Paige Culley, the soloist who emerges, suddenly, in the medical-seeming light, exudes at first a kind of bored flirtation somehow also on the verge of tears. Her face is ever paradoxical: suffering and bemused, in howling physical pain but possessive of unnerving charm. To me it begged a lingering question: why is it that we’re so amazed when a Hollywood starlet can approximate a pirouette but are so blasé when a dancer can really and truly act?

Some of the dance will be mystifying, as of course anyone else’s suffering can be, but Culley’s gruelling nude progression across the gooey wet floor has a surreal relatability. Her quivering muscularity, meanwhile, hovering over the ground in a peculiar mixture of desperation and persistence, brought to sudden mind Arturo Martini’s sculpture The Thirst (La sete).

The most memorable choreographic act was a peculiar arm-thumping that was strangely triumphant, self-harming and orgasmic all at once, causing mesmerizing slippery reverberations in Culley’s torso that she herself seemed shocked to observe. The repetition managed to function first as an expression of joy, then as a frightening compulsion, and as in life, that shift was remarkably ambiguous.

Several times in the piece, Culley’s arms rose above her in a sweetly sloppy balletic fifth: arms in that oval icon of what a small child believes dance to be. This codified gesture of beauty served to highlight just how unique many of the other gesticulations really were.

What impressed most throughout Pour was its sheer generative capacity: that Ashbee’s movements as realized by Culley were trying to invent a new set of gestures. There are, for instance, gruntingly peculiar pelvic thrusts that are not immediately reducible to sex or to childbirth. This is an impressive feat when you consider the semiotic rigidity of our movements, and in particular, those of women.

Throughout, the audience is graced with Culley’s occasional look our way, and it is deeply affecting. There is an intrinsic alienness to Pour, this wet and shiny body that seems both trapped and fearsome, but the occasional glance reminds us that what we’ve been invited to share in is, in fact, awfully human.

Pour provides an intensely discomfiting expression of one woman’s intimate test of endurance. ■

Pour continues at Agora de la danse (Édifice Wilder, 1435 Bleury #102) on May 2 and 3, 7 p.m. $22-$35