It isn’t often that you turn around in your theater seat to scan the audience and find that everyone’s dressed alike. When the performers in Luis Lara Malvacías’s There is no Such Thing stare out at us, they must see only heads rising out of a sea of red-and-white checked ponchos. We are, in effect, hiding in plain sight, a point mentioned before the event began, when we arriving spectators are costumed in the lobby and led onto the stage to engage in brief one-on-one talks with four of the performers.
Beside mildly eroding the distinction between watching and participating (the piece ends when the members of the cast wheel out the racks some of us have hung our coats on and call us by name to retrieve them), Malvacías dispenses themes of struggle and hiding in episodes that take the form of little games. In the beginning, Jocelyn Evans, Nathalie Dessner, Marcel Dou, Kate Martel, and Jeremy Nelson, stand close to the first row of seats and size us up while trying to maintain their balance on what look like soft black valises, but which, miked, squeak when stepped on.
The choreographer is also a gifted designer, and for There is no Such Thing, he has created an elaborate playground. Only some elements seem crucial to the action, but the whole effect is beguiling. The open-sided wood and-string cabinets of shelves—two on each side—hold objects used in the piece. The tall structures made of wood and vertically stretched strings-lined up across the back of the stage—serve primarily to cage lights, although at one point, the performers wrench a few ropes loose and ensnare themselves in a cat’s cradle gone terribly wrong.
Malvacías doesn’t aim for linear development, events do, however, refer to or echo one another. It’s a pleasure occasionally to see a work in which art announces itself as smart, imaginative play, with no earth shattering emotions or vexing social issues on view. We can tell we’re going to have a happy experience when an immense slide of a tomato is projected, along with the news that this is “the only fresh thing” we’re going to see tonight (how ironic is that?). At the end, after a portentous build-up mentioning Chekhov, the tomato reference is brought back: A small ripe one splats down almost unnoticeably from above (are the Gods of Theater displeased?).
Malvacías investigates “struggle” in terms of witty tasks. Passing good-sized red balls from mouth to mouth and books from hand to hand, the dancers tumble forward in a seething mass. Saying phrases like “I know” becomes an exercise in varying intonations that get wilder and wilder. A sport based on tossing big bundles around escalates in speed. Evans, wearing red high heels, struggles to negotiate some choreography while wielding a huge bouquet of the large plaid, plastic satchels that figure in the piece. The dance passages—involving interesting variants of big jumps of all kinds, rolling on the floor, one-armed handstands, and cryptic gestures—have the air of group chess matches. In one repeated sequence, everyone is doing a different phrase of movement, paying careful attention to the pattern in space that the steps trace (knight to queen’s pawn). There’s also a hilarious spelling bee, in which total ignorance reigns.
The notion of hiding or concealment—stated at the outset in wary, shielding gestures—comes in for only a little less attention than the struggling. Lara folds a screen, maybe four feet tall, into a standing tube, and Nelson and Dou repeatedly hoist Dessner and dump her into it (she crawls out a hole in one panel). Now wearing blond wigs and red dresses, Dessner and Martel emerge from two plaid bags that the men have been dragging around. At the end, all are hiding inside bags; each time they pop their heads out, they’re wearing different masks. In a sense, aren’t performers always engaged in some kind of concealment in front of an audience? To knock this point home, Lara denies us the programs that identify these five until close to the end of the piece, when sheets of paper flutter down on us and we have to grab for them.
Ivo Boll’s music and the lighting devised by David Tirosh and Malvacías contribute to the defiantly non-linear structure of Lara’s work. The performers—changing costumes (by Lara, of course) several times during the evening, dancing to beat the band (what a marvel Nelson is!), vocalizing, hefting props—attack events like the heroic good sports they must be; they’ve barely time to mop off the sweat from one eccentric ordeal before plunging into the next. There is no Such Thing is one misleading title!