I. Critical dilemma: my friend is in the show.
“The dance world is a small one and a great one, don’t you think?” a colleague wrote to me last week (in a note sent via snail mail, in a chipper font simulating handwritten cursive) after a networking brunch the weekend before.
I tend to agree. But when I arrive at opening night of FLICFest (a cleverly acronymed festival of “feature-length independent choreography”), coming straight from dance class, I feel the smallness closing in on me.
“Is anyone sitting here?” someone asks, gesturing to the seat next to me. I realize it’s Casey, who I know from class, the one we both sometimes take on Saturdays with a former Doug Varone dancer. She’s a gorgeous mover with an asymmetrical haircut as fearless as her way of occupying space. We make a little small talk. Then she asks if we can switch seats, so she can sit on the aisle, because, “Well, not to ruin any surprises, but I’m in this piece.”
Casey is one of five dancers to emerge from the audience during Adam Scher’s Five Blind Mice. Actually, no, sorry; they are not dancers, but “subjects” taking part in “experiments” within the “testing area” of the stage, as three guys in lab coats and bow ties explain at the outset. You know, mad scientist types.
I want to like this work, because I like Casey. I also like our mutual friend Elena, who, Casey reminds me, just auditioned for Scher and will be doing a residency with him this summer. In my desire to be supportive, “objectivity” evades me. Politeness sets in—and with it, vague indecision. How do I know what I think when every slight misgiving, every glimmer of negativity, surrenders itself to a sympathetic, all-embracing benefit of the doubt?
“He must just be in a working-out-his-artistic-voice phase. I mean, aren’t we all? Okay, that thing that just happened felt kind of contrived. And in a way, the whole idea of ‘experiments’ in a ‘testing area’ makes this all feel kind of un-experimental. And yeah, that one part right there does remind me of a sort of, well, a sort of shampoo commercial. And I’m not so crazy about what she’s doing now, that thing of filming herself onstage and all those projections of herself on the back wall, which are kind of cool but somehow not as cool as they could be and a little cliché with this music, like ‘Look at how fractured I am.’ And I suppose, in a way, everything does seem kind of cobbled-together and too planned-out at the same time. But…
“Oh. Well, this is funny. This is actually really funny, despite that clumsy transition and those boxy TV sets they just dragged out, because I don’t know what it is but I just have something against TV sets, the same feeling I get from cassette tapes and ’90s power ballads, like ‘Ugh, not again.’ It’s the kitschiness I guess…you could put old home movies in the same category, like this one he’s mimicking right now, of himself as a little kid wriggling around to songs from The Little Mermaid, but he really is making me laugh. Oh—I think we did that shimmy in my sixth-grade jazz recital. Did he mean for this to be really awkward at first? Who knows, who knows. And who knows what he’s going for with these projections, but they can be pretty beautiful and hard to look away from. Kind of like the lighting in the first section, the way it faded in and out on that one really lovely dancer…”
She was someone I’d never seen before. But it’s no surprise when, two days later, I find myself standing next to her in class.
II. Why is there not more dance at the Irondale Center? Jeramy Zimmerman, artistic director of FLICFest (and CatScratch Theatre, one of the 12 companies presented over two weekends) must have asked herself that question when she chose this Fort Greene gem as her venue. Not only does the space have a grand, antique allure—high ceilings, big windows, peeling paint, exposed pipes—that makes any performance more evocative, but it’s located in a neighborhood that already draws dance appreciators. BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Center are just down the street.
Let’s hope that next year (and fingers crossed that there is a next year for FLICFest) every artist will use the theater as effectively as Layard Thompson in his Spellin’ Flashhhh Lightsssss. Compared with Duan Týnek’s Middlegame the night before, in which eight technically strong dancers worked feverishly to little effect, Thompson did a lot with just himself, six flashlights, and his vocal chords.
As he enters the dark, silent space—silent except for his heavy breathing—we can barely see his hunched, skinny figure. It takes a while to make out what he’s wearing—body paint (black in front, white on his back) and voluminous sequin pants. A faint glow emanates from the flashlights that he presses, light-side-down, against his stomach. These could be an extension of his skin or lungs, perhaps responsible for sucking the air out of him and pushing it back in. He sets them down around the perimeter of the stage, as if depositing pieces of himself, keeping the last one with him.
What follows is a true experiment, funnily and frighteningly absurd, in distortions of body, voice, and light. Accompanied by his gurgling, grunting, sputtering, chirping, chewing, and other vocal gymnastics, the expanding and contracting “O” of the flashlight’s glow becomes a character in itself; where does Thompson’s swamp-creature persona end and this eerily expressive orb begin?
In a humorous aside, Thompson disappears into a steamy back room. We hear his voice, in high-pitched piping mode: “Am I in or am I out? Am I both? Can I be both?” Alien as this animal is, I feel a sudden affinity for him, in his non-committal limbo.
III. “Ok, spit it out,” I want to say to Thompson at one point. He is deconstructing the English language, and I am getting impatient. Slowly, laboriously, he forms warped syllables into barely recognizable words—“Phe-noooo-meee-na.” “I-ma-gin-ayyy-tion.” Each syllable’s journey from deep in the diaphragm out into the audible open is fraught with struggle.
I want to say the same thing to myself sometimes, in those moments of second-guessing and equivocation, of wanting to critique the work but “be nice” to it. Instinctual feeling has a long, hard way to go before emerging as articulate thought, all those layers of politeness to cut through—and not just politeness, but real identification, with the dancer as a person who, like myself, just loves to dance, and with the choreographer as someone who, like lots of artists I know, is ultimately just playing around with some ideas. Snarky comment enters mind; pen hovers above paper; even to write it down feels like some sort of betrayal. Just say what you think.
But it’s all what I think, and the in-between is a real place. Can I be in and out—inside the small world and also a few steps removed, peering into it? Can I be both? Sure, go ahead, be both.
SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.