“It’s better to step the pattern of your parent’s living room carpet,” says one performer to two colleagues, and very carefully they all do so. “It’s better,” says another, “to lick your right nipple.” The three struggle gamely to comply. If you’re the sort of dancegoer who loves watching wily performers cope with on-the-spot instructions, then you’d relish—as I did—German choreographer Thomas Lehmen’s It is better to. . . performed by John Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre.
Scott, an adventurous choreographer himself, brought none of his own works from Dublin to PS 122 this time, but paired Lehmen’s piece with RrrrKILLKILLKILL. . .to infinity (MAKE IT LOOK REAL) by New Yorker Chris Yon and offered himself as a performer in both. When It is better to. . . begins, he’s sitting on a chair at the back of the space, chatting quietly with Marc Rees, Patrick Michael Stewart, and Cheryl Therrien. They’re an interesting lot. Scott is a big, heavy-set man who’s surprisingly fast on his feet. Rees has a strong, resilient, lived-in body, while tall, reedy Stewart looks like a teenager (but clearly isn’t). Therrien, a former member of Merce Cunningham’s company can abandon her serenity and delicate attack when called upon to lose control, and laughs out loud as she and Rees attempt to teach each other their favorite positions for sex.
Fortunately the instructions, many of which the engaging performers have written on their arms, are not confined to witty, absurd, or unusual tasks. One “it’s better to” may involve trying to follow a colleague as he or she improvises a solo or perform a particular pre-choreographed “cycle.” Also, the cleverly chosen and arranged commands generate repetitions and unison moments. In other words, there’s some real dancing here.
Lehmen has given the performers considerable freedom in terms of deciding on an order for the statements, and the creative verve and humor of the four pull the audience in PS 122’s intimate space into a good game. Between the oblique spoken command and its enactment we have a second or two to envision the result. How will Scott simulate labor? Very noisily.
For Yon’s piece, a band of silver “rrrrrrrr”s runs around the walls of the space. The rest of the set consists of a Toastmaster (Philip Connaughton), who sits on a high platform behind a table with a toaster sitting on it. Throughout RrrrKILLKILLKILL, he makes toast, stacking the pieces in towers. By the end of the work, the good smell of hot bread has filled the theater.
The taped score by Justin Jones/dog pound sound contains snatches of song and instrumental music. abetted by the whir, crash, and clink of objects such as wine glasses, office supplies, drill bits, and a bicycle. The sounds are carefully keyed to the actions and disruptions of the three performers: Scott, plus New York dancers Jeanine Durning and Taryn Griggs. All of them wear identical black suits stitched in white, the jackets open and flapping over white shirts stitched in black. A beat pounds out, and Durning and Griggs dance to it—lurching and swinging their arms and legs around in perfect unison. When Scott enters and starts thrashing and jumping, they restrain him.
Who are these people? Why do they suddenly open their mouths at a blast of noise? Why do they cast suspicious looks at one another? Why does a window at the back suddenly get framed in light (by lighting wizard Chloe Z Brown). Why is a dark, honey-sweet male voice singing, “I went down to St. James Infirmary. . . “?
Yon seems to be making a complicated absurdist proposition. What if moments from the past and the future were to fuse in the present? Between bouts of dancing, each of the three performers gets a chance to spew a collage of memories and predictions. Griggs describes what this place we’re in may be like 60 years from now, a Christmas party at which she’s 10-years old, and a time when bears and wolves (“grrr”) are at large. Scott falls and rolls over and over, describing his five-year-old self rolling down a hill of wet grass; somehow the Taj Mahal gets mixed into his narrative. Durning, the fastest talker of all, veers from herself at seven to her 60-year-old self; in 2067 this is still a living room and then there’s this party in 1977. . . .At one point, the choreographer enters and drags her to a new spot (in time?).
Sometimes the three act like kids in a haunted house, sneaking around, freezing at sudden sounds. Music intensifies their panic. Their behavior also refers to the present situation. “I’ll be right back,” Scott announces and walks out the door. A few seconds later, he returns and says to the women, “Cover for me!” and leaves again. They try to figure out what to do. A mike descends. Scott says he can sing and speak simultaneously. He can no more do this (without electronic help) than truly weld past and present. Although he can sing “St. James Infirmary” and whistle it (or is that on tape?), while squeaky recorded voices blunder through it, and we can notice that we’re seeing movements we saw a while ago when maybe we could envision that we’d see them again, we’re still very much sitting right here and now in PS 122 being entertained by some smart, nutty people on an equally smart, equally nutty quest.