At Home in the Bodyby Siobhan Burke
Imagine the body as a loyal companion, a trusted guide, a sturdy shelter that is, nonetheless, impermanent. When it begins its inevitable decline, what happens to the self, the “you”—the friend, the follower, the tenant—that had come to depend so instinctively upon it?
This is what the poet May Swenson asks in “Question,” and it’s what Pat Catterson, inspired by that jaunty yet mournful piece of writing, ponders with equal eloquence in her newest dance, To Lie in the Sky. The title of the hour-long work, which had a too-short, two-night run in February at LaGuardia High School's Little Flower Theatre, comes from the poem’s closing lines:
How will it be
To lie in the sky
Without roof or door
And wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
How will I hide?
It’s no wonder that Catterson, a prolific choreographer (this work is her 104th), was drawn to Swenson’s meditation on mortality; anyone who voraciously investigates the world around them through the human body would be. For dancers—whose craft requires a day-in, day-out fine-tuning of physical awareness—the stakes of the body’s transformation over time are especially high. Thinking about the inseparability of body and self, as it pertains to dancers in particular, Catterson put forth her own questions: “Am I wearing my body or is my body my self?” she asks in press materials for the show. “[H]ow does my sense of self change as my body becomes less reliable?”
Who better to seek out answers than a cast of eight assured, articulate performers? Alexandra Berger, Becky Chaleff, Jesse Dunham, Liesbeth Damaer Ingenito, Maia Ramnath, Samuel Swanton, Suzanne Thomas, and Timothy Emmett Lee Ward appear utterly at home in their bodies. Catterson’s handsomely skewed angles and precarious balances fit them as comfortably as Juanita Cardenas’s breezy, silver-gray costumes.
Seven of these dancers—all but Ramnath, who emerges for a powerful, unexpected coda at the end—flock through the wistful world of To Lie in the Sky under the watchfulness of an oddly expressive trench coat rigged to the rafters. (Philip Treviño is credited with the arrangement of this decor.) Lit as if by a beam of sunlight (by Philip W. Sandström), it looms overhead like the “shift” of Swenson’s poem, a reminder that something else, besides the expansive ground across which they skitter and swoop, awaits them.
An assortment of texts threads through Quentin Chiappetta’s collage-like score, layered with soothing sounds that resemble footsteps on snow or the melodic creaking of a rusty swing. Pulled from a hodgepodge of sources—scholarly articles, personal stories, religious and philosophical writings—these momentary musings reflect on aging, sickness, death, dreaming, cognition, consciousness, and the tricks that our bodies can play on us.
“Cognitive neuroscientists have succeeded in making subjects perceive the bodies of mannequins and other people as their own,” a voice tells us at one point. “This shows how easy it is to change the brain’s perception of the physical self.” Meanwhile, a game of body replacement is going on: One dancer approaches another, who stands perched in a statuesque pose, and gently fits herself into the space occupied by the motionless form. The replaced dancer stumbles reluctantly away, then does to a fellow performer what’s just been done to her, reminding us, again and again, of the body’s transience.
SIOBHAN BURKE writes for the New York Times and Dance Magazine. She teaches at Barnard College.