Theater archives

Life in the Shadows


Noémie Lafrance’s site-specific Descent, which led spectators down a narrow oval stairwell in the City Court Building’s clock tower, entranced audiences in 2002 and again last year. Her even more ambitious new Noir (a co-presentation by Danspace Project and the 2004 Whitney Biennial) pens us four to a car (25-plus vehicles may be involved) on the fifth floor of a Lower East Side parking garage; from our seats, we scrutinize the comings and goings of 10 characters who might have stepped out of a noir film of the 1940s. Thomas Dunn’s lighting for the dark, cavernous space comes mainly from two giant floodlights, tiny lamps in front of each car, and, at one point, a pair of headlights; shadows render the transactions even more furtive. Our car rocks very slightly at times. The subway? The passage of dancers? Vibrations from Brooks Williams’s score (the clank and roar of engines, sometimes eerily musicalized, on car radios)? Feels like a good place to get killed.

In fact, one of the first images we see is a man crumpling over, lurching from one car hood to another for support. Lafrance establishes right away that there’s no single narrative, only images that ignite possible stories in our brains. Toward the end, as if to confirm this, we hear snatches of dialogue from such films as Gilda, The Big Sleep, Mildred Pierce. Men in trench coats and fedoras walk or race past, stopping to stare over their shoulders, ducking behind cars. One hides a suitcase in somebody’s trunk; it will be stolen several times—once at gunpoint. The women are all glamorous: the Jean Harlow blonde in the white dress, the beauty in a slinky black outfit that bares one leg, the Joan Crawford type in a fur jacket and hat who walks and walks, the broad who first appears escorting a man on crutches and later loses a heel as she flees an unseen pursuer, the lady who runs to hold hands and exchange whispers with a guy before hurrying away. Purses swing, heels click on the pavement, cigarettes are lit, car doors slam. A woman threatens a man with a gun; he takes it away and bends her back into a kiss.

Over the course of the dance, overcoats are doffed, tuxes donned; the women reappear in gray suits, black dresses, white gowns. Although we see two men grapple, Lafrance, after her provocative beginning, focuses more and more on mixed couples. Sometimes all five pairs move in loose unison. Their encounters approach ballroom dancing, but involve combative embraces. I could wish the pulling and pushing, lifting and twining looked realer—less like “choreography,” in which every lift has to be anticipated (and helped) by the liftee. The many pas de deux passages employ a similar vocabulary and dynamics: men wheeling women over their backs, women doing the same to men. This cavil aside, Noir tweaks our sensibilities in provocative ways. We voyeurs sit cramped in our cars, half hoping these larger-than-life people don’t see us and haul us out to be kissed or shot.

Paul Matteson assembled the sterling group of friends who work with him in David Dorfman’s company to put on a show featuring emotionally invested performing and breakneck dancing. The subject of Joseph Poulson’s Rustytime is the power of names. While Poulson hurls himself around, runs and dodges, balances warily on one leg, and recites “Joe” and various other nicknames, Heather McArdle throws at him the kind of epithets bullying kids pin on their classmates. Face to the floor, he echoes her—stoic about the cruelty, questioning some of it: “Piggy?!”

Step Touch, by Matteson and Jennifer Nugent, is the kind of “this is our relationship” duet that makes some audience members wince in empathy. While cellist Christopher Lancaster and pianist Allison Leyton-Brown play their score from the side of the stage, Matteson and Nugent go from a slow ballroom dance to a union prone to cracking at the seams. Yes, she can carry him like a baby, and, looking blissful, she can lean out and fly her arms while he supports her. But what about those limbs popping out in all directions and those pushy leaps that go nowhere? How about the way the two advance as if to embrace, and miss each other? As they jockey, more and more at cross-purposes, so does the music. At the end, they’re jumping and counting, while Lancaster and Leyton-Brown go into a seemingly endless rave-up. Jumping and counting and falling out of the air. Falling out of the air and landing on each other. Over and over. Still counting. No knockout.

Matteson is a wonderfully earnest and honest performer. Peter Schmitz’s I Simply Live Now fits him like a skin. Here his dancing is both full-out and infirm, straining for balance, but never stopping. This man can’t get enough of space and the feel of air moving past his body. But sometimes he looks like a scarecrow swinging in the wind. His dancing turns out to symbolize a struggle to live. The sentences Matteson utters refer to the words of others: “Last month, Ursula said . . . ” or “According to Quentin . . . ” The man they speak of is dying. It’s almost too literal to see him take up crutches, but his dance with them confirms the character’s brave belief: This degeneration is “a fantastic experience.”