New York Live Arts | April 1 – 4, 2015
There is this great thing that can happen when you are staying in the countryside, far away from any source of light pollution. It’s mid-July. The heat stays sticky even after dark, and so you decide to walk to a nearby lake in order to cool off a bit before heading to bed. When you reach the lake, you find that the clear night sky—no moon, just the stars—is reflected in the water. That’s to be expected. What’s unexpected is that the local firefly population is experiencing one of its seasonal “blooms.” They’re everywhere and growing thicker by the minute, their points of light compounding those above and below you. I’m no romantic, but in this moment it feels very much like the ground has disappeared from under your feet, the stars falling as you move through a limitless space.
This is what I was reminded of while watching Rashaun Mitchell’s Light Years at New York Live Arts. The name implies what seems to be a thematic preoccupation, one of durational time and high-speed travel outside the typical human framework. Electronic music pulses in and out of sonic boom. Light swirls on the floor, a tiny cosmos that opens into a dappling of stars. Suns appear and disappear, projected on the back wall; the sparks of a meteor shower illuminate the ceiling. A sense of the infinite, of the expanse, is mirrored in the dancers’ movements, which alternate from slow and shy probing—an alien has landed—to wild, twirling outbursts—a nova has set gravity off its expected course. In the meantime, you’re allowed to forget that this is taking place in a theater.
Light Years starts out with Silas Riener walking counterclockwise in circles. He imitates the pattern and direction of the damned in Dante’s spiraling Inferno, though he seems to be going up into the heavens rather than down into the pit of hell. The light grows brighter. I had thought he was wearing Spandex, but it turns out he’s wearing a tasseled G-string—in Mitchell’s version of space, no suit is required, apparently. While moving he sucks in his stomach, ribcage showing; if the walking offers one form of exploration, the sculptural distortion and stretching of his body offers another.
This same duality of personal versus spatial investigation can be found in each of the other dancers, but in different ways. Melissa Toogood, a former Cunningham dancer like Riener and Mitchell, can really whip her legs around. (She’s also one of the busiest dancers, and one of the most compelling to watch. I’ve seen her three times in the past month, and each performance has been riveting.) Cori Kresge gives the impression that her limbs have been attached to small rocket packs. With his isolation of the hips and shoulders, Hiroki Ichinose could easily disguise himself as a robot if he wanted to.
These distinct movement styles can be attributed to a note in the program: choreography is credited to Mitchell “in collaboration with the dancers.” Much of the vocabulary draws from individual improvisation sessions, Mitchell noting what came naturally and then incorporating this into the formal construct of the piece. The collaborative nature of choreography is not new to him. “The origin of ideas is foggy and it’s hard to distinguish who’s contributing what at every step of the way,” he told Vogue. He might have been motivated to renege authorial control because of the inspiration for the work, which, as the program tells us, draws from the “accummulation of information movement can hold.” “What do we do with it? How can we move it forward?” he said in an interview with TimeOut. Instead of just turning to his own body and background in order to answer these questions, he looked outwards to the bodies and backgrounds of
Of course, Mitchell’s own history is there, too. He’s African American, and for this work turned to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Samuel Delany’s Nova, two books that address race, albeit obliquely. “Is this a black dance because I’m making it?” he asked of the process. Space has always been marketed as the place where humans can forget their differences and start afresh (the dubious and yet very popular Mars One project serves as a testimony to this idea). At times, Light Years seems to be less about physical memory and more about peaceful oblivion, as when Riener and Toogood join together in a jig-like tap dance sans shoes. The relationship between the dancers varies; sometimes it’s an indifferent “you’re in my way;” other times it’s wide-eyed curiosity, as when Toogood and Kresge touch each others’ bellies, or Riener and Ichinose rub chins. I’m unsure how this corresponds to Mitchell’s larger questions of race and humanity. The way the dancers relate to each other feels impersonal. But industriously so, almost like the teamwork of ants in zero-G environments as they try to cover new ground, reaching out as they fall off the walls (a phenomenon recently examined in studies conducted at the International Space Station).
Mitchell also seems to have been influenced by Delany in his use of archetypes. Delany drew upon myth, giving us the Dionysian artist or the Apollonian thinker. In the case of Light Years,there are several costume changes for all the dancers, and each seems to have a motif. Riener wears taupe embroidery, Toogood is a jungle girl with palm leaves stuck to her knees, Kresge is a woman of the clouds in blue, and Ichinose wears a silver unitard with a helmet. The costume differentiations supposedly reflect the dancers’ personalities, but end up feeling more like a crutch, distracting from the strength of their individuated movement styles. It doesn’t help that these themes could easily serve as the four tenets of American Apparel hipsterdom. This dose of familiarity feels cheap in a production that is supposed to be about confronting the great abyss. As Carl Sagan once said, “We could not guess how different from us they [extraterrestrials] might be. It was hard enough to guess the intentions of our elected representatives in Washington.” Real aliens would look weirder, aesthetically deranged. I wish the costumes had been able to go there, or at least not serve us something that’s available practically around the corner, for a price.
Still, Light Years allows the viewer to feel transported. Until the very end, that is: after the dancers finish their pas de quatre and the stage goes dark, the lights reignite on the audience. The dancers remain unlit, staring intently at us. We thought we were unobserved and could look on, invisible, as the planets were explored. But all along it wasn’t the dancers that were the aliens. It was us, watching from on high. I suppose it was inevitable that we would eventually be found out.
MADISON MAINWARING is completing her PhD in French at Yale. She has contributed to The Believer, The Economist, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications.