How wispy can a performance be and still amount to something? Experimental artists have been asking this question for nearly 50 years, but the young Irish duo Fitzgerald & Stapleton have their own peculiar reasons for pushing lessness to the limit.
The women are not interested in exposing the pillars of their art—like the first generation of minimalists in the ’60s—nor do they want to express the inadequacy of feeling in the face of overwhelming fact, a minimalism by emotional default that came to the fore in dance about a decade ago. Rather, they aim to capture the elusive in-between states of mind that the sheer force of art-making tends to efface or asphyxiate. The murmury, oceanic Smell of Want—the duo’s second work in two years to be commissioned by a New York theater, this time by the Abrons Arts Center for the year-long Imagine Ireland festival—is as ephemeral and bodily as a dream. Fitzgerald & Stapleton make the dance equivalent of mumblecore.
No amount of ingenious lighting and set design can disguise the punishing utility of Abrons’s upstairs cinder-block theater. But last week when we entered one by one to find a dancer waving us toward our seats with a confiding and distracted air, it didn’t occur to me for once that if some interactive performance artist really wanted to work the sadistic angle—poison-gas the audience, say—this bunker would be the perfect place.
As we got seated—in an L of benches, glitter-bedecked chairs, regular theater seats, and a lovers’ swing ringed by sheaves of bluegrass—the seven players engaged in ruminative motion. They clutched at the air as if to tear off a chunk, swung their spines into self-burrowing curves, lunged forward while unfurling their chests to the ceiling, lay on the floor like sea lions on the sand, and whimpered, panted, snorted like an engine—but rarely in unison or identically. The stage was a harmonious disarray of motion and stillness, collapse and effort.
What counted was not the precise actions but the edgeless spirit. The ebb and flow of mundane yet inscrutable activities suspended us in a state of pleasurable low-level anticipation for the whole hour.
The Smell of Want did occasionally pile on the randomness: bursts of declarative sentences and story that never fully entered the work’s warp and woof. Besides the minimalist urge, this tendency to loosen the links between elements has defined dance experimentation for the last half-century. But here, the center held.
The six women and one man were naked, which is nothing new in modern dance—blooming and fading with the decades. For example, when the U.S. invaded Iraq and experimental choreography came to feature extra doses of inertia, the dancers discarded clothes like it was 1969, except it signaled hysterical incapacity, not sexual liberation. The performers jiggled, shook, dragged themselves across the floor on their bellies, and screamed—the body swallowed up in a maw of fear. Smell changes the terms once again, with flesh that is neither proud nor wounded but—like a sleeper sensing the lover or cat lying beside her—blurrily conscious of being unconscious. The Smell of Want is eerily, achingly homey. It seems to arise from a slumbering body, with that breath and heat, and light out for the mind.