More Than a Car Wreck

Striking terror into the hearts of watchers

Those who seek out dance in New York's downtown venues may remember Phillip Adams. A slightly fleshy, soft-muscled Australian fellow as spry mentally as he was physically, he performed in works by Bebe Miller, Sara Rudner, Irene Hultman, Donna Uchizono, and others. His persona was usually benign.

There's nothing benign about Adams's 1999 Amplification, a work he choreographed for BalletLab, his Melbourne company. As I was leaving P.S. 122, someone asked me if I'd enjoyed the work. She definitely used an inappropriate verb. I didn't "enjoy" Amplification, but I was impressed.

Adams's idea, as stated in the program, has to do with a car accident as "a metaphor for mental/physical disassociation." Could we please forget this explanation? Although Adams did research in hospitals and morgues, the piece seems mostly to be about the horrors people perpetrate on one another in an age of terrorism, and the moments of tenderness that are unsettling because they're so rare, or so skewed.

Amplification by Melbourne’s BalletLab
photo: Jeff Busby
Amplification by Melbourne’s BalletLab

Six big hanging silver lamps (Andrew Livingston, lighting designer) shed a harsh glare when necessary. Violet fluorescent tubes create an eerier light, and sudden flashes erupt. Lynton Carr's score (he plays the turntables live) emits industrial horror and occasional stifled traces of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. At one point the excellent dancers (Joanne White, Carlee Mellow, Brooke Stamp, Ryan Lowe, and Tim Harvey) cast blood-red shadows on the back wall. On and off throughout the dance, people are grabbed and black bags are put over their heads. And throughout, in many different ways, the two men and three women manipulate one another viciously, working a victim's body like kids wrangling over a doll. Individuals twist and wrench themselves around, hands behind their backs as if tied. In one of the most powerfully shocking scenes, Harvey and Stamp jam tape cassettes into the mouths of White and Lowe, who sit slumped on chairs, and start pulling the tapes out—walking around and around the seated figures until they've trapped them in a snarled cat's cradle. Toward the end of this "interrogation," they scrutinize parts of the brown acetate as if they could read the confessions off them. In another scene, two of the women lift and turn and shove the naked Harvey with their feet until they get him into a big wooden box; Stamp gets into the box too for a while, fondling him. Eventually the women close the lid.

They enact rituals of death. Three of them unzip two body bags and elaborately but matter-of-factly extract the "corpses," lay them out on white sheets, and swaddle them—adjusting limbs and turning heads when necessary. Their coolness here is only a little more clinical than their demeanor when brutalizing or battling someone.

By the time they pull model cars across the stage on cords, we've come so far from a highway crash that there's no returning to that theme. In the end, naked bodies gradually pile up. Stamp, the last to arrive, arranges them gently—even while she is finding room for herself beneath this arm, across those hips. Although the people are unhooded, and apparently dead or dying, the image is a familiar one. It's Abu Ghraib.

 
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