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In her great The Art of Making Dances, Doris Humphrey warns young dancemakers against the pitfalls of using political subject matter. But rules can be broken by wise choices, as choreographer Jerri Davis amply demonstrates. Out of the grim facts of domestic violence, Davis crafts her powerful, heartbreaking Ladies Doing Life. After interviews with inmates serving life sentences in the Women's Correctional Center in Canon City, Colorado, Davis and her cast of six dance about lives diminished to the smallest detail: a spotless refrigerator, a table set just so, children kept unnaturally quiet, anything to avoid the daily threat of an explosion.

The space is stark: a dim area of mystery and dread lit by designer Craig Bushman; a cagelike structure upstage (by Steve Clisset, after Bob Shannon's original design); a lone wooden chair suspended downstage right. Two large nudes by artist Dania Pettus that flank the proscenium represent the stripped personalities of these women. Beth Quist lends her shimmering four-octave voice to her arrangement of the Holly Near song "Sister Woman Sister"; Quist also composed the rest of the eloquent, driving score.

The suspended chair is the site for some of Davis's most arresting choreography. She begins the piece there, hanging backward by her knees from its seat, her arms thrown back. In supplication? Resignation?

While another character speaks of her abuse (much of the text is drawn from court testimony), Davis stands on the chair, turning around rapidly, grasping one by one the four wires holding it. The chair bucks and shakes beneath her feet, suggesting her tenuous hold on a stable life.

Eventually, all the women approach the chair as a gate to something beyond--beyond their abuse, their murderous reactions, the pain they and their children continue to suffer. Then they move as one to and through the upstage bars, across the stage. Charging through the space, dancing out their rage and loss, they gather strength collectively as the dance nears its end.

Domestic violence statistics for 1999 from the Family Violence Prevention Fund report that almost four million American women were physically abused by their husbands or boyfriends in the last year alone--one every nine seconds. Forty-two percent of murdered women are killed by their intimate male partners.

When Ladies Doing Life was originally presented in 1997 it inspired University of Denver Law School professors and students to draft the Battered Women's Clemency Reform Project in 1998. Then-governor Roy Romer signed the act into law, immediately pardoning five women convicted in domestic violence crimes, and shaving a quarter-century off the sentence of another inmate--one of the women interviewed for this work.

Beginning in late 1999, Ladies Doing Life tours Colorado, with performances benefiting each community's shelters for battered women.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Nov 1, 1999

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