Arts & CultureCenter Stage

Megan Payne Shines Light on the Darkness and the Dirt with PLOW

Two performers, Megan Payne and Joy Davis, look at the camera while wearing sequined white outfits and with dirt smeared across their face and exposed arms.
Megan Payne (right) and Joy Davis perform in PLOW. (Photo by Morgan Shields)

We wait for the sun to set so that Goodyear Arts, with its high windows, will be dark enough for the event about to unfold. Said event being PLOW, a contemporary dance work that Megan Payne developed over the past year with dancer Joy Davis and composer Dylan Gilbert and performed at Goodyear on May 21 — an expanded version of the piece Payne and Davis performed at Open Door Studios in July 2021

The darkness plays a central role here, as through the performance we will descend into an underworld of memory: Payne and Davis guiding us groping through mines and caverns, charting a psychic map of central Appalachia, where Payne was raised. 

While we wait, the air hums and cracks with unsettling noise. Gilbert is recording the conversations taking place in the room, running them through a processor and playing them back to us in chopped up and distorted loops. This pulls us into the performance, makes us complicit. It is disturbing, and the sound builds in intensity in tandem with the audience’s anticipation.

The performance space is occupied by a rough circle of dark soil, topped by matching pairs of white Doc Martens. Upstage of the dirt circle there is a mirror box, cardboard lined entirely with reflective mylar. The box is large and unwieldy, looking like something Paul Bunyan might purchase to microwave a massive chicken pot pie in. Dirt, boots and the mirror box. What is going to happen here?

Finally Payne and Davis enter stage left, put on their boots and we begin our journey to the center of Payne’s personal mythos. Dressed in matching outfits, their white jeans and sparkling shirts shimmer and shine.

The sequined shirts are evocative in the extreme. The clothes speak of glamor and its opposite, the idea of glamor as something naive and vaguely embarrassing. Are they dressed for a trip to one of those zombie malls that you pass on long drives through West Virginia and Ohio, where there are more storefronts boarded up than open? Are those costumes from a pageant in Payne’s youth? 

There is a whiff of shame about these clothes. They are blindingly bright, but won’t be for long. As Payne and Davis begin the piece in earnest, the smell of damp earth fills the performance space and the women’s costumes, hands and faces are quickly besmirched. 

They throw themselves into the dirt over and over again. Even over the Rust-Belt drone of Gilbert’s score, the thud of bodies hitting the floor is persistent. While the performance styles of both women are notably different, both approach their work in this performance with a no-nonsense athleticism. 

Two dancers, Megan Payne and Joy Davis, hold each other while swaying and kneeling in a pile of dirt.
Megan Payne and Joy Davis aren’t afraid to get down and dirty in their performances. (Photo by Morgan Shields)

This is true across the different modes of movement throughout PLOW. There is a tension between aesthetics and utility with much of the performance given over to simple tasks: sweeping dirt, moving the mirror box, arranging and rearranging a choir of vintage table lamps around the space.

These moments never feel empty. Rather they serve as a poignant and understated nod toward the simple gestures that make up a life. The bits we might not even remember at the end of it all. 

Sequences of expansive unison movement and tightly nuanced gestural work explode out of those long stretches of mundane task based choreography. This tension of opposites forms the backbone of the excavation Payne is performing here, and they serve to shed light on what might be the most interesting formal aspect of PLOW: its complicated relationship with form. 

The piece is choreographed for two performers and so ostensibly speaking it is a duet. But even though there are two performers, does PLOW have two characters? The specter of this question haunts the entire performance. Am I seeing two distinct characters or two versions of the same woman? Two aspects of the same self? 

The two dancers are locked into an ambivalent relationship in PLOW. They struggle against each other at times, but at other times there is support and a tentative intimacy. They are dressed identically, and they often perform movement simultaneously, or in canon. There is much to suggest that, at least at the level of symbol, we are watching one woman doubled. 

And yet they present differently as performers, and subtly seem to be engaging the material in distinct ways. Joy Davis is confrontational, her movements direct, her eyes bright and her focus sharp. She moves through the work as if interrogating every choice, solving some puzzle set for her. 

Megan Payne is further removed, lost in the memories that the performance emerges from, perhaps. Her affect is dissociative and she seems to be performing inside of an invisible cocoon. It is interesting to observe this distance, which I have seen on dancers Payne has choreographed in the past — coming directly from the source, so to speak. 

Unable to articulate what Payne is looking for in this work, I have a strong sense of the effect that the search has had on her. There is a weight to this performance, a single-minded pursuit of something unseen, unknown. Perhaps the title, PLOW, alludes not just to the act of turning up the earth, but of the burden one bears in doing so. 

The mirror box, moved by the performers around the space throughout the event, sends light and distorted images back at the audience. It is an imposing, enigmatic and sometimes overwhelming scenic presence. The box’s radiant interior and flimsy construction become sinister as the performance grinds on with no real sense of what the thing even is. Is it a grain silo? Is it a mine elevator? Is it a UFO? 

Megan Payne sits in front of a foil wall playing a bass guitar while fellow performer Joy Davis crawls around the corner in a pile of dirt to join her.
Joy Davis and Megan Payne near the end of their PLOW performance. (Photo by Matt Cosper)

At the end, after the awkward pace of the work’s beginning spends itself in a frenetic battle between bodies and dirt, the piece gives us our most visceral and convincing answer. After all that digging, Payne and Davis find themselves back in the box, center stage, in the low warm light of lamps you might find at your country grandma’s house. 

Payne plays a simple rhythm on a bass guitar, and Davis is there, tending the light. A low thump like a heartbeat is the only sound, and as the light fades, the two women, faces dirty and breath just a little ragged, seem to have found some peace in, or at very least come to terms with, their experience of Home.

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