Catching Up: December at Danspace

In the wake of holiday madness and “The January Shit-Show Circus On Ice”, a few things didn’t make it online. We’ll take a moment for some retrospection with some semi-organized thoughts on Danspace’s December shows.

For some reason, at least among folks I’ve heard from, Cori Olinghouse’s Ghost Lines was awaited with particular eagerness and met with much buzz. More than one person referred to it as the best thing they had seen all season, maybe because of its weirdly pleasurable combination of creepy and fun. Ghost lines actually opens with Ghost line, a dream/nightmare-like black-and-white film shot in 16-mm, which is the only part of the work that I’m still really thinking about a couple weeks later. Made in collaboration with filmmaker Shona Masarin, Ghost line is like a highly-processed documentary about a haunted house, except stylishly spooky instead of gory-schlock-y. Abstract squiggles close in on melting faces and serene beach scenes are mixed up with floating bodies in a black hole. Using traditional animation techniques, hand processing, drawing, and extreme close-up, the film reads like a mashup of memories — someone’s life flashing before our eyes, nonsensical but evocative.

Olinghouse and her cast inhabit numerous characters, some recognizable (Buster Keaton, silent film heroes and heroines, hammy tap dancers) some not (a black-sheathed creature with a gigantic top hat, clowns in pastel billowing onesies with oversized bibs and shoes). The costumes are exaggerated and endearing, but the makeup is more interesting: Olinghouse and Michelle Dorrance are each coated in a thick layer of white, and we watch it melt and cake in expression lines as the piece goes on.

The characters mostly ignore each other, their identities revealed with body language — Olinghouse’s face is memorable, changing from grotesque to sweet to pleading to deadpan. Dorrance is peppier than the rest, launching into a discordant and animated tap dance (see her work in a shared evening with Darrell Jones, also at Danspace, this Friday). Mina Nishimura is childlike and strange, grunting while hopping in circles, and Elizabeth Keen is cinematic, mincing around silently in leather-soled slippers.

In tipped and trembling postures, they enter and exit and meander around each other seemingly in a daze; their aim is embodiment more than storytelling. The soundtrack comes and goes and provokes a constant low-grade anxiety, though we are barely aware of it. Overall, it is baffling and wonderful. It felt opaque and secluded at first, but with a little distance I am remembering it as both basic and otherworldly, like hearing someone speak in a dead language.

Mood is where Megan Kendzior’s Witness overlaps with Ghost lines — both works rely on the construction of an eerie, heightened atmosphere. But where Ghost lines is memorable for its character realization and humor, Witness is not at all insouciant, and the focus on subject appearance is replaced by a more prop-driven mode. The floor is a sea of neatly paired vintage shoes that the 15 dancers put on, cast off, and pile up in a downstage mound. Accordion-accompanied milling around is followed by a lengthy solo by Lindsay Head; she stands near the altar and crumples to her knees, occasionally banging the steps and humming/singing/yelping, but mostly standing and lying still.

The cast eventually trickles back in, clutching each other, playing anxiously with their fingernails, quivering and pacing, and the quiet is finally broken by a lurching folk dance. They clump together for comfort, sing loudly in minor key harmonies, and eventually break off by gender. The men engage in a brutal and repetitive relay race dance, tumbling violently forward and retreating like a deranged version of gym class ‘suicides.’ Meanwhile, several women perform heart-wrenching solos of violation, abuse, and trauma. There are allusions to violence and grief throughout — wooden walking as if forced by gunpoint, paranoid glancing over shoulders, hands in the air in a gesture that could be praise but reads more as surrender. Witness exists in extremes: it’s either glacial and spacey or hyper-intense and unnerving.

On the whole, I remember Witness as a heroic failure. I felt beat over the head with content and Emotion but was almost won over somewhere in the middle — I agree with my friend’s summation of “feeling it not working, but then suddenly becoming aware of the power of the bodies in the space.” It’s clear that Kendzior is edging around something really strong, communal, shared, but maybe hasn’t quite located it yet…or knows what she’s found but hasn’t been able to let go of the stuff obscuring it. She’s dealing with very heavy subject matter, and we can sometimes feel the oppressive explicitness turning something fragile and complex into pantomime, but for some reason that seems okay — I wasn’t wishing that it felt real. I’m still thinking about her phrase “embodied historical research,” and what would happen if instead of striving for such earnest realness they let go of the goal of embodiment. What if everyone accepted that this is pretend and kept doing it anyway? Perhaps if re-framed it could feel less like noble failure and more like actual vulnerability and a fresh approach to old material.

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