About four years ago, choreographer Jody Oberfelder and composer Frank London began collaborating on a project with the New York Public Library, honoring Jewish thinkers, philosophers, and artists. Oberfelder chose Rube Goldberg, and has been engaged with his notions ever since.
According to the Rube Goldberg Institute’s website, “a Rube Goldberg Machine is an overly engineered invention that uses ordinary objects in extraordinary ways to accomplish a single task. These chain-reaction contraptions are based on the work of the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg (1883–1971).” If you’ve watched an OK Go video or seen Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go, you have a good sense of how Goldberg’s concepts can be transmuted in artful ways.
If we take the website’s description as a baseline definition, Oberfelder’s new dance piece, Rube G.—The Consequence of Action, labors under a misrepresentation. What we see in the venue’s white-box Studio C does not appear “engineered” at all. The performance resembles a game of Telephone, in which messages — in this case, gestures initiated by members of Oberfelder’s troupe — are passed along from person to person — in this case, paying spectators — mutating as they go until the final version can be quite unrecognizable. The performance environment, rather than being industrial, is echt–nursery school, right down to the little white cubbies in which we audience members are ordered to stash our things, and the small three-legged stools, slightly larger than kindergarten furniture, on which we are directed to sit.
On the night I attend, about 40 of us form a 6-shape in the bare room, curving around a boxy pillar that blocks my view of the whole arrangement. Gestures that are sharp and crisp when executed by the three professional dancers who join Oberfelder in this undertaking erode as each audience member attempts to copy and pass the gesture to the next person down. It might be interesting to watch this process, to monitor the deterioration of a choreographic decision as it is reproduced by amateurs, but that pillar obstructs the possibility of seeing the journey through. Meanwhile, London’s recorded score, the sort of tinkling accompaniment you hear on a carnival midway or while watching an organ grinder, swells and fades and occasionally segues into sections of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, among the few genuinely witty eruptions in the hour-long work.
Dance is a visual art. When the pandemic shut down the dance world, three years ago, Oberfelder and her collaborators, including brilliant musician London, used the time to transform her early Goldberg-related choreography into film footage of her dancers with “ordinary people,” in both outdoor and interior settings, producing a wonderful, crisp little movie, Rube G., that really does manifest the odd linearity of a Rube Goldberg construction. But that quality is not part of this production, nor is there much attempt to use lighting to enliven the big white box. Take away our ability to fully see what’s going on — those superb sightlines your average proscenium theater, or good theater-in-the-round, is designed to provide — and we lose the impact of even the very minimalist choreography Oberfelder developed with and for her cast, and for the rest of us participating in the show.
Dancers Grace Yi-Li Tong, Paulina Meneses, and Ashley Merker appear sweet, friendly, ingratiating, and human in Claire Fleury’s charming, asymmetrical, pajamalike costumes (which also do a great deal to amplify the impression that we’ve wandered into a nursery school).
And for the most part, the audience, largely adult with a sprinkling of ‘tweens, is cooperative, agreeable to being “immersed,” to interacting with the performers and their fellow audience members.
There are exceptions: Next to me, a man dressed in black is not buying it, and becomes visibly annoyed with the whole process. When one of the instructions passed down the line requires us to face away from center, he hunches over and pulls out his phone. A while later, back in line, he crosses his arms over his chest in a classic defensive pose — but he stays put and finishes out the project. People who’ve paid money and made a trip from home are usually invested in having a good time; they applaud politely. I’ve learned over years in the criticism business that I can stand just about anything for an hour, but here I found myself becoming increasingly exasperated. By the end of the performance, I wanted to scream — and scram.
It’s telling that the one-page program distributed at the end of the performance enumerates all the donors and everyone who helped get the show on its feet while requiring spectators to scan a code for “information about music, costumes, and performing artists.” Quite the opposite of immersive, this necessity forces viewers out of the theatrical environment and back into our default universe, the tiny screens on our phones. Once we succeed in landing the code, we find bios for a mob of folks not affiliated with this version of the piece (they’ve appeared in it in Munich), and nothing about costume designer Fleury, though we do learn that London has been knighted by the Hungarian government.
Oberfelder, who’s been making dances in New York for more than 40 years but still manages to stand on her head in the middle of this one, is a poster child for whimsy in choreography. She’s developed site-specific projects about the human heart and the human brain, danced while very pregnant, and done backflips on the Staten Island Ferry. Sometimes she manages to elevate her impulses into compelling work, as she did in June 2021, in the historic amphitheater in Manhattan’s East River Park, now bulldozed. She has referred to Rube G. — The Consequence of Action as “sheer play,” and has observed that much of her choreography grows out of “place,” often outdoor sites. Her current place, alas, is bland and boxy, and the best efforts of the four dancers don’t save Rube G. from seeming merely childish. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.