Together in Sadness: Ligia Lewis’ “Sorrow Swag”

Photo by Dieter Hartwig

A geyser of blue fog mushrooms up from the stage floor. Its steady, languid unfurling brings the tempo of the room down. Some American Realness performances build off the frenetic pace of the festival—the high energy pitch of get to the venue get tickets find bathroom get seat get to next performance on time. From its first moments, Ligia LewisSorrow Swag demands we let the pace go. The fog rises and rises. It has object-like thickness, like clouds seen from an airplane window you feel sure you could leap onto and be held. My breathing slows and regulates. The piece’s single dancer (Brian Getnick), in white gym shorts, penetrates the cloud with his hand: it dissipates. The entire stage flattens. Getnick’s body disappears, mostly. Now and then I catch the ripples it makes as it stirs the fog. It’s like straining to read the words on a page at dusk, or getting lost in a Roberto Bolaño steam room. Lewis writes that Sorrow Swag “moves through the language of sadness.” As the fog fills the stage and auditorium, we’re immersed with Getnick in sorrow at its deepest: disorienting and difficult to see beyond. Twin Shadow’s musical accompaniment is as dense as the fog and refuses to resolve. I’m waiting for the beat to drop, but it never does.

Instead, the fog thins on its own. In its place, the music infects Getnick’s body, which soon becomes a chamber for noise. First sounds, then words move through him, and move him. Texts from Beckett and Anouilh shape his movements; though full phrases come through here and there (what kind of hope do you foresee is the one I wrote down), the meaning is in the sounds of the words, the words as physical objects, rather than their denotative meaning.

For a while the fog acts as connective tissue between audience and performer, making me aware of the space as one I’m sharing with Getnick, but as he plays with sounds and sounds play with him the air clears imperceptibly and we’re separate again. He goes through the motions of fighting, racing, and shooting, trying the movements on like garments, and the aggression pits him against everything else in the room. He’s isolated in sadness-turned-rage when he begins to scream at us I spit on your happiness! You are all dogs! D-A-W-G-Z dogs! Sorrow that unites; sorrow that divides.

The end of Sorrow Swag conjures a different stage and a different performer: Billie Whitelaw in Beckett’s Not I. I recall an actor describing the experience of performing Not I as torture. You sit there night after night in complete blackness, alone. The text you are to speak is repetitive, stream-of-consciousness, and spoken with unnatural inflection—as the speaker, it’s easy to lose your way. None of the ordinary mnemonic tricks of gesture, position, or relationship to other bodies that actors use are available to you. Sitting in an unusually high chair, your position is fixed relative to the stage and you can’t even move your head, which is strapped into a steadying contraption so that your mouth will stay centered in the tight spot, the only source of light in the performance space.

Lewis has whittled her Not I quotation down to the spotlit mouth and the primal scream. The scream goes on and on and we’re lost in a landscape of sound that seems endless. But there isn’t the productive and unresolved tension of the opening fog-and-noise landscape. Because the Beckett reference is so direct, I find myself longing for Not I itself, wanting to get lost in its text the way I was earlier lost in Sorrow Swag’s initial endless blue. Instead, the foremost thought in my mind is whether Getnick is irreparably shredding his vocal chords.

“Well, that was terrifying,” says my friend as the lights come up. Frightening is one thing sadness can be, and the shift from impossibly wide to narrow focus that occurs over the course of the work makes for an interesting enough contrast, but ultimately it’s the sensation of being immersed in an endless blue sorrow that I want to take with me when I leave the theater, not the pain of the primal scream.

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