I was surprised, having seen Immediate Medium’s Chuck.Chuck.Chuck. advertised on dance websites’ calendars and having noticed a choreographer listed on their press material, that it did not contain more actual dance. At first I was a little miffed about this, but by the end of the performance I found I had been taught a few things about genre labels, the nature of choreography, and the use of dance as a brilliant theatrical accent instead of a tell-all centerpiece. So in this case, less was indeed more.
The show, which played in February at Collapsable Giraffe’s Williamsburg space Collapsable Hole, is based on William Faulkner’s Southern epic As I Lay Dying. Before it starts, audience members wend toward their seats around the floor-level stage, which is completely covered with a thick layer of dark dirt on which the Bundren family are sprinkled. Then the gravely voice of mother Addie Bundren recalls a sentiment of her father’s: “The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time.” Thus the tone is set.
It’s hard to say when Chuck.Chuck.Chuck. first shows signs of intelligent dance. It is laid out beautifully from the beginning: Addie’s pine coffin often takes center stage and acts as a tremendous prop: hiding spot, gurney, truck bed; Cash, Vardaman, and Jewel Bundren are placed strategically around the space to engage in their respective wood sawing, fish gutting, and horse tending with almost rhythmic repetition. But the first time the actors are inarguably choreographed is in a scene set to early American bluegrass sounds arranged by Jacob Cooper wherein the family lay supine in the dirt, synchronously flopping their arms across their chests, wiggling, flipping over, all become fish out of water—an extension of young Vardaman’s intermittent declaration that his dead mother is a fish. It is a rich illustration of Faulkner’s multilayered metaphor.
But a later instance of dance per se is more touching and revealing still. Cash, having had his badly broken leg finally submit to gangrene, endeavors for the first time in days to stand, then to try a few steps. At first, it is difficult to watch the obviously pained Cash favor his bum foot and wince when he comes down on it, even lightly, in his ginger, one-man dosado. But his spirit slowly builds steam; his eyes brighten and movements quicken as he gets his balance; the movement awakens his tired body and his taps and turns shift from purely agonizing to gravely joyful. The other family members begin to emulate him from their own private vantage points; they act in unison but stay separately focused, attempting to move well through pain. Dance again expertly paints a broad and detailed, affecting picture of the characters’ emotional arcs, and doesn’t seem a bit out of place or unnecessary.
There is a lot to say about Chuck.Chuck.Chuck. as theater. It is well acted and creatively staged, and it pulls off the formidable task of comfortably blending higher-tech accoutrement like scrolling LED text and digital sound effects into an earth-and-sawdust rural setting. But looking at it for its dance brings up good observations and questions as well. Where do we draw the lines between pedestrian movement and dance? Between blocking and choreography? And why is dance so often either used saturatingly as a performance’s exclusive medium or as its means of comic relief? Dance is potent, and can be a punchy and cogent highlighter when used in the right proportions. A little can go a long way.
April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.