Ursula Eagly’s “Group Dynamics and Visual Sensitivity” at Danspace Project
Special to Culturebot by Jeremy Finch
Dance and comic books are two of my favorite things in the world, but I usually think of them as very distinct art forms. When I heard that Ursula Eagly was choreographing a piece at Danspace Project that combined the two into a “live graphic novel,” my interest was immediately piqued. How could one combine these vastly different mediums into a single, cohesive performance piece?
I saw the show on Thursday, February 17 at St. Marks Church and the combination of live story telling, drawing, acting and dance in Group Dynamics and Visual Sensitivity was seamless and totally unique. (Chris Schlichting, who shared the split bill with Ursula Eagly, performed Public Hair, a wiggly, thrashing solo.) Eagly’s portion of the evening began with her asking the audience to close their eyes as she led us through a guided series of images and directions.
“If you do exactly what I tell you, you’ll have a particular experience,” Eagly says, and the audience all follows her obediently (except for a rebellious dance critic, busily jotting down notes). She directs us to open our eyes and really look at parts of the space before us; the wooden column, the railings of the balcony etc. As our eyes wander, we finally see Jeremy and Abby Harris Holmes (husband and wife) standing frozen, mid-movement. They appear in new places and poses each time that we are directed to close and open our eyes.
The continual opening and closing of eyes creates a page-turning effect, forcing the audience to infer movement and narrative from the loose structure, and we begin to understand the story unfolding before us (the plot, while not being crucial to understanding the piece, has to do with angels, love and eyesight). Each audience member, who has already been handed a foldout book (beautifully designed by Jesse Harold), is asked to follow along with the story by flipping from drawing to drawing, each mirroring a part of the story unfolding before us. The combined effect of the evocative drawings, live bodies and calm narration lulled me into a trance and it felt like there was a clear invitation to really let our minds wander.
Finally, after looking back and forth between the drawings and still performers, Eagly directs the audience to close their eyes again and asks, “If you knew that this was your last time looking at the world, how would you see?” When my eyes opened, Jeremy and Abby Harris Holmes were abruptly gone from sight, replaced onstage by Lindsay Dietz Marchant, who begins a dance solo full of deep lunges and painful relevé. It takes a moment to register that the comic book story is over and that we are watching a dance performance again, but it is in this moment that Eagly truly creates something special and original. There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing about Dietz Marchant’s movement in her solo (she is an incredibly talented performer), but I found myself in such a specific state of mind that I noticed and enjoyed everything about her time on stage. From the shaking in her legs, and the slightly audible clicks and pops of the sound design, to the vastness of St. Marks Church, everything felt new, fresh and viscerally engaging.
In that way, Ursula Eagly’s Group Dynamics and Visual Sensitivity is in itself a structure to prepare audiences for dance. Too often, it’s possible for me to see dance performances and zone out, get bored and miss crucial details. But because the comic book component of the piece ignited different parts of my brain that don’t normally get used when I see a performance, I experienced the subsequent dancing in a different way.
As a result, the evening’s performance, with it’s bold creativity and careful execution, truly felt like a gift. Did I feel like that because I was given a an opportunity to feel creative and engaged with the piece, despite my role as a “passive” audience observer? Was it easier to relate to abstract, post-modern dance simply because I arrived there from a previous place of narrative and structure? Could this template be applied to future performances with different sorts of comic book stories? Whatever the case may be, Eagly has found a powerful, multisensorial approach to engaging audiences and I’m excited to see what sort of experiments she makes in the future.