The Bessie award-winning Descent, created, directed, and ingeniously costumed by Noémie LaFrance, with a score by Brooks Williams and vocals by Shelley Hirsch, put me under its influence before the performance even began. Walking past the usually active, but now dozing, bomb and metal detectors flanking the entrance to the Criminal Court System in the City Court Building’s Clock Tower, I was whisked up twelve stories to a florescent-lit, linoleum-floored hallway. There, LaFrance, the petite, beret-clad impresario rounded up approximately thirty people to lead us, like Alice in Wonderland, through her looking glass.
The subtext underlying this wonderfully conceived, site-specific piece is the parallel reality that physicists and mystics alike ponder. By compressing perspective, horizon and spatial elements, LaFrance has emulated falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. The journey into her maze starts the moment a fire door springs open and the audience is led down a majestic, ornate, spiraling staircase, pausing at selected points. Watching required quite a bit of neck craning, to look up and down a narrow trajectory, frightening in its ability to induce pure vertigo.
A few floors below, a woman slumped lifelessly over a banister like a corpse from a murder scene. Suddenly, she moved as if by psychic kinesis, turning around to brazenly stare up at the audience. Other dancers peeped out the curving banisters of the stairwell from ten separate levels. The overlapping of both the architecture and the choreography evoked a hall of mirrors in which images receded multiple times into infinity. Pillow feathers angelically wafted down 12 flights of the breezeless stairwell gently holding back the urban onslaught of time, floating in a delicate death spiral to the cavernous bottom.
Descent also referenced the history of tenement life at one time endemic to the neighborhood. Dancers strung a clothesline between stair levels and passed a fish from floor to floor, a fresh red snapper from the Chinatown market that stank to high heaven. An empty chandelier, lowered via rope down the stairwell, whispered indecipherable words. Tilting backwards, I saw elegant ladies dressed in black, vamping in a dreamy bordello scene that continued up four stories.
A water bucket was lowered down the stairwell. The "tenement" ladies washed their hair while water from the bucket cascaded twelve flights below. The dancers caught the deluge on the backs of their necks— each drop resounded with the rhythm, tempo and cadence of an unseen, inevitable event, one luring them to their demise. The amount of time it took for the stream to languidly fall to the bottom became an analogy of time suspended between creation and death. Then, a semi-nude, barefoot dancer climbed over a balustrade. There was no harness or restraining net. One slip and she could have literally fallen to her death.
Next the dancers walked among the audience. They pulled their shirts over their heads and threw them down the stairwell’s chasm, the shirtsleeves slapping viewers in the face during their speedy descent. As the audience was led further down, an aviatrix with a huge braided rope coiled around her torso rebounded off the wall with feminine-kissed dare devilry. For the closing image, the dancers lay on their backs, laughing, and slid head-first in a clump down the stairs, and the pillow feathers from before went flying.
Though not a new idea, modern dance released from the confines of the stage is a growing trend. Different environments offer new perspectives for both choreographer and viewer. What LaFrance has done with Descent is hone down spatial limits to a vertigo-inducing, twelve-story drop. She plays with time and the notion of a parallel universe using the synchronized movements of the dancers to invoke much more then the event itself. She sweeps the audience out of the realm of the corporeal into the realm of the non-corporeal by playing with the metaphor of Indra’s Net, where everything reflects back through a jeweled mirror to everything else. Staring down a stairwell’s sure-bet death spiral is not the usual condition for watching postmodern dance, but what saves Descent from being just spectacle is its intellectual rigor and heart stopping choreographic discipline.
LaFrance’s upcoming site-specific work, Noir, will be performed as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial.