Dirty Work, 33 Fainting Spells’ latest production, opens Thursday for an extended run at the Performing Garage. Set and costume designer Nina Moser has likened her task to that of organizing an ashtray. Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson, founders and co-directors of the Seattle-based dance theater company, find the comparison entirely apt. Their piece carefully arranges the detritus of performance and everyday life to craft a collage that is by turns hilarious, cringe-inducing, and mesmerizing. “You may not find beauty in an organized ashtray,” Dayna explains, “but there is order in the act.”
Dirty Work revels in this messy netherworld, which Hanson and Hanson—who are not related—call “the perilous junction between the sacred and the profane.” Employing school-issue record players, retractable projection screens, a cheap microphone, and a ’70s-era cassette recorder, the piece exalts the scratchy, squeaky appeal of the low-fi, an effect amplified by the dancers’ frequent noisy shuffling through piles of empty Tab cans. In their original conception, Hanson and Hanson had hoped to include high-tech, rear-screen video projection, but, says Gaelen, “it lacked the resonance to carry qualities of nostalgia.” They noticed a used projection screen that had been abandoned in their studio. “It was just sitting there, with a tear in it, for months,” Dayna says, “and we realized this ‘body’ with ‘legs’ had an animated presence a rear-screen setup could never have. Our set pieces and costumes are really just tag-sale items—things that nobody wanted. It comes down to finding something beautiful, even in dirtiness.”
In recent years their creative process has become gradually more akin to that of the common crow. “We just collect things,” Gaelen says. Dayna adds, “We’ve gone at it from the preconceived-narrative angle before, but this way the connections are much more liberated. We just leave it wide open and watch the discrete pieces assert their own relationships.” The shiny bits lining this particular nest include fragments of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer Interlude, Anton Chekhov’s Swansong, and John Osborne’s The Entertainer, all of which share themes of the washed-up, wrung-out performer. “We certainly didn’t set out to make a piece that commented on performance from a cynical, jaded place,” Dayna says. But as with the cavalcade of well-worn media tools, the myriad show-business references simply insisted on participating.
“The intersection where performance meets real life is always an interesting zone,” Dayna says. The contrasts and ambiguities therein, Gaelen adds, “necessarily procreate a tension.” Indeed, as the three performers (Hanson, Hanson, and collaborator Peggy Piacenza) slip tattered tutus over street clothes and don wigs, a nurse cap, sunglasses, and an Afghan blanket, the line between backstage and onstage fades to invisible. Witness: an old vaudevillian waxing morose about death and dirt; a ballerina with aching feet longing for lost love; a television pop psychologist guzzling beer and bingeing on doughnuts until her next show. This manic unmasking throws the act of performance itself into question, and the audience is forced to take a more active role in the drama. “The overall effect is not one of hope,” Dayna laughs, “but we hope our characters inspire a matrix of pity and affection.”
Although 33 Fainting Spells has brought various pieces to New York, this run at the Wooster Group’s home is a particular honor for Hanson and Hanson. Gaelen says, “Being invited by other artists to perform in their space is really different for us—especially to be invited by a company that has had such an influence on us and on modern theater globally.” Dayna notes that the space itself is particularly suited to Dirty Work, which “has small proportions and contains much more theater than our past work. There’s more text than ever, there’s video, there’s low-tech audio—it really needs the intimacy of the Performing Garage.”