In its twenty-three year history, Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater has successfully avoided the pitfall of many small companies that present new and cutting edge works just to be different, controversial, or shocking. Every production I have seen there has been an enlightening experience with high production values and usually unlike anything you would see elsewhere. Their recent "Other Voices" run of choreographer Killian Manning’s The Year of Empty Wine Bottles is an outstanding example of Manbites’ willingness to walk/dance a theatrical tightrope with excellent results, although regrettably to a shamefully sparse audience.
As the title indicates, this was an evening about wine in all its colors, its effects on yourself and your relationships, and its long history as an integral part of most cultures. As we settled into our seats the music was playing a variety of songs about the noble grape while we looked at the more than 7,000 wine corks lining the back wall. The initial audience was reduced by nine since all of the cast members were double agents until they suddenly began talking to the "civilians" and then took the stage.
The Year of Empty Wine Bottles is broken up into twelve distinct scenes or vignettes, each named for either a characteristic of wine or the mixture of positive and negative results from the varying levels of use. This is dance-theater with the definite emphasis on dance, sometimes with less than stellar results for the acting component. It is choreographer/writer/director Killian Manning’s baby, and she solos in one of the most affecting sections where she peers through a picture frame, constantly moving a wine bottle around while telling a fascinating story of her father’s metamorphosis from teetotaler to lover of the grape. There were some wonderful solo dance numbers by Nicola Bullock, Sarah Adams, and Elisabeth Dinkins that demonstrated the performers’ athletic and graceful movement and Manning’s choreographic creativity. Less successful were some of the early ensemble pieces, especially the scene “Nectar of the Gods,” where it felt like a cross between an improv class and something out of Jesus Christ Superstar.
From Greek tragedy to simulated orgies to elegant dinner parties, this was a fast-paced and eclectic collection, a well-constructed marriage of dance, music, drama and even a bit of singing for a cast that ranged from below drinking age to well into their forties. There was a nice combination of original music by Kit Weinert as well as some tastefully selected canned music. The cast gave off an aura of having worked together for years with an innate synchronized feel. It’s not easy to compete with the likes of the American Dance Festival in a mega-venue just blocks away, yet Manbites Dog has again found a niche and filled it with great skill and passion.