Theater archives

Feasting on Beauty


In my dream, I’m lying on a silky couch, and someone is dripping honey into my mouth. I like it very much. For a while. It’s like that with certain kinds of beauty too. An artist can easily become intoxicated by the act of creation and risk turning a feast into a surfeit.

Gina Gibney’s The Distance Between Us is flat-out gorgeous, and for a long time I watched it with deep satisfaction. Yet at some point, I became weary—wishing for change or wanting the piece to come to a conclusion.

Distance, like Gibney’s 2005 Unbounded, occurs in a place of beauty, inhabited by strong, beautiful women. The slender hanging poles and cross-pieces of Lex Liang’s set create a diagonal corridor—wider at one end—across the stage. Two large panels, edged with curious, squiggly black designs, hang from its rear supports. In Kathy Kaufmann’s poetic lighting, these hangings become transparent—revealing another corridor behind them and a “sky” that passes through phases of blue, greeny-gold, red, and more.

Ryan Lott’s score occasionally challenges the serenity of the setting . During one passage near the beginning of the piece, quiet keyboard notes are gradually swamped by a painfully staticky chugging, which mercifully fades again as the sounds of stringed instruments and cymbals filter in. Sweet passages develop dark niches. What sounds like a child’s voice reiterates the same unintelligible few words as if from the bottom of a well. Several times the music stops, then starts again in a completely different mood.

The choreography stops and starts too, sometimes punctuated by blackouts, but its overall feeling remains the same. Perhaps the occasional violence in the music represents an ignorable world outside this utopia, as well as the six dancers’ suppressed inner dissonances. Naoko Nagata’s black-and-white costumes—striped, dotted, or checked in various ways—presents them both as individuals and as members of a tribe.

The solo with which Courtney Drasner begins the dance is instantly enthralling. Drasner is tall, slender, lovely. She sweeps the air as she moves, her long hair lashing about her as her body swings and her legs reach out. Bold and powerful though she is, she also radiates a peaceful curiosity. Kristy Kuhn, who’s been watching, joins Drasner in the rear corridor. Their gentle, edgy touching leads you to think they’re just beginning to move into intimacy. But soon they come forward to dance in unison and canon and, as the music becomes more pressured, to lift each other. Their dancing—juicy, earthy, springy, rolling to the floor and spiraling up again—builds on what Drasner has established.

Lifts like these—never manipulative— can convey many things: trust, daring, rapture, playfulness, etc. We don’t watch them the way we might watch a contact improvisation duet whose entire subject is how one person can lever another off the ground, yielding to and rebounding from the weight of a colleague’s body. As Drasner and Kuhn take turns vaulting onto each other in imaginative ways, it’s hard to infuse the movements with the nuanced emotions the situation seems to call for. You feel that lifting and plunging into lifts is something these two just do—a way of life in this peaceable kingdom. They don’t have to react, pause, plan; one lift generates another.

Feelings, however, do enter the women’s adventures together. When Janessa Clark joins them and then appropriates Kuhn, Drasner, seemingly unruffled, moves away to sleep. But after a while, she climbs the tall ladderback of one of two chairs and hangs over it. These women plus Jenni Hong, Jill Frere, and Hannah Seidel come and go, dancing in unison, in contrapuntal groups, and in pairs where lifting is the main means of communication. In one particularly fine section, Clark subtly takes on the role of teacher, demonstrating, watching two couples, and trying to entice Drasner to join her.

The movement is, as I’ve said, lovely. Whatever shapes the woman fall into, the impetus always seems to be a swing or a throw. Their dancing makes me feel easy in my own body, even in the extremely uncomfortable seats of the Ailey Citigroup Theater. In her company’s Domestic Violence Project, Gibney has done pioneering work with traumatized women through dance. The uplifting qualities in The Distance Between Us surely mirror those that are stressed in that project: self-confidence, trust of others who are worthy, freedom, strength, and resilience.

But there is another quality that I miss in the piece. Gibney rarely lets us see decision-making. It’s as if the rich dancing and the repeated athletic contact between the women run away with her, become self-perpetuating. There’s a moment just before the end when Drasner walks slowly backward in the rear corridor of light and then suddenly and swiftly moves forward on the same path and leaves the stage. The simplicity and purposefulness are arresting. And when the women re-enter in bright light and begin frisking together, I realize that the end is near and I’ve too seldom seen them thinking and watched those thoughts change their rhythms and the scale of their gestures.