By now, it's quite a familiar fact that '50s families in heartland America were not always happy places to be. Fathers were often absent from the home, mothers too-coercively present, children expected to run, play and look nice, just like Dick and Jane. This is the territory somewhat tentatively explored by playwright-dancer Doug Cooney in his 1991 solo work, "Dancing Like My Father," which came to Highways in Santa Monica on the weekend.
Cooney alternates small danced passages and somewhat improvisatory monologues delivered with an earnest musing quality. Slides of family photos prompt stories about his large Catholic family of high achievers, headed by a neurosurgeon father, who was--almost inevitably--a mystery to his son. In a postural gesture that could symbolize many a child's resentment of parents, Cooney demonstrates the way his father stood--in a severe slump--and then the ramrod straight stance he demanded of his children.
It's not a very startling tale; there are some repressions and meannesses that fester, like the treatment of Cooney's intelligent, much-curtailed mother. He admits once that forgiveness has not arrived, but a sense of calm and control suffuses his dancing nonetheless. He elegantly jitterbugs while describing his parents' less-than-ideal wedding and tap-dances when he relives his mother's small rebellions. He repeats a bouncing, balancing and falling move as he does his "dance of approval"--the dance, he says, that never ends.
But mostly, his gestures and movement phrases are marked by buoyant, free-flowing circling and scooping, as if he were waltzing and swimming at the same time. Or floating, as it were, on the surface of potentially deep, yet surprisingly still waters.