If you condense the lengthy title of luciana achugar’s new work—extract the run-on middle from the succinct ends—you get the phrase “FEEL FORM.” A press release for the show shed some light on this particular pairing of words: The all-female quartet, it said, “makes the form of the dance palpable to the audience, collapsing the difference between ‘seeing’ the dance versus ‘feeling’ the dance.”
Such seductive summaries, such promises of how a work will affect me, are why I sometimes avoid reading about a performance before seeing it: I can’t help but let them shape my expectations. In this case, I came to anticipate some sort of radical immersion in the world of FEELingpleasuresatisfactioncelebrationholyFORM, a cathartic convergence of visual and visceral experience, through the kind of ritualistic vessel that achugar, in previous works, has created so effectively.
But my awareness of this possibility seemed only to distance me from the piece. From the plush seats of the Abrons Arts Center Playhouse on the evening of May 12, facing the stage head-on, I felt too far away, set back at a cold, uncomfortable (or perhaps too comfortable) remove. While FEEL...FORM toyed in many ways with the conventions of the proscenium, that setup—dancers there, audience here—detracted from its immediacy. I craved a more intimate space: How would it have read, for instance, in the diminutive Chocolate Factory (which co-commissioned the work)? For about an hour, I watched other people feel in deep and instinctual ways, while feeling vaguely curious, but little more, myself.
While seeing, for me, trumped feeling, vision was secondary for those performers (Achugar, Rebecca Brooks, Jennifer Kjos, and Melinda Lee). Each wore a long, thick, jet-black wig that streamed over her face and naked body, arriving at her hips. You could imagine the darkness under those manes; you could ponder the reliance on senses more primal than sight. Beginning as gentle presences in the front row of the audience—heads bobbing in and out of dim yellow light, voices eerily crooning, faceless figures finding their way up onto the stage—they seemed more creaturely (ghostly mermaids) than human. That mystique would come and go, at times replaced by a balder realization: These were people in hair costumes.
Aided greatly by Carrie Wood’s lighting, FEEL...FORM slipped back and forth across the threshold between two realms: the shadowy one in front of the curtain, and the brighter one behind it, often flooded with startling brilliance from a row of low-hanging marquee lights. Before the curtain rose, a tantalizing glow peeked out from beneath it. As the dancers mirrored each other in simple walking patterns (complicated, it appeared, by the fact that they couldn’t entirely see each other), you wondered what was back there.
Not just lights, we learned, when the curtain ascended halfway, but also clothing and music: increasingly elaborate trappings of the theater. Encircling a pile of denim, pawing at it like animals at prey, the performers undertook the task of putting on blue jeans with no help from their hands, as the live band (James Galbraith, Marisol Limon Martinez, and musical director Michael Mahalchick) played a gritty rendition of Erik Satie’s plaintive “Gnossienne No.1.” To watch these mysterious pairs of legs struggle, wiggle, flail, and squirm their way into regular old clothes was the most absorbing, the most empathy-invoking part of the night.
Intensity built; order unraveled. Bodies tumbled rapidly across the floor, engulfed in tangled tresses: left, right, left, right. Later, when the curtain had risen all the way and the dancers had uncovered their faces—a simultaneous revelation of performer and stage—the mirroring patterns returned, this time cleaner, more expansive, more satisfying to watch. (Beth Gill’s rigorous study in symmetry, Electric Midwife, came to mind.) These soon fractured into a kind of voluptuous thrashing, consumed by the haunting wail of the band.
There was plenty to think about, plenty of theorizing to be done about the members of this cultish clan and the place they inhabited. But the more physical they got, the more cerebral my experience became. The more they lost themselves, the wider the gap between my world and theirs. Is this what unbound, free-wheeling form feels like?
Maybe it was, after all, a testament to their power that I only wanted to feel closer.