It’s logical that Richard Siegal would give the title As If Stranger to the work he premiered at Danspace last week. It completes a trilogy, whose other components are Stranger and Stranger/Stranger Report. The first premiered in Frankfurt in 2004, the second in Paris in 2006. Siegal, an American who danced with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt from 1997 until it folded in 2004, divides his time between those two European cities.
As If Stranger could have been named In the Dark. Images, movements, words, sounds, echoes, shadows, and flashes of light enter our consciousness as if snared momentarily in a net before they pass though its meshes, leaving only a fluid trail. Watching the piece feels like night-trawling in waters teeming with life, but only vaguely familiar. We are literally in the dark at first—and often thereafter. A black expanse of fabric enfolds the space on the south and west sides (we sit along the other two walls). In the dimness, a thick skein of bundled electric cables falls from the railing of the church balcony and branches out along the black-covered floor. It looks like an ancient, twisted tree trunk with unruly technological roots. A red light glows on each of two monitors and on a pair of mysterious white boxes at the foot of the sound equipment that nestles beside the cascade of cords.
A distant chirping of birds in Amaury Groc’s sound design has barely registered before it gives way to a shuddering blast of electronic noise. The monitors and a faint overhead spotlight show a man’s fingers hovering over an array of buttons and switches. Is he (Siegal) creating the din, or only appearing to? A legitimate question, since As If Stranger as a whole queries what is real and what is artifice, what is legible and what is blurry. Siegal’s sing-song voice is replaced by the clearer accents of a woman playing with words, spilling out variations of a thought. “Everyone comes to be clearer to someone” is one sentence (the text is surely Gertrude Stein’s). When the hands begin to move with finicky delicacy, the sound dies down to a dry crackling, and two low-watttage light bulbs in opposite corners blink on and off in a leisurely dialogue. One illuminates for a second at a time the only other live performer in As If Stranger: cellist Eric-Maria Couturier. He’s seated like a Buddha on the floor, his instrument lying in front of him. Not until lighting designer Antoine Seigneur-Guerrini sends three livid green beams down from the eastern balcony, do we discern Siegal, garbed in dark sweats and a hoodie, writhing and rolling amid the coils of wire, a mic picking up the sounds of his passage.
But as Siegal thrashes around the perimeter of the space, we have something else to consider—a large video projection of a man’s face. The image is distorted, as if caught askew by a convex mirror. The right side of his face is large—the forehead bulbous, the eye twitching—while the left side is shrunken and inexpressive. We’re given words (spoken, projected? I can’t remember) about deceit and detecting deceit. Siegal’s performance offers additional conundrums about reality and illusion. Half-heard words, or those addressed to us, suggest a split between Siegal as “himself” and Siegel the created persona . “I’d like to sing for you,” he announces, and lackadaisically intones banal, art-crit quotes from an exhibition catalogue, which we also see projected.
His dancing is both intensely elusive and vividly present. To soft taped piano music or abrasive rhythmic mayhem inflicted by Seigneur-Guerrini on his cello, Siegal cuts loose. Now he’s fully visible in bright light, wearing pants and a gray, knit shirt. Like many who’ve worked with Forsythe, he has absorbed that choreographer’s indirectness and slipperiness, but unlike those who mix shards of Forsythian style with balletic virtuosity, he makes everything he does seem like personal utterance. He shows you the rhythms of thought—the pauses, the pounces, the smooth elisions. Every part of his body is subtly, silkily at variance with every other part, and his joints seem to bend in ways not accessible to the rest of us. He leads a gesture not with his fingers but with the backs of his wrists or his elbows. Sometimes, he seems to be accommodating his body to narrow slits in space. The marvelous ease with which he undertakes complexity contrasts with the grunts and groaning breaths that he begins to emit.
There is never only one thing to take in. Red neon letters slide around a corner and are swallowed by a black void. “Part of it may also be part of something else. . . .” A taped voice and projected words proceed in lockstep. We hear the names of writers gabbled out at top speed—unlikely ones like Rafael Sabatini and Clarence Day, Jr. scattered among members of the pantheon like John Donne. Philip Bussmann’s grainy video images by flash on and off the west “wall” too rapidly to grasp, and a fountain of words spurts up and disappears. While Siegal crawls along next to that black surface, white sentences rush close to the floor in the opposite direction, like a down escalator he’s trying to ascend.
Just before the end of this amazing creation, a jerky, slight blurred video materializes—its homemade-looking clumsiness at variance with its technical wizardry. In it, Siegal, miniaturized and visible only from the waist up, appears to be jerkily molding letters out of some substance we can’t see. We read them with difficulty as they ooze up—crooked and of different sizes— in front of him. When each few words are completed, he lifts them as if they’re on a tray, and they float higher to make room for those to come. This is what he has written: “Throw not away the hero in your soul.” A thought in the process of shedding ambiguity. When 55 minutes are up, Siegal matter-of-factly picks up two joined cables and unplugs them. The lights go out.
Sometimes darkness reveals as much as it conceals, and being “in the dark” brings us to the brink of knowledge.