Uncanny Worlds in Familiar Spaces
Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W) at Danspace Project
February 1-3, 2018
The pursuit of an original use for space in a dance work often seems a fraught subject for the choreographer, perhaps under the increasing pressure to challenge the conventions of audience-performer relationships. As an audience member in St. Mark’s Church within the past year, I have lined its walls, sat cross-legged in its center to divide the sanctuary stage into two courts, laid down on the floor, faced the ark, and faced the doorway. Mina Nishimura’s Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W), however, leaves that traditional proscenium contract unbreached, and yet transforms the church—from its historic dance floor to its sacred eaves—into a house of spirits, teeming with breath and whispers.
In Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W), figures materialize sparsely in and out of our view like specks under a microscope. Someone slowly crawls on hands and knees along the perimeter of the church’s balcony, out of sight, hushing loud, metered, arctic breaths—the only sound through silence. Down below, Nishimura slowly rolls on the floor. Jonathan Burkland crosses the space in grazing walks as if blown by the wind to kneel in stillness by a light. Maho Ogawa crawls along the left wall on hands and knees, stopping from time to time to subtly seize. Everyone wears navy blue tunics, black pants, black sneakers. I watch figures along their separate paths defining the fringes of the space until a new one catches my eye; Burkland orients the gaze toward a new corner by shouting “Hey! Hey! Hey!” repeatedly, flicking his hand at the wall. Symmetries appear and disappear: Nishimura stands midstage slowly morphing, skidding, and cringing with a figure above left in the balcony and one below right downstage, in a larger-than-life diagonal. Eight figures move along paths in private, drifting worlds. The space is an underworld, a crossing of the River Styx.
Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W) evokes frames, thresholds, spaces and states of liminality. Characters—human, ghost, natural element?—drift through open doorways far upstage, or slip from the sanctuary only to reappear above moments later in continuance, in and out of our sight. Behind us, a woman’s soft and laughing conversation in Spanish can be heard through the wall; half-conversations in other languages drift from above. Spatial sounds—creaking wood, rattling pipes, and dripping water—might be recorded or else created by figures offstage where we cannot see. Flickering light and rhythmic stomps coming from a far doorway suggest that someone is jumping repeatedly in front of a lamp, though no human presence confirms this. Instead, in my line of vision are two specters in veils who separately wander the floor and balcony. Like the work itself, they oscillate between whimsical and haunting: vaguely brides, the man’s veil matches his blue-black uniform, the woman’s has the colorful beads and flowers of a Dia de Los Muertos sugar skull. A ways away, someone plays with his shadow, grown long with time. Expansive and profuse with sound even in its near silence, the church becomes an echo chamber, a dripping tunnel, blinking with mirages.
It’s special to watch Nishimura’s moments alone in the sanctuary, whose Butoh training is expressed in movement that orbits with infinite textures in the liminal space between the natural and the unnatural. She might mildly grip her ribs while looking off distantly, cringe and roll her head elsewhere, moonwalk several steps, and arch backwards, her mouth open in half-formed thought. These separate impulses, shivers and fondles, tentative looks and half-gestures evoke the body uncoded, impolite, with impetus unfamiliar. The concept of the “uncanny valley” offers that certain subtleties signal to a viewer that something is relatable, worthy of empathy: an artificial creation must blink, shift its weight, breathe, and twitch from time to time just to read as human. What if such small movements were taken to the extreme?
On her dancers, this practice of imperceptible, rippling changes and uncanny motions can be less magical, sometimes awkward, though one marvels at what prompts from the choreographer could generate such discrete material from the characters in this hollow world. When she occupies space, Nishimura masterfully sees us but blinks away with a mild, concentrated frustration: we are wallpaper, passersby in her universe. Some of her dancers lack this confidence in who we are in this house of spirits. In an effort to make clear that they do not see us, our presence becomes too guiding and orienting a force. When the sugar-skull bride finds a partner with whom to face, lift, and prance the perimeter of the room, their synchrony feels fumbled and new. Having allowed their solo courses to affect us for so long, the moments of duet could offer the work important rupture, yet they fall short in power.
Indeed, the work’s greatest achievement is not in the minutiae, but in the way its whole envelops the imagination and bends the senses to fill in details where clues are not given, to take cues from sound when sight eludes us and vice versa. Trailing her dancers along the far edges of a space in which we are so often oriented towards its center, Nishimura effects a broad opening of the gaze and line of vision. From my small seat in the audience I look far up and behind me, I squint to see what is just out of sight, and hear for the movement between layers of wall.
Towards the end of Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W) a cosmic shift takes place, like the alert, revelatory moments that happen right before death, signaling its approach. Burkland trails a gibberish scat-speak as he walks a line across the sanctuary, as if we’ve hit fast forward on his monologue. The elusive Ilana Stuelpner, who has lurked around the far upstage corners, throws open the front doors of the church and darts out, piercing into the real world beyond. At that far distance, through the doors, a bus drives by, in and out of the small, central frame. In time, the night’s cold rolls into the sanctuary—a permeable membrane, a breathing organ. Two women back up slowly away from us, side by side, grazing each other’s fingers. Nishimura returns to her infinite, soundless rolling on the floor, a man throws his head back into a wolf howl, and the lights fade. At long last, all we see are the two figures’ receding silhouettes, framed neatly by the open doors and the outside world.
SARIEL FRANKFURTER is a New York-based writer and dancer. She graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Dance and English.