backstage (2006-02)

Close Quarters

Looking over one reviewer’s shoulder at Modern Dance, Primitive Light

by Leslie Wylie

Historically, a little discomfort is a prerequisite to any of Circle Modern Dance’s annual Modern Dance, Primitive Light performances. Unless you show up 45 minutes early to nab a chair, you’ll probably have to sit on the floor. To account for this inevitability, floor-sitters are encouraged to bring blankets and pillows, but hardwood-bound butts tend to go numb anyway. And even once you’re settled in, a new array of annoyances may present themselves: a stray kneecap belonging to the person sitting Indian-style beside you, a car horn outside shattering a critical moment of silence, or the muffled coughs and sniffles resonating within Laurel Theatre’s intimate acoustics.

Leave it to Circle Modern to make art of the situation. This year’s Primitive Light opening piece, “Audience Sit Study,” choreographed by Wayles E.S. Haynes, addressed social discomfort directly—a topic that several in the audience may have found little too close for, well, you get the idea. A diverse assortment of dancers filed into the theater one by one and chose seats in a line of chairs facing the audience. A couple of them attempted chummy greetings, met with mostly disdain or disgust by others already sitting down, keeping to themselves. There was a collective death look when a pony-tailed man exclaimed, “Dude!” into his cell phone again and again. Another woman repeatedly, unapologetically invaded others’ personal space, stepping on toes and accidentally bludgeoning heads with the large bag she carried.  

Unable to preserve the boundaries of their insular existence, the dancers grew increasingly frustrated with one another. But by the end of the piece, through a twisting series of events, they arrived at the conclusion that it’s natural for people’s lives to overlap, and to embrace that overlap is healthy.

The rest of the performance followed suit, exploring the idea that discomfort may, in fact, possess a silver lining: a opportunity for growth or connection or awareness. Watching Adam Manookian dance, for instance, was provocative in a way that no synchronized corps-de-ballet could ever be, but it was also somewhat difficult to watch: Manookian is wheelchair-bound. However, the piece he performed with drummer Nathan Barrett, “Rocking the Hard Place,” was hardly awkward—the man displayed a grace and compartmentalized strength enviable by even the most able-bodied standards. Barrett separated himself from the other musicians—André Hayter, Christina Horn and Laith Keilany—and joined Manookian on the dance floor, where they ultimately traded places—Manookian on the floor, Barrett in the wheelchair.There was a suggestion that any of us, in fact, could inhabit either of those positions.

But imagining oneself in other peoples’ shoes is also the basis of empathy, which forms the foundation of interconnectedness. Each work in Primitive Light tackled the theme from a different angle, whether through comedic rib poking or observational honesty. “No One Will Know,” choreographed and performed by Joy Davis and Tony Desmond, was perhaps the most striking of the latter. The choreographers mirrored one another’s gravity-laden movements while seemingly oblivious to one another’s existence. At last, their paths crossed, and with some surprise, they found themselves standing face-to-face.

Interchangeability, as a byproduct of interconnectedness, was another theme that surfaced repeatedly, beginning with René Sevigny’s “Death and the Maiden.” A flippant Grim Reaper’s plan to send a ditzy, flower-picking maiden to her death was foiled when the maiden, who turned out to be more wily than she looked, killed the Reaper before he could get around to killing her.

For a different type of role reversal, theatrical lines were blurred: The dancers occasionally joined the musicians, and the musicians sometimes joined the dancers. Sometimes, as in Barrett’s participation in “Rocking the Hard Place,” the musician was a dancer; elsewhere, the inverse was true, and the dancer became a musician. In “Cleanse,” choreographed by Circle’s Artistic Director Kimberly Matibag and performed by Meg Beach, dancer/choreographer Angela Hill stepped in front of a microphone to sing a shockingly gorgeous rendition of KD Lang’s “Cleanse.” It’s easy to assume that someone so focused on visual aesthetics, and so skilled at physical movement, might not be as tuned-in to other sensory experience, for example, sound. In stepping outside her comfort zone and tackling a different artistic medium, Hill proved the assumption wrong.

Boundaries, as the performance suggested, aren’t always as opaque and inflexible as they seem. Matibag reminded the audience of the Modern Dance, Primitive Light ’s namesake first performance, wherein the dance floor was marked off by 10,000 tiny candles. Essentially, an intangible element—light—was separating the audience from the performers. But it was the same light that bound the two entities together. Perhaps, as Circle’s performance suggested, isolation is a myth. And if that’s true, then loneliness is a myth as well. Perhaps realizing that we’re all in this together, then, is the first step toward trading the world’s discomfort in for peace.