Loons are mysterious creatures: famously elusive, with cries that sound eerily human. Mythologized by everyone from Scandinavian villagers to the Chippewa to Henry David Thoreau, loons remind us of the human desire to impose meaning on the chaos and abstraction of the natural universe. This longing is, more or less, the subject of The Loon, an intriguing, unfinished-feeling new piece by dance-theater company Witness Relocation now playing at Abrons Arts Center.
Created by artistic director Dan Safer, performer Robert M. Johanson, and an ensemble of dancers, The Loon unfolds on two parallel tracks. Johanson, wearing a three-piece suit, delivers a lecture on a series of existential subjects, inviting us to ponder our subjective relationships to the illusions of time and space. Matter, he reminds us, seems smooth but is composed of individual atoms; the sun only appears to revolve around the Earth; time only feels like it’s moving forward. Humans desperately want the universe to be a meaningful place, he suggests, pondering the famous 1977 Golden Record, containing samples of world languages, which was launched into space in an effort to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Eventually, as advertised, Johanson meditates on the habits and cultural significance of the loon. A screen upstage displays loosely thematic projections: planets turning, astrological symbols, loons paddling through a pond.
Meanwhile, a troupe of dancers wearing vaguely goth ensembles — sheer black, fishnet — moves in and out of the mostly empty space. Sometimes there are just two of them, engaged in graceful, stylized combat. Other times we see seven or eight dancers, whirling chaotically, perched on chairs, gesturing geometrically. Occasionally the dancers settle into recognizable scenarios: They’re pupils listening to a teacher’s lesson. Or they’re a family, the mother and child played by dancers wearing brightly colored papier-mâché masks. There’s a slow-dance sequence amid the dim glitter of a disco ball, and yes, a full-body loon costume does make its way onstage. (These sequences appear to be inspired by the company’s documentary sources: Bill Bryson’s study of domestic life, At Home; the Audubon record Voices of the Loon; the writings of sociologist Erving Goffman.)
Mostly, though, the choreography is as appealingly resistant to interpretation as the lecture-performance is overly insistent on its messaging. Dance and theater aren’t quite so much in dialogue as happening near each other, demonstrating alternate ways of being in time and space: We can rack our brains for the right answers to the big questions. (“What is time?” asks Johanson. “I have no fucking clue.”) Or we can stay in the moment, in our bodies, in sync with everyone else.
There’s no question which of these possibilities wins out, and that’s the disappointing part of an often delightful show. Past Witness Relocation pieces — like 2010’s Five Days in March — have made a compelling case for the synthesis of dance and theater onstage. The Loon doesn’t quite get there. “Maybe you’ve stopped listening to me,” announces Johanson at one point, gesturing to the dancers, “and you’re watching these people here.” He isn’t wrong.
Directed and choreographed by Dan Safer
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through October 29