Contemporary dance has the difficult task of wrestling two historical conventions: the exoskeleton of drama (or, the story) and the endoskeleton of homogenous attitude (or style). With her latest theater creation, Alaska, which recently finished its run at Dance Theater Workshop, Argentine theater artist Diana Szeinblum manages to resist both.
Coming from the theater (she still calls her pieces “plays”), Szeinblum’s approach to choreography is refreshingly experiential. The idea of performance is more concerned with the experience of the performers on stage than it is with the expected maintenance of narrative or stylistic artifice for the audience.
Each of the four performers enacts an idiosyncratic palate of movement. Alejandra Ferreyra Ortiz throws her torso forward and back repeatedly while keeping her feet planted on the floor. Pablo Lugones gets up from his chair, drags it somewhere else, and sits back down. Lucos Condro falls into front splits and pats his hands against the floor on either side of his leg with stiff arms. Noelia Leonzio heaves her ribcage in and out, arms held out to the sides, and accelerates her contractions into a reckless frenzy.
The performers rarely share movement. With very few exceptions, they are either minding their own business, are engaged in symbiotic partnering, or they merely take turns observing each other. Unique costumes by Cecilia Alasia visually reinforce this autonomy.
One of Szeinblum’s chief tools is her ability, in collaboration with her performers, to turn a person into an object and then back into a person again. When Leonzio has just finished scrambling over the shoulders of Condro—diving head-first down the front of his body, grabbing onto the waist of his pants in an attempt to keep him from pulling them up, only to wind up with her own shirt and skirt being removed by Condro’s quick hands— Lugones and Ferreyra Ortiz join Condro in manipulating Leonzio’s near-naked body into all sorts of shapes that she holds until they decide to move her again. They drag her around the stage as if she were a pliable sculpture, pretzeling her, forcing her into a shoulder stand, and finally leaving her with her legs thrown over her head, until she gets up.
Alaska is less about “The State” than it is about “a state,” which Szeinblum describes as “a place where experiences, sensations, emotions, memories are lodged in a chaotic way.” Or to paraphrase, our subconscious, physical catalogue of past experience.
Szeinblum strips the Bessie Schönberg Theater of curtains, evoking a vastness of possibility. A large square of white marley stands out as a vivid dance floor in the middle of the raw, black theater. To one side, a few tables surrounded by chairs and set with a coffee maker and an assortment of mugs. The musicians, composer and pianist Ulises Conti and violist Mariano Malamud, were set up opposite the table near the back. As you walk in, Lugones is sitting in a chair, facing the audience, with a sign hung around his neck that reads, “Yo estoy desesperado” (I’m in despair, or, I’m desperate).
Most of the movement, in fact, does convey a certain level of desperation. Every time Ferreyra Ortiz launches into one of her flailing routines, her face looks perpetually anxious. At one point, Lugones stands on a chair and begins playing spoons against his body, intensifying the violence of his strokes until his entire torso has become rouged. Other times, the performers seem to be in an existential struggle with their own bodies.
Still, there are moments where more subtle emotional states emerge. In a particularly elegant duet, Condro and Lugones, seated beside each other in chairs, perform a careful series of arm-based actions; they lean forward and lightly tap their fingertips to the floor but in contrasting rhythms; they press their hands on their thighs, letting their biceps lightly pivot above their forearms; they let a hand pass in front of them, the fingers coming to a point in different meters. The phrase evokes a heightened sense of partnership, and the differences here create a kind of harmony rather than disconnection; a clear sign of Szeinblum's gift for compositional variation. She knows precisely when contrast will reveal something new about a movement.
But the skill is also responsible for the weaker moments of the work, when you feel Szeinblum forcing contrast—a group unison set to a techno beat; or breaking the “fifth” wall and having Condro allow the audience to ask him personal questions—when the magic of subtlety had been working small miracles, hewing together diverse threads of movement to create a deeply evocative, resonant theater.
“Alaska” will finish its North American tour with stops in Miami and Los Angeles.
Ryan Tracy is a writer, performer and composer, and is the Editor of CounterCritic.com.