“I need some space.” How often have we heard-read-said those words? Space as in a room of one’s own, space in a crowded brain so we can grope toward meaning, space meaning temporary freedom from an overpowering relationship. With quiet authority and a gentle grasp, Hilary Easton’s new duet Light and Shade tackles the many facets of intimacy that the remark evokes.
Easton is a wise choreographer and one alert to civilization’s perils. Most often, she develops group pieces that involve ideas of considerable complexity, often incorporating text. Light and Shade, which she has been working on with Michael Ingle and Emily Pope-Blackman for a year, distills her sensitivity to the human condition into a study of a couple—not two people who’ve recently met through a dating service, but a man and woman who know (or think they know) everything about each other.
In the Baryshnikov Center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space, the 45-minute piece—sparingly and sensitively lit by Kathy Kaufmann, and punctuated by Mike Rugnetta’s fine, unobtrusively atmospheric score—begins with what might be a theatrical cliché: two dancers practicing moves, kibitzing as they go. Ingle and Pope-Blackman, standing side by side, begin with a “Ready?” and a minimal action of swaying, twisting, and leaning together, which gradually escalates into larger-scale dancing. They approach every move as if testing it out, all the while murmuring questions and directions to each other that are almost too quiet to be heard.
Madeleine Wallach has costumed the two in outfits that bridge dance and everyday life: Pope-Blackman wears a short, sleeveless dress over a long-sleeved leotard, and Ingle is in slacks and a short-sleeved shirt. And it quickly becomes clear that this is not one of those rehearsal-life vignettes; the steps and the conferring are metaphors for the daily negotiations involved in a marriage. Sometimes a bit of irritation creeps in: “That’s too far. OK, stop.” At one point, Ingle picks up Pope-Blackman’s arm and plays with it in a strangely disagreeable way. But they keep aggression at bay, and he tends to stroke his way into a complicated collaborative move, trying to find just the right place to grasp his partner before he swings her into the air. You begin to notice when, and how easily, the two slip into unison dancing, and how they drift apart.
In one passage, Ingle pursues his own athletic course back and forth at the rear, while Pope-Blackman tests the fourth wall, inching one foot across the invisible line that divides audience from performance. Subtly, at various moments, she surveys us, flirts with us. Yet, even when they’re separated by distance, if he falls, she does too, and even though Kaufmann accords them individual pools of light, they can easily fall into unison again.
Unease and hostility vie with what we’ve come to understand as love and tolerance of differences. The two may touch puffed out-chests, but they twist away from conflict; coming nose-to-nose, they then avert their faces (while a violinist in Rugnetta’s taped score goes crazy with his bow). And, inevitably they’re together again at the end, repeating some of their earliest moves, seeing us from a distance, as if we represent the world outside the cloister of their intimacy—the world they need to explore from time to time in order to refresh the small, intense one they share.
Pope-Blackman and Ingle perform Light and Shade marvelously. Nothing seems studied or strikes a false note. Easton’s choreography makes tricky, even virtuosic moves look both unusual and like heightened forms of something we understand in our own minds and bodies very well.
Amanda Loulaki’s I Am Saying Goodnight is not about keeping a close relationship alive or salvaging a seriously damaged one. The piece she showed at P.S.122 is unequivocably about loss and the rage that accompanies it. At one point, she draws clumsy whiskers on her face and raises clawed hands in our (or somebody’s) direction, but that’s benign compared to the rest of the images. Watching I Am Saying Goodnight is like watching people flay their souls in front of you.
Loulaki intermittently controls her seething subject matter with choreographic craftsmanship, even though it’s a tough battle (and rendered more difficult by the absence, due to injury, of a key member of the cast: Rebecca Brooks). How cool, you think at the outset, when lighting designer Jonathan Belcher projects the credits and the titles of the three sections on the floor at the audience’s feet and slides them into the distance, where they become smaller and smaller and disappear. Cool, as restrained or suave, is not a word I’d apply to anything else in this piece. Like Loulaki’s 2007 Delirium, it’s sensual, visceral, guttural. The intermittent sound score by Georgios Kontos (incorporating music by Greek recording artists Giannis Aggelakas and Nikos Veliotis) provides an aural abrasiveness. Still, chaos never quite breaks the bounds in the three parts Loulaki has named “Exhausted by self-imposed happiness now I am ready to be destroyed by you,” “I had no idea it was going to be this way,” and “I AM SAYING GOODNIGHT.”
Perhaps Brooks’s absence clouds apects of Loulaki’s intent, but, while I Am Saying Goodnight is sometimes baffling, its furious, purgative thrust is not. Pedro Osorio clearly represents one half of a deteriorating relationship, while Carolyn Hall and Rebecca Serrell Cyr (like Osorio, terrific longtime colleagues of Loulaki’s) could stand for loving friends as well as aspects of Loulaki’s character—She Who Was Deserted. It is Hall who reads a list of the body’s interior—its blood vessels, its organs—but it’s Loulaki who, in a dialogue with her own taped voice, says, “I love you so much that I would like to put my hands in your intestines.” Cyr and Osorio, partially disrobing as they go, pull their shirts up and over their heads and then—blinded by the fabric—lock necks and struggle together on the floor. Cyr whips Osorio with a length of theraband, Hall lashes one of P.S.122’s pillars with it, addressing the absent partner with such sentences as “Your hand, followed by your arm. . .rips out my stomach.”
Certain scenes sear the brain. Cyr duets with a two-foot skeleton—lying beside it, cuddling it as if it were a baby in need of soothing, but also holding it by the head and spinning the rest of it. She and Loulaki, stripped down to trunks, creep and slide over the floor—side by side like two exhausted animals. For a moment, when they sit back to back, Loulaki examines her fingernails (remembering feminine wiles? checking the growth of claws?). As the women advance on hands and knees, butts in the air, Cyr puts one hand over one of Loulaki’s; joined like this, they crawl right out the door of the performance space.
For what seems like a long time, Hall squats—feet together, arms outspread—trying to balance on a tiny spot of floor; later Osorio tries the same feat. But the relationship the piece is exploring has gone way beyond a balancing act. In a scene that comes later, Osorio dances, flailing his arms (later still he shakes himself like a mad dog), then calms down to speak quietly in Spanish to an imaginary person in front of him. The fact that he’s squatting suggests a gambit, as if the person he’s addressing were an argumentative, near-hysterical child to be managed. He brings up all the expected clichés of domestic meltdown: “Listen to me. Just listen. We have to talk.” He says that this isn’t her fault or his, that they are “civilized people.” Loulaki, who has entered—fully clad again and wearing wedgies—watches him silently and slowly pulls up her blouse to show him her breasts. Civilized? Is he kidding?
Loulaki’s protagonist may be saying good night in capital letters, but catharsis, while hinted at, is a hard-won thing. So is putting yourself back together when you feel you’ve been torn apart. I guess that’s what this fearless, ripped-up work is trying to tell us.