Meghann Wilkinson’s favorite moment in “The Better Half,” Lucky Plush Productions’ dance theater piece, has more than a touch of humility to it. She and fellow Lucky Plush dancer Tim Heck conceived a physical duet in which the two repeat a particular movement phrase five or six times. Eventually, the two dancers are obscured by darkness.
“It’s kind of a full meditative moment for me,” Wilkinson said. “There’s no light on us dancing, but you can still tell that we’re still involved with this physically challenging duet in the dark. That’s an exciting moment for me, just loving this movement that we’re have together, and not being lit, and knowing that we’re just sort of a texture on the stage.”
Julia Rhoads, the founding artistic director of the Chicago-based dance company, relishes including her dancers in the creative process. Allowing for personal exploration and improvisation within Lucky Plush has become something of a signature performer-centric philosophy of hers.
“They are so much a part of this finding process, and they bring so much to the work,” Rhoads said. “It’s a really fun, reciprocal relationship.”
The show itself was borne out of a new collaborative relationship between Rhoads and her longtime friend, “The Better Half” co-creator and co-director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig of the Chicago performing arts troupe 500 Clown.
Both creators think of the show as a hybrid of their experiences within their disciplines that successfully avoids tipping the scale in favor of dance or theater, instead drawing from the strengths of both.
Wilkinson, who has been with Lucky Plush for nine years, said she wholeheartedly embraces the new experiences that came along with the collaboration, seizing the opportunity to gain a new viewpoint on her approach to contemporary dance.
“We’ve had directing from both of these places, and the merging of their ideas has been so rich and so helpful to me as a performer to get more of this theater perspective on things,” she said. “That’s pretty fascinating to me because it feels more like acting terrain and that’s not a place where I’ve spent too much time.”
The complex emotions that are derived from relationships are the central themes running through every facet of “The Better Half.”
Although the show is an original production, Lucky Plush chose to use the 1944 noir film “Gaslight” as a springboard into the show’s perpetually shifting nature, which begins in appropriately meta-fashion with a group of actors gathering for roll call onstage.
Although the themes explored in “The Better Half” can seem intense, the show doesn’t shy away from humor, often mining laughter from the source material’s melodrama and the rigorous physical feats of the dancers.
“The humor and the comedy is a vehicle for delivering some of the more considered themes of the piece,” Danzig said. “I don’t think the themes and ideas are what’s funny. I think it’s that we have some incredibly amazing performers and funny material happening onstage. It’s not nonstop laughter, but humor is very important to Julia and I.”
Although the show is meant to be thought-provoking, the wit, improvisation and film-based source material present in “The Better Half” help communicate the show’s personal themes and make it accessible.
“I think in all of Lucky Plush’s work, one of our main goals is to not isolate the audience, which can happen a lot in contemporary dance,” Wilkinson said. “So I think a show like this, while not spoon-feeding the audience the story, gives everyone a window in.”
Nick DeSantis is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.