During the second half of Bare Bait Dance’s new prison-inspired concert, Wall City News, artistic director Joy French, an inmate, finds herself in solitary confinement. A video projected on the back wall of the Elks Club ballroom shows a narrow hole letting in little light. The original score, composed by John Sporman, turns glum. A single lamp drops to the floor and casts French in an ominous shadow. She breathes heavily, in something of a panic, and then bursts into an emotional solo full of arching movements that start forceful and angry, only to lose conviction the longer they repeat. By the end of the section, French is utterly defeated, mustering little more than a reflexive twitch to channel her defiant struggle.
For those few moments, Wall City News fully connects with the audience on its broad theme of shining light on those often overlooked behind bars. It’s a powerful display by French, punctuated by her strong performance and poignant choreography, and complemented by many of the impressive resources she’s incorporated throughout the evening-length piece: multimedia, original music, creative lighting, a nontraditional arts space and, most significantly, a weighty topic. But to use a prison analogy, French’s solo feels like a rare uprising in a concert that too often seems content to simply count the days until it’s set free.
Bare Bait, now in its third season, has earned a reputation for producing daring concerts of professional modern dance. Spurred by French and supported by a strong cast of local dancers—not to mention collaborating filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, actors and directors—the bootstrapping company delivers a level of ingenuity and fearlessness that used to be more prevalent across Missoula stages. How to Open a Cupboard, which debuted in 2012, remains one of the best original dance pieces in recent memory. Last year’s You and Me combined music, dinner, art and dance in a residential setting—and required an intimate level of audience participation.
Wall City News follows Bare Bait’s admirably ambitious past. Inspired by prison newspapers that existed mainly from the 1880s through the 1940s, French presents what she describes in the program notes as “a mash up of images, ideas and themes the dancers and I found compelling.”
The concert opens with a brief film and a prologue featuring nine dancers, all dressed in nondescript undergarments. In the first of many smart technical choices, this large group smoothly transitions into a separation between prison guards and soon-to-be inmates. To make this happen, French straps on a board that rises behind her head with the standard backdrop of a mug shot. In a fluid motion, she’s photographed, fingerprinted by the guards and then handed a prison jumpsuit—hanging on a hook on the back of the board—before slipping off the board and handing it to the next felon, who repeats the process. In a few short minutes, we’re introduced to six inmates and three guards.
In the next section, the six prisoners wheel out lamps that almost look like their own personal streetlights. In addition to being mobile, the overhanging lamps are fastened on a chain that can be adjusted and lowered to the floor, like in French’s solitary confinement solo. At the outset, these six lamps establish the space of each prisoner’s cell. It’s a cool device, much like the mug shot board, that creates all sorts of opportunity for the dancers to explore their chosen theme.
Where Wall City News goes from this promising setup is what leaves much to be desired. French describes it as a “mash up,” and it comes across as such in a series of meandering set pieces that fail to create much of a storyline or overall tone. The newspaper element is awkwardly introduced, then followed with French reading excerpts about athletic competitions that seem nothing but straightforward, both in description and the dancers’ corresponding movements. Further confusing the setup is a duet between French and the warden (Jordan Dehline) that’s playful and seemingly part of an entirely different concert.
The second half finds a more consistent rhythm, beginning with French’s solo and carried through a more crystallized message about the importance of prison newspapers and how they gave voice to the voiceless. A film near the end shows one of the inmates standing with the mug shot board in a crowded park as people walk by offering, at most, a passing glance. It doesn’t fit the time period of the rest of the performance, but it effectively underlines the basic message of Wall City News.
The question is whether or not that basic message ever achieves the depth or poignancy French was reaching for. The underwhelming first half certainly didn’t, and there’s too much ground to make up in the second. More importantly, for all the show’s technical inventions, the movement rarely follows suit. The talent of Bare Bait’s dancers often gets lost behind the steely expressions and rigid movements of the prison guards, or the uniformity of the inmates. In a way, this concert suffers the same fate of its main subjects. Wall City News displays many redeeming qualities, but falls short of Bare Bait’s previous accomplishments. Like a prisoner serving time, the company can’t quite escape its past.