Why Are We Doing This?: Two Choreographers’ Takes on Our Contemporary Mess

What is the relationship between desire and aggression? Self-fulfillment and self-indulgence? Those are the sort of questions that I’ve been struggling with for the last week since–in one of the happy coincidental synergies you sometimes get to experience–I caught Faye Driscoll‘s There is so much mad in me at DTW, only to follow it up the next night with Yasmeen Godder‘s Singular Sensation the Kitchen. Both were quite good in their own right, but together they formed a sort of diptych asking pointed questions about who we are and how we behave at the current moment.

At their heart, both are about desire. Where they differ is how they proceed from there. Driscoll’s dance-theatre piece, a reprise following a successful run last spring at DTW, explores how desire leads to aggression, whereas the Israeli-American Godder’s dance work explores how we fulfill the desire for sensation and experience. Both of them are socially conscious works, and both in their own way pointed critiques.

For Driscoll, there’s something sort of vicious just below the surface of our (we can limit it to Americans, I suppose) most basic interactions. Over and over again throughout the piece, she allows something happy (if usually indulgent) to de-evolve into something venal, violent, or even perverse. At the outset, Nikki Zilcita enters doing a simple little gyrating dance. She’s grinning and brimming with energy. The audience begins to chuckle, not the first time that Driscoll uses humor throughout to disarm the audience. Eventually, Zialcita gets a partner; she wants to dance, he wants her, and between them an ever so slightly aggressive interplay begins to develop.

Eventually, someone’s braying like a rabid dog.

There is so much mad in me unfolds as a series of vignettes, the subjects of which range from relationships to group acceptance/rejection, to parties and rape, to a stunning outburst of violence, and finally to the weird perversions of TV talk shows. The shape of the piece is rough and abstract, which lets Driscoll avoid the tedium of exposition and focus on the dynamics of each moment she tackles, despite the fact the piece leans much more towards theatre than dance.

As the title implies, there’s a lot of anger to be expressed in the show, but it would be wrong to see that as an end in and of itself. Driscoll is just as interested in the sources of the anger as in the thing itself. The portrait she eventually draws is of a society that is, in a sense, self-indulgent. There’s as much wanting as anger in the work. One image she returns to several times is the pursuit of a light hung off stage left. Trying to reach becomes an image of desire, and performers will run towards the wall, jumping, even climbing the rigging to get at it. But as time goes on, the joy of pursuit gives way to a nasty sort of brutish possessiveness. That idea is more fully explored in one of two talk show satires Driscoll includes, wherein performer Adaku Utah apes Oprah on one of her giveaway shows. The other eight performers play the gleeful audience who, shortly, will go from elated at receiving a gift to possessive and greedy.

In fact, probably the biggest weakness of Driscoll’s piece is its message, which is hammered home over and over again. She has a point to make, and she makes it well, but there’s something even more provocative in simply presenting something and asking the audience to make of it what they will, which is previsely what Godder does in Singular Sensation.

First off, I just have to say that overall, Singular Sensation is the best piece of choreography I’ve seen in a long time. Godder’s vision–in terms of movement vocabulary, imagery, props, and score–is rich and distinct and I was held rapt the entire time. The one weakness I could accuse the piece of having is that by its end, it becomes so messy (literally and figuratively), the movement of her five dancers so manic, that it seems to lose form, and not in a good way that I could attribute to artistic choice. But overall, that doesn’t distract all that much from what’s otherwise a just plain amazing work.

It’s also reassuring to see a choreographer with the chops to make an extremely thoughtful and insightful work about something as contemporary as our desire to expose ourselves for the sake of self-fulfilling experience wholly within the language of dance. All too often, I think dance is too inwardly focused, personal and biographical. It becomes a form of physical poetry, and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does seem sadly self-limiting on occasion.

Godder’s success lies in her ability to evoke the desire for sensation in visceral, tactile terms. As the show opens, dancer Matan Zamir enters slapping himself hard on the chest. You hear it, and know how it feels, which translates very physically into the dance itself. Godder’s choice of props is likewise simple but effective. When one dancer squeezes oranges onto another, you know how the juice–acidic and sticky and sweet–feels and tastes. Almost anyone can appreciate the dry brittleness of uncooked spaghetti noodles. And who hasn’t wanted to roll around in Jell-O?

Godder structures the piece to build and unfold and eventually overwhelm the audience. As the show opens, we’re exposed a large, empty white space. The initial images are limited to the performers themselves: Zamir’s fleshy chest slap, Aloni’s luxuriously fuzzy purple sweater, Sara Wilhelmsson’s glittering silver blouse. Most performers enter with a solo to provide some sort of identity, before beginning to interact. And as the work unfolds, Godder adds more and more layers, introducing a variety of props–a plastic tarp, the aforementioned orangers and spaghetti, Jell-O, flashing lights, and lots of paint. Eventually, in the penultimate sequence, most of these will be applied to dancer Tsuf Itschaky, transforming him into a superhero of sorts attended to by most of other dancers, while Zmir and Shuli Enosh take turns, and then ultimately bathe together, in a huge mess of Jell-O.

What’s really striking about the piece is Godder’s ambivalence toward her subject. Driscoll drives her point home, but Godder lets it develop uncomfortably in the minds of her audience by simply putting it out there: her five dancers spend nearly an hour luxuriously indulging the desire for sensory experince, in sexual, emotional, and physical terms, but in the end, she lets them be almost orgasmically happy. The look on dancer Inbal Aloni’s face towards the end, as she contemplates and savors her final flasher indulgence, is one of near euophoria. And what are we supposed to do with that? By the end, we understand that on one level, what there characters are doing is deeply selfish, wasteful, indulgent, but we’re also confronted with the fact that while the euphoria will be of limited duration, and thus the entire cycle will soon repeat itself again, that nevertheless some climax has been achieved. We’re repulsed on the one hand, but awed on the other. And at some level, we understand that this is a document of us as well: our culture, our behavior, or wanton consumerism.

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