Dark Matters at Montclair and THEM at PS122

Saturday night found me riding the bus out to Montclair with a bunch of dance kids from Juilliard. Apparently some of the dancers in Crystal Pite’s company Kidd Pivot were Juilliard alums and the kids had been encouraged to check out the show. Being surrounded by all these blithe – and lithe – young people on a bus through the wilds of New Jersey gave me ample cause to reflect. As we drove through the malls of New Jersey, with their endlessly repeated chain stores, I listened to the kids talk about their favorite fast food and compare their different regional variations on well-known national brands. I thought about how fast the spread of Big Box Store America has been, how vast the monoculture has become and how easy it has become to just be detached. I looked at the news on my phone – always on! – and read about the outrages of America’s wars, about the ascendance of the Tea Party, about all kinds of shocking things, I turned off my phone and listened to the kids talk about fast food and I thought about Ishmael Houston-Jones’ THEM at PS122.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see the show. I’ve known Ish for a long time but have only rarely seen him dance – in fact I met him at a reading series and at first didn’t know he was a choreographer, just a writer. I’ve read Dennis Cooper of course and I’ve known about Chris Cochrane – so I had some basic aesthetic framework in mind. In my imagination it was going to be a loosely constructed evening of spoken word and guitar noise with improvisational movement filling things out. I was up for anything but I wasn’t prepared for the focused, powerful, moving, urgent evening that followed. The lead artists may have been revisiting work from the 80’s but THEM is anything but nostalgic. It uses the frame of the 80’s piece to tap into a sense of creative and political urgency that transcends time, that speaks as freshly and clearly today as it must have when it was first performed. Yes, the politics have changed and there is probably less of a sense of sheer danger and outrage, but in this day and age where are artists are so reluctant to actually risk something emotionally – it was riveting and energizing to feel what it is like when the performers actually mean it. The cast – Joey Cannizzaro, Felix Cruz, Jeremy Pheiffer, Niall Noel, Jacob Slominski, Arturo Vidich, Enrico D. Wey – are all great improvisers and impressive movers. Ishmael appears in the beginning of the show and again in a captivating solo. Dennis Cooper’s stories, read intermittently between dance sequences, set a tone of dark tenderness laced with fear and regret. Chris Cochrane’s music is edgy and vital and foreboding. The evening is filled with powerful images that suggest the aggressive, dangerous cruise-y world of queer life in the 80’s and the underlying sense of being under attack both by a conservative society and by a vicious, unyielding plague. But the most haunting image is the final tableau – after all that we’ve been through, complete with a beating with a 2X4 and wrestling with a dead goat – of the men arrayed around the stage, feeling their necks and crotches, self-examining their lymph nodes, feeling for signs of the disease that is devastating their world. We may have come a long way since the early days of AIDS – now it is a “manageable” disease, so they say – but maybe we’ve gone backwards in some ways, in losing our ability to be outraged, in losing our ability to be passionate and compassionate and connected. THEM speaks to us of a horrible moment in the 80’s when NYC was in crisis and no-one seemed to be doing anything. But it speaks with a clarity and urgency that calls us all to action – whatever our current battles may be.

Meanwhile, back on the bus to Montclair, I’m listening to today’s youth compare the relative merits of Pizza Hut vs. Domino’s and wondering what is in store for me at the Kasser with Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM‘s DARK MATTERS. I didn’t really know anything going into the show (do you detect a pattern here?)- I decided to go because I had seen the video online and I knew it had played at the Walker not too long ago, so I was curious. What I got was an interesting hybrid – part narrative puppet show (the first half) and part extraordinary contemporary dance (the second half) that was enjoyable, if a little puzzling in its pairing.

DARK MATTERS is the concept that holds the whole thing together and it refers both to the scientific idea of “dark matter” – and to the dark matters of the heart and experience. The first half of the evening is a relatively literal-minded puppet show in which a creator makes a puppet that comes to life. The puppet is – as these creatures are wont to be – mischievous and impish, it begins to tear at the very fabric of the world around the creator and threatens to bring the whole thing toppling down. The puppet won’t let the creator leave the house or do anything on his own – he takes over the creator’s life to the point where the creator threatens to unmake the puppet. As we all know from the Chucky movies, it’s always a bad idea to take on a supernatural puppet, and the creator meets an unpleasant demise on the wrong end of some scissors. The whole tale is conveyed in a relatively light-hearted way with some slapstick bits on the part of the puppeteers – who are also the dancers. Eventually the set in its entirety is destroyed and there is an eery tableau, like a war zone, of the ground covered in debris with the puppeteer/dancers buried beneath the rubble. One surviving puppeteer unearths another and dumps the dark, limp body on a pile of debris with a thump: end Act One.

After intermission the show changes entirely and the themes and ideas from the first half are re-explored by the performers, who by this time have shed their puppet-handler blacks and re-emerged in more dancer-y costumes. The second half is a beautifully danced and wonderfully constructed contemporary ballet. A lone puppeteer/dancer in black lurks and pops up occasionally on the edges, reminding us that darkness – and chaos – is always lurking. The sequence of dances only loosely references the first half and in the absence of a set the sound score by Owen Belton becomes more prominent. Constructed not only of music but the sounds of handicraft – the swishing of fabrics, crumpling of paper, the clacking of scissors – we get the feeling of a hand at work, and it obliquely raises the question of who is the puppet and who the puppeteer?

The choreography is dynamic and multilayered, performed with energy and precision. The dancers manipulate each other’s bodies in ways that remind us of the puppet/creator relationship, but not too overtly. It is beautiful to watch and as much as I appreciate having the two halves of the show in juxtaposition, I feel like it was strong enough to stand on its own.

Finally, the sole black-clad dancer reappears, sheds her clothing and is joined onstage by the dancer/creator from the first half. They do a duet in which they recapitulate the narrative (kind of) and it ends with her holding his body in her lap, sewing into his chest and drawing a connective thread upward. Its as if she was reconnecting him to some primal source, he rises up a little until they’re both seated and embrace. (At least that’s how I remember it.) It was a haunting image, peaceful and dark at the same time.

It was fascinating to see these two shows, THEM and DARK MATTERS, so closely together. THEM was an immediate, visceral and disturbing experience, it was rough and kind of “‘punk rock”, much more urgent and timely. DARK MATTERS was more abstract and a lot more “refined” – it was related to an idea of darkness that was more cerebral and distanced and as such left room for meditation and reflection. I enjoyed them both but they elicited very different reactions. THEM moved me with its passion and immediacy, DARK MATTERS – especially the second half – impressed me with its rigor and the beauty of the movement. Still it is interesting to see and feel the difference between art made when your life is on the line and art made about ideas. I’m not privileging one over the other – but I do think I’ve seen a lot of art about ideas in the past few years and not too many that combined punk rock passion with high art conceptualism.

On the bus on the way back from Montclair I had an interesting conversation with the production coordinator for the Kasser. She had been at Crystal Pite’s pre-show conversation on Friday and so I got a little bit of background after the fact. She said that one of the questions that Ms. Pite asked herself before she started a piece was “why does this have to be told in/through dance?” which is an interesting question. What is it in the embodied presence – without words -that offers us a specific experience of being that cannot be found any other way? DARK MATTERS was an abstracted exploration of control, free will and manipulation -the bodies in motion offered us an opportunity to reflect on ideas. In the case of THEM the bodies themselves were the canvas on which the story was told – they were bedroom and battleground, they were transcendent and they were weak.

Riding home I thought about all those young Juilliard dancers on the bus. I was glad that they had gotten to see DARK MATTERS – it probably showed them a kind of work that they weren’t often exposed to. But I felt like they needed to see THEM – to see dance that wasn’t just technically impressive but also was deeply personal and expressive and politically relevant.

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