Drastic Action: Under the Skin

A choreographer grapples with her heritage

I’m still grappling with Aviva Geismar’s Line of Descent, trying to figure out why it made me so uncomfortable. Even though that is partly Geismar’s intent, the piece at times induces another kind of discomfort. In those moments, you feel the action drifting away from its core intent, falling into clichés or foolishness or unfulfilled images. You’re never quite sure when, seconds after causing you to be appalled, the choreographer expects you to laugh. Stylized behavior and “natural” behavior mate unnervingly.

Geismar’s company is called Drastic Action, and her subject is a big one. After interviewing those who, like her, are the children of Holocaust survivors, she decided to probe the impact of their upbringing—especially as regards safety, fear of being touched, and the burden of memory. Can one come to crave a degree of pain? The opening scene constructs a powerful image. Three women (Sophie Bortolussi, Alessandra Larson, and Miranda Lyon) are clustered on all fours, growling and nuzzling and snapping at one another. Behind them, tall Kathy Wasik attempts to keep smaller Cara Liguori from looking at them or moving toward them. Wasik, whom we identify as “mother,” binds one scarf after another around Liguori’s eyes. But something is amiss from a structural or directorial point of view. The distressed behavior of the mother-daughter pair is on such a naturalistic level of silent acting that we wonder why the two stick around; nothing seems to compel them to stay there, nor do we envision a destination—a path that brings them too close to danger. When the “beasts” separate them, we have to pause and think, “So that’s what they were afraid of?”

Alessandra Larson, Cara Liguori, Sophie Bortolussi and Kathy Wasik in Aviva Geismar’s Line of Descent
Steven Schreiber
Alessandra Larson, Cara Liguori, Sophie Bortolussi and Kathy Wasik in Aviva Geismar’s Line of Descent

Another scene that involves the fear of being touched begins confusingly with Larson, now in a new role, sandwiched between Liguori and Wasik. Liguori blinds Larson’s eyes with one hand, and with the other hand grasps her wrist and repeatedly forces her to reach out and try to touch Wasik. Larson’s arm is stiff, her fingers spread, and Wasik flinches every time that outstretched arm nears her. Geismar is trying, I think, to present fear of touching and fear of being touched in an indirect way, but we wonder too much about Liguori. Who is she and why is she doing this? This scene becomes more low-keyed as others get involved (“Is it okay to touch you here?”), and then it turns unpleasantly funny.

Throughout the piece, the talking is by either very relaxed or loud, shrill, and artificial. When someone says she’s too busy, the women all start chanting “busy, busy, busy” in unison, finally upending Larson as she utters a last, die-away “buuussy.” Then they manipulate her legs into ballet positions. Their high-intensity attitudinizing becomes irritating, when, for example, they move into dance formations while reciting old wives’ warnings and safety precautions (ending with the all-encompassing “Be very afraid.”). That intensity works best when they attack a task that’s clear both actually and metaphorically like scrubbing themselves fiercely with what look like sanding blocks. Beverly Redman is credited with vocal coaching and directorial consulting, but the issue of how to shape and direct Geismar’s potent material may have needed more working out at ground level.

The dancing, lit with subtle drama by Amanda K. Ringger and performed to the domineering rhythms of Annabelle Chvostek’s score, is big and thrashing, as if induced by a wind, or as if the women were trying to shake memories out of their systems—or out of one another.

Near the end, Geismar introduces a familiar postmodern trope: the performers break out of the dance to talk about its process. Larson says she already misses something they just did and can they do it again? They try to reprise the moment, but it becomes something different. Later, she wants to skip ahead and sits out the next passage until the others get to the place that interests her. Finally someone, maybe Wasik, says, “Remember when we were dancing, not talking? I miss that.” This device of Geismar’s is a smart way of expressing the uneasiness that the past can bequeath to the future, and I was expecting the 50-minute piece to end soon after that oddly poignant remark, but after an overly long blackout, the dancers reappear in a pile-up that evokes a trash heap or a mass grave, wielding canes and shoes and other vaudevillian paraphernalia to belt out a “soft-shoe” number about who’s got the worst pain.

In Geismar’s uneasy stylistic blend of the literal and the twice-removed, the natural and the theatrical, her often telling acts don’t resonate quite strongly enough with one another to reinforce the important questions she’s posing about intimacy, suspicion, and fear.

 
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