Theater archives

Dancing in the Dark


I’m not heavily into trend-spotting, but I do keep my eyes open and ear to the ground. So a few seconds after I enter the Kitchen to see DD Dorvillier’s Nottthing Is Importanttt (except maybe subversive orthography), I realize that the basic black box theater look is out—so yesterday in its non invasive versatility. In recent years, Dorvillier, like Sarah Michelson, John Jasperse, Trajal Harrell, Luciana Achugar, and others, has become interested in reconfiguring a given theater space and making the borders between performers and spectators more porous.

The altered perspective can be as simple as arranging the seating in a different formation, as Dorvillier did in her 2002 Dressed for Floating at Danspace, or as elaborate as the construction that transforms the Kitchen for Nottthing. Dorvillier, who in the past snipped apart, scrambled, and recombined various narratives in her pieces, wants to transform—at any rate, subvert—our ways of apprehending form and motion.

Dorvillier is the second choreographer in the past few months (Koosil-ja is the other) who has mentioned the influence of postructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari on her ideas. At, she proposes that “[t]heir nomadic thinking perceptively challenges traditional notions of order, proposing a synthesis of practice, perception, and information in its place.”

We spectators are jolted from our habitual role from the outset, when we’re told to hand over our coats and bags to attendants just inside the door. Then there’s the theater, looking not at all like itself. The risers don’t look the way they usually do, and there are no chairs. Only 56 people can be accommodated. And we face a squarish white platform that, although below us, is elevated maybe five feet above the usual floor. It’s backed by a white screen just its size. In curious contrast to this pristine space are the red velvet curtains to the side and behind us and the chandelier hanging above us. We’re on a grand stage, while before us lies what might be a photographer’s studio, which Thomas Dunn lights accordingly.

It’s treated like a studio too. After we’ve watched the empty space and listened to Zeena Parkins’s initially quiet, spare score for a while, performers in shabby gray work clothes appear on the platform and strike various poses. Each one is baring a body part— forearm, calf, neck. . . . After a while they move into other posess and reveal something else—lifting a sweater to show ribs, taking off a sock, pushing up a sleeve, pulling down pants. The pace quickens a little. They slide into pedestrian unison or near unison movement—crawling, sitting, bending over. Parkins sounds increase in volume. Mooings, buzzings. I think the back wall is miked.

When everyone (Danielle Goldman, Martin Lanz Landazari, Alejandra Martorell, Andrea Baurer, Paul Neuninger, Mina Nishimura, Peter Sciscioli, Otto Ramstad, and Elizabeth Ward) begins to reach out for and reel in imaginary lengths of wire or rope, I think back to the mysterious black snake of maybe electric wire that was tossed across the stage as a prelude to the action. Eventually they hurl at the back wall—and at us—whatever they’ve grabbed. This ends the first part of Nottthing (subtitled a suite of three conditions).

Taking stock: Bright light. Almost no motion. Rearrangements of bodies in a given space. Selective revealing of those bodies.

Part 2: a confusingly wacky movie, Hamma Schwein G’Habt (We Got Lucky). The visual field flattens. There are two actors: Dorvillier as Santa Claus and Jon Jernquist as a Paul Bunyanesque woodman. Santa wields a sledgehammer to destroy chairs and a lamp in this very theater. The din is terrific. The not so jolly old elf ends up in the woods, frantically burrowing head first into the ground, legs kicking. The lumberjack swings an axe to split wood and fell trees. Creation versus destruction. Parkins’s music is here too—sour-sweet horns, rasping noises.

Part 3. Now we understand why the white stage seems to fill only half the depth of the usual Kitchen performance area. Behind it are four rows of benches, two on either side of a wide aisle. We don’t see this, however. We’re led, one or two at a time, into an almost pitch-black place and guided to a seat. You’ve perhaps guessed what happens next. From a bright space with very little movement, we’ve moved to a dark one with a lot of movement. Dancers race and thud around between us and behind us. Then they’re quiet for a while, so that when they start up again it’s a small shock. Just as I think I’m beginning to make out shapes in the gloom, it gets darker. Velvet black. I tell myself I’m not scared.

At some point, the blackness turns dark gray, and we can make out the dancers, lined up, holding one of their number overhead like pallbearers. Then it’s dark again. Noise, the wind of running bodies. When the piece ends, and a small amount of light allows up to get up and make our way out, I notice rows of what look like little hanging lamps overhead. They never go on.

Taking stock 2. I remember past experiments that played on audience expectation. In 1966, in the last part of Twyla Tharp’s Re-Moves at Judson Church, the audience was seated around three sides of an immense white box; as the dancers traveled around the box, no one could see them the entire time, and at the end they went inside the box and rehearsed their next dance, and no one could see them at all. I seem to remember Dan Wagoner’s company in the 1970s, also at Judson, performing the brief last movement of a piece in the dark. Those choreographers were fairly playful about the games they played with our heads.

Dorvillier’s very smart and very interesting, and I’m glad she’s pondering issues of space, form, and perception. Nottthing is Importanttt might be quite important in the development of her work. But at times I did feel strangely like a lab rat in a shiny maze, realizing that a bit of comforting cheese might not be in the cards.

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