Entering the Fifth Dimension: Yanira Castro’s STAGE

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Opening narration from Season 1 of The Twilight Zone

Photo: Jose Espaillat

Watching the world premiere of Yanira Castro’s STAGE (Sep 14-23, Abrons Arts Center) was like inhabiting an ever-changing landscape (and soundscape and viscera-scape). This new world was eerily reminiscent of the Abrons Art Center Playhouse in which the performance took place, but simultaneously a different world altogether. This world seemed to possess all the components of western theater: stage, lights, sets, dancers/performers, musicians. And yet, singular elements continuously morphed into and between each other as audience members are stirred to action, members of the production team appear on stage, dancers and set pieces fuse into one entity or became something else altogether, undefinable as discrete physical/aural entities. Part of a trilogy of works including CAST and AUTHOR, Castro explains that STAGE “examines how we re(present) ourselves”. And STAGE does indeed change us as it assaults our senses, probing us to feel and act differently even though we begin as mere spectators.

The curtains open on a fairly “normal” stage. The set design begins simply enough: black curtains part to reveal a black backdrop. But as dancers (Kyle Bukhari, Simon Courchel, Leslie Cuyjet, and Sai Somboon) begin to curiously populate the stage, taking turns briefly appearing and disappearing, the performance becomes more and more peculiar. Clad in a cross between simple streetwear and dance clothes (t-shirts and form-fitting pants in varying shades of grey), the dancers alternate between pedestrian walking and poses or small movements that read as dancerly: angular poses in profile reminiscent of Afternoon of a Faun, bourrées off stage, curtsies, turned out walking. Each presentational and intentional moment combined with seemingly random walking patterns means the dancers are constantly changing in and out of “character” as they transform from regular human to trained dancer. Who are they really? As the line between dancer and person blurs, we wonder how they can be both. Richard Schechner discusses this tug of war between actor and character in Between Theater and Anthropology. If we consider this place as the space “in between” that of performer who is not fully himself nor fully “other,” we may begin to conceive of a liminal space of possibility (4). If the performer can be both “‘not me…not not me’”, then this opens up the potential for him to be anything at all (113).

Later in the work, the line between dancer and person fades further. Two members of the production team come in from off stage to transform parts of the set. When their bodies appear on stage, are they then dancers too? Their movements, while seemingly utilitarian, happen in a more or less symmetrical and synchronized fashion to give the sense of intentionality and aesthetic value. For a moment, two production team members stand next to and mirror the symmetry of two dancers (Bukhari and Somboon) who are moving in and out of a pas-de-deux-type pose, further enmeshing the production team in the world of the stage. If the production team can move on stage like the other dancers and become part of the performance, then are we as the audience really that far behind? Are we still a separate component?

It’s also confusing to imagine the point of the dancer’s actions. Where are they going? Where are they walking to? They come on and off stage so frequently, perhaps they are merely tracing the contours of the space, simply existing. There is a certain absurdity to their movements in the sense that they seem to be completely superficial: not accomplishing anything useful, not going anywhere but in circles. It is perhaps in this merely moving, merely existing in the space of the theater, on that stage and around it, that allows our imagination to wander around the theater too. Their wanderings are reminiscent of the nomadism of Indigenous Australians which is the theoretical subject of Paul Carter’s chapter “Drift Lanes” from The Lie of the Land. Just as the aboriginals nomadic way of life defies the colonial laws that sought to own land and pin them down, similarly, the wandering of STAGE’s performers reterritorializes the proscenium theater to become something other than itself. And perhaps the hiccups in style between pedestrian walking and dancerly posing is a kind of moving over folded ground that Carter advocates for in “Drift Lanes” (291). For it is the break with classical form that is like the break in the smoothed over ground of colonialism.

In addition to the complexity/perplexity of the dancer’s movement, other components of STAGE blur the “normal” boundaries of Western theatrical tradition. The music, improvised live by composer and sound designer Stephan Moore and musicians Scott Smallwood and Suzanne Thorpe, was at times eerie, shrieking, piercing, and irksome. The star of the show was Moore’s “Wall of Metals” instrument, based on the Steel Cello, invented by Peter Warren. Tall sheets of metal were played in turn with bows by all three musicians. Both sculpture and instrument, the “Wall of Metals” was part of both the aural and aesthetic experience. Ensconced in the shallow orchestra pit, the musicians and the unique sculptural instrument are on display. Their intricate interplay was as fascinating to watch as that of the dancers. The musicians’ movements and the vibrating metal sheets all dance. The music literally moves.

Like the dancers, musicians, and instruments which all move in reaction to one another, the piercing and grating nature of the music drives some audience members to plug their ears. The audience is forced to move, to act, to do. In doing so, they are participating in the movement of the performance, not merely witnessing, not merely consuming (perhaps even refusing to consume, in a sense).

Similarly, aspects of the set design, created by lighting, scenic, and installation designer, Kathy Couch, viscerally annoyed me. The shiny mylar backdrop reflected stage lights directly into my eyes, causing me to shield them and miss moments of the dancers’ movement. The mylar also reflected light all over the theater’s other walls, throwing my line of sight in various directions, expanding the width and depths of the stage beyond the theater’s solid walls. There were times when everything seemed to be moving like a kaleidoscope of color and lights.

A case can be made that the uncomfortable sensory aspects of STAGE have theoretical value. In Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai defines irritation as “a minor, low-intensity negative affect” (174). It is precisely this low-intensity or weakness of feeling that enables irritation to endure longer than a strong feeling like anger (7). The suspension of irritation throughout STAGE gives it a kind of atmospheric quality, casting a fine veil over the theater.

This kind of permeability allows irritation to vacillate between subject and object(s), living in that liminal place between. Therefore, it is precisely the uncertainty and weakness of irritation that results in greater possibility for confusion and thus potentiality. Its in-betweenness, like the liminal space of “‘not me…not not me’”, grants us the ability to be in two places at once. We can be the feeling audience member one moment, a performer in action the next. In addition, these minor sensations aesthetically refuse a huge emotional response, breaking with Western theatrical tradition which urges more powerful feelings such as anger or catharsis. Not merely watching and feeling but also slipping into movement, the irritation felt throughout STAGE allows the audience to re-define the role of dancer/performer and “expand and transform the categories of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” (6).

As the work progresses, the stage (as we once knew it with curtains and lights) completely devolves into a bare brick wall and skeletal battens. Anxiety begins to build as the theater sheds its curtains and wings, and its self-contained cosmos becomes less and less stable. It is as if we are projecting our fear into the infinite future and going around in circles at the same time. The blankness is a destroyed landscape, barren and tragic. It is enough to make us stop in our tracks and reconsider everything we have been led to believe about theater. The utter emptiness of the space induces real fear when we realize how easily theatrical illusions can dissolve into nothingness. Time stands still. We are confused about what is real and what is imaginary.

Our place within this world is further upended as a door in the brick wall opens to expose another dimension (the freight elevator). This additional world, which resides within the empty world, is a disheveled white room with crumpled paper strewn everywhere. It is chaos. We don’t know where these other worlds come from, or how we got here, or how they can exist simultaneously. Into this surreal world steps a new creature, a giant glistening sea-urchin with tentacles atop a human torso and legs. We know the body is animating the head, but it looks as though the head is eating the body whole. The absurdity and resulting confusion lies in the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality. We feel fear when we are confronted with the illusion of our stable identities. As each dancer comes out festooned in a different fantastical head (by Miodrag Guberinic), our fear and uncertainty mounts. Julia Kristeva describes this feeling of horror, when the demarcation between self and other breaks down, as abjection. We are fearful to imagine the ease with which we too could become grotesque and inhuman. By inducing feelings of anxiety, fear, confusion, and irritation, STAGE asks us to question the very nature of theatrical production, and works to dissolve the distinctions between dancer, musician, set, stage, audience, asking us to question what we believe to be certain.

Yanira Castro’s CAST, photo by Brian Rogers

WORKS CITED

Carter, Paul. “Drift Lanes.” From The Lie of the Land. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. 291- 368. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2005.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

2 thoughts on “Entering the Fifth Dimension: Yanira Castro’s STAGE”

  1. Kathy Couch says:

    Dear Hilary,

    My name is Kathy Couch. As one of the collaborators involved in creating a canary torsi’s STAGE, I want to say how thrilled I was by your article. It is very rare to have one’s work engaged with in such a deepening and expansive way. As is made obvious by your writing, you met the piece with a genuine and generous curiosity, continually reinvesting in your experience even as you were repelled or destabilized. Thank you for articulating this type of committed spectatorship and all the questions and insights that can be inspired by attending (to) a piece in such a way. There is little more an artist could ask for.

    But, I do need to draw your attention to another detail of this work. Being the artist that created the scenic and lighting elements of STAGE that stirred, destabilized, even irritated you, I myself felt bewildered to find my name absent from your article. None of us enter this field in search of fame or glory or monetary gain; so I hope you don’t take my naming of this absence as some vain plea for recognition. It is, instead, a request for access and inclusion. I choose to engage in this field of work (and study) because it offers me the opportunity to deeply explore and investigate curiosities and questions in the company of others. Thus, to have my name absent from your article denies me the opportunity to be a part of the conversation around this work–a conversation that is stunningly broadened by your article. My name will not be associated with the questions and activations you write of; thus, no one will seek out my further thoughts, ideas or imaginings on these subjects and I will not get to hear theirs. This is a position that many designers find themselves in, as we engage in a seemingly invisible labor that often, literally and ironically, makes visible the work of our collaborators. In fact, a person reading your article might come away having no idea that any person or artist was responsible for imagining and creating the scenic and lighting elements by which you were so affected.

    I am grateful for the work you are doing. Your articulation of connections across theoretical fields and your modeling of such active audienceship has the potential to offer further legitimacy to this work and does much to educate any spectator of performance. Thus, I feel a responsibility to myself and my fellow designers to insist that you broaden your attention, articulation, and education to include all of us doing this work of destabilizing the world as we know in pursuit of imagining a new one, together.

    Thank you again,
    Kathy Couch
    Lighting, Scenic and Installation Designer

    1. Hilary C Tanabe says:

      Dear Kathy,

      Thank you for bringing our attention to this tremendous oversight.

      It is always my intention when I write for Culturebot, as well as more generally, to take part in productive conversations about a wide range of performance genres and experimental performance.

      I failed to fully do that here by leaving out your name and, thereby, not crediting your work, which was a major component of STAGE.

      It was certainly not my intention to diminish the importance of scenic and lighting elements in performance more broadly, but your comment draws attention to such issues in a very helpful and productive way.

      In the future, I will definitely be more thoughtful of all artists involved in the performances I write about, so as to fully engage with all aspects of that performance.

      Best,
      Hilary

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