The audience is still filing into the theater when Kim Brandt’s troupe of 24 dancers—amongst them the other three choreographers on the bill—collapse into a mountain of bodies onstage. After a few short minutes, this surprisingly inanimate-seeming pile of cloth begins to melt, and the performers pool slowly out across the floor.
We regard the splayed bodies with mild expectation, until—surprise!—Sarah Michelson’s voice cuts through the silence, announcing that this first, moments-long event was now over. If the tenuous architecture of Brandt’s pile, supported by its dozens of interlocking limbs, is a metaphor for the choreographers’ collaborative 10-week residency at The Kitchen, then the mound’s subsequent crumbling can be read as a preview of the night’s ultimately unbalanced and disparate Dance and Process showing.
After an awkward 40-minute intermission, the five dancers of Gillian Walsh’s Hasbro Procedures: Working in The Kitchen take the stage, heads bowed over written scores. With deliberately unhurried timing, they read aloud strings of seemingly random letters and numbers (I 5 7 K 5 7 2 N 10 20, etc.) while performing simple, repetitive steps (pivots, hops, lunges) in different combinations of unison and divergence, stagnancy and movement—like slow, circuitous traffic.
The dancers’ monotonous voices, along with an unremitting soundtrack of ominous, thunder-like rumbling, produce a sensually draining atmosphere. It is emotionally draining, too, to be denied access to the performers’ faces, which remain downturned in deep concentration. The strongest moments emerge when dancers get lost in the score and look up to address the other dancers: “Oops, I did that wrong,” “Can we start again on ‘S’?” These mistakes are little tremblings of humanity in the piece’s otherwise barren and alienating landscape. After a second intermission, we are presented not with a new work, but with a second performance of Hasbro Procedures, in full. Michelson’s repetitive programing is sincere, perhaps, in its desire to prove something about procedural choreography and endurance art, but the forced, two-hour long experiment does not quite land.
The standout event of the evening by far was Rebecca Patek’s I heard it was alright (pause 2 seconds). I mean (pause for 1 second), I’m interested to see where it goes, a duo performed by Patek and Sam Roeck. After the dryness of Procedures, our senses welcome I heard’s flood of richly interconnected movements, meanings, and media, all supported by Roeck’s ingenious set design. I heard is a dense account of the infamous lovers-turned-child-murderers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, melded eerily with Patek’s personal narratives. Recorded audio overlaps text from court transcripts with candid dialogue, and projected video and text act as darkly comic guides through the story.
A white house frame fashioned from P.V.C. piping and chain is suspended from the ceiling, and a spotlight encircles the dancing Patek as she swings and shifts, softly punching at nothing. This odd, listless dance takes on delightful new meaning when a projected home video of a young child falls into unison with her movements. Two chairs on a rolling dolly become a car, as Leopold (Roeck) and Loeb (Patek) describe their car ride on the night of the murder, “an adventure” that ended with a bloody chisel.
Patek deftly grafts these complex, at times gruesome historical moments onto her past life experiences—whether fictitious or actual—and at times breaks from the theatrical altogether to candidly acknowledge the reality of the current performance. Interrupting a line of questioning as Richard Loeb, Patek addresses the audience in an awkward sort of introduction as “herself,” telling a halting anecdote about her father while Roeck dons a felt hat and adorns her with a long blonde wig and blindfold. We hear a recording of a cordial conversation between Patek and an anonymous paternal man, which transitions into the disturbingly vivid sounds of the two engaging in “daddy” S/M role-play. The dirty talk and breathing of the sexual encounter becomes the soundtrack of the blindfolded Patek’s tongue-in-cheek performance of “authentic movement.” Roeck then bends Patek over his knee and spanks her in synch with the recording. They switch roles, alternating spanker and spanked until mock-dying in each other’s arms.
At one point, Patek’s recorded conversation with her sex partner turns to the sex-addict protagonist’s motives in the film Nymphomaniac, leading Patek to make the loaded assertion, “Even sickness has a motive.” It is unclear what exactly Patek means with this comment, but it reads like alarmingly uncritical mental illness shaming. This segues into Roeck (as Leopold) walking on a treadmill and posing the question, “My motive?” Patek emerges beside him, jogging in place, and the pulsing sounds of French pop hit “Papaoutai” (“Papa Where Are You?”) usher in a tight, Robyn-esque dance sequence.
I heard it was alright neither shies away from nor sensationalizes the difficult personal and historical incidents it portrays. With precise timing, the content unfolds like a crosshatched plaid of storylines, ethical queries, intimate moments, and power dynamics, infused all the while with a distinct humor. Every audio clip, lighting decision, and set piece felt necessary to the whole—an impressive feat for such a sweepingly inclusive project.
The evening closes with video artist Alan Calpe, whose untitled piece is structured around a rotating projector and a series of screens on traveling, metal frames. A dancer begins by running alongside a screen cleverly depicting a video loop of a man running. As dancers and screens emerge, the scene builds to a saturated meta-landscape: the dancers maintain eye contact with various onscreen figures and blithely imitate their gestures and wanderings. This effect dissolves, however, into a rather precious party scene, replete with live footage of the performers, a disco ball, and cutesy dance music blasting lyrics like “leave the world behind.” The drawn out, jubilant finale did not feel quite earned in the context of the piece, and left a cloying taste that overwhelmed the compositional strength of Calpe’s opening sequences.
For this iteration of Dance and Process, Michelson curated a four-hour evening of performances scattered between several arbitrary pauses, and, for reasons unknown, abstrusely withheld all information about the program’s schedule—even some performers I spoke with were not privy to the lineup or the show’s duration, and the program itself revealed nothing. Despite these confusing decisions on the curator’s part, the featured choreographers and performers presented their ambitious works-in-progress with both skill and intention, and I walked away from the night with a full mind and curiosity about their further development.
LESLIE ALLISON is a writer and musician. She composes choral music for performance collaborations with Francis Weiss Rabkin, and her illustrated chapbook of poetry about Martha Stewart, MARTHA, will be released in April 2015 by Ugly Duckling Presse.