Belle Mort

Terri Phillips, Still from Belle Mort showing left to right, Melissa Farris, Tristan Parks and Grace Bowers, May 17, 2014, Performance, photo courtesy of artist.

Terri Phillips, Still from Belle Mort showing left to right, Melissa Farris, Tristan Parks and Grace Bowers, May 17, 2014, Performance, photo courtesy of artist.

On a rainy Saturday night a light spirit of romance filled Marshall Arts in Memphis with the debut performance of Belle Mort, a new piece created by Terri Phillips with support from ArtsMemphis. Swept clean of distraction, the space hosted three dancers and a musician who took the audience, of around one hundred people, through a story of love and loss.

Does life begin with death? Phillips lets that question pause over everyone as her work opens with the angel of death (Mellissa Farris), a pixie in a floor length, Lucifer-colored, sequined gown. She is acquainting herself with a large set of antlers.   The antlers have been beautifully carved and given a light coat of sparkly dust. The angel examines them as if rehearsing for a procession. Antlers, being the product of biological extravagance, are an enormous body part rapidly grown and then shed, again and again over the life of the mammal. If they are to be shed, was it folly to make them? Alongside them she trails a diaphanous cloth, marching, and marking her turf. Later she sleeps on the cloth until roused by a signal we do not know. The angel is accompanied only by the sound of wind, reminding us that before there was music there were sounds of nature and the world was created.

A young girl, played by Grace Bowers, enters, with a gentle, steady stare. She looks as if she has been aroused from sleep, with her tousled locks. She is met in minutes by a boy (Tristan Parks), so excited by her, he circles her like a frantic insect. A love cry of Sigur Ros accompanies them, a song of dreamy thinness. The old T-shirt, orange organza dress, bare feet and free hair of the boy and girl deceive. They suggest initially that these two might be everyday people and might not dance better than you and me. Not so, as they infuse casual flirtation with twirls and points of toes that show the graceful gestures of real dance working through ordinariness.

Does love begin with blindness? He immediately puts his hands over her eyes and holds gently for a minute. She is a collaborator. The lovers imitate and play, copying, reciprocating, and diverging. A plain chair, becomes part of the love fantasy, as a pedestal. The girl is on and off of it, and left by the angel. The girl is prone to delayed smiles and light teasing of the boy. He is eager. All the while the angel is watching and waiting. After all, a taps-like song from an interloper with a French horn (played by Miaya Johnson) had earlier pushed through the scene, playing a dirge for the angel, a being that cannot die.

When the angel visits again, she circles the girl and gives her a cloth, our Eve grabs it and it becomes cloak, rope, dress, toy, tug of war, shroud, scarf and matador’s cape. When the time comes, the angel rises, gets the cloth and makes a hard bed on the ground; the same bed the angel once knew. The angel shows no fatigue, she is a caryatid of duty.

Freefall (by Baron and Cater) takes over as music. Between the two youths a waltz becomes a prelude to sleep. The girl invites him to the earth bed. All seems well, as if exhaustion might be allowed to linger for a bit. But in the night the girl rises. Sleep is her natural state. She looks to the angel and follows her like Eurydice. Sensing her departure, the boy cannot run anywhere. He ruffles the cloth, looks for the body in this little remnant, but smell is the last bit of essence. He runs and staggers, quickly distrusting even the blanket. He leaps and throws it on the ground – stupid piece of matter.

The whole piece runs only twenty minutes as a romantic confection. Phillips has a tremendous aptitude for producing work that deals with matters of the heart with a very contemporary feel. As with her recent installations, A little sugar in my bowl (Transit Space, Los Angeles) or the Chapel of Yes (Tops Gallery, Memphis), Phillips makes a place for beauty that is so disarmingly appealing and accessible. Not everyone knows where to look for beauty. Even if they are looking at it, they don’t recognize it, particularly in unfamiliar settings. Phillips identifies hidden but broadly felt romantic impressions, and like a skilled animal master she coaxes out of hiding to share with the rest of us.

Maureen O’Leary is a painter and photographer based in New York City and Mount Sinai, NY