New YorkPerformance Space
May 28 – 29
The black curtains form a dark wall across the proscenium assembled at Performance Space. Green and yellow lighting washes through the haze above the audience. We hear the ribbit of frogs, the buzz of crickets, and the swampy whir of the nocturnal. Pulsing from under the seats, murky colors up-light the curtain—a damp rainforest overture. Ligia Lewis’s Water Will (in Melody) is the final part of the choreographer’s trilogy that includes Sorrow Swag and minor matter. With more performers than the former parts, and perhaps a less clear focus on race, this third instalment sets out to encompass fairy tale, blackness, and theatricality.
A performer, Dani Brown, in white, PVC-coated, short overalls, her red hair tied back in a ponytail, moves across the slender gap between us and the curtain. Her movements are broken, switching between slow, then fast and erratic. She speaks in a patchwork of short pieces; sometimes she hums a tune, or sings softly the words “Once upon a time…”, or whispers to us a fragment, “There was a lonely child who did not want to do what her mother wanted.” (Or was it “willful” child?) Her white lace gloves gesture out like a mime or magician. She is our narrator, of the fairy-tale pantomime variety, or the vaudeville compare, who steps before the curtain to introduce the story. With an age-old dramatic device, she signposts an entrance into the realm of the theatrical.
The performer now accelerates between juxtaposed fragments: a squeaky grin squeals, “Sugar pie honey punch,” before an informative “This is not a monologue.” Performance Space has programmed Lewis’s work as part of their “No Series,” featuring artists who see creativity in refusal. Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto of 1965 said “No” to “spectacle,” “style,” “involvement of performer and spectator,” as well as all “transformations and magic and make-believe.” Water Will (in Melody), a frenzied embrace of all these elements and their affective potential, is a very different refusal to Rainer’s.
With our female narrator, the disobedient child, the swampy setting, we are in the domain of the feminine “other,” of the unruly and the unregulated, of the “outside.” Understanding this unregulated outside to be the place of blackness and femininity, it is here that Lewis stages her theater. The narrator steps to the side to dramatically pull open the curtains. As David Lynch said, “It’s so magical, I don’t know why, to go into a theater and have the lights go down, and then the curtain starts to open, and you go into a world.” Lewis’s world is a cavernous misty stage. The above lighting rig exposed, the black wings hang a couple feet off the ground, making them obsolete. The black floor appears shiny and wet. A thick, knotted rope hangs to the left, the only distinct element of the set. We meet three new performers, including Lewis herself. The costumes, with white frilly socks on one performer, black plimsolls on another, a bowler hat on a third, and white lace gloves on all, further evoke a vaudeville performance.
One performer, Jolie Ngemi, takes center stage. In her bowler hat she twists her face into a silent, comical cry. Her movements have a robotic, mannequin quality that can occasionally swing into a Popeye swagger. She mimes rope pulling then staggers backwards on her heels, her legs stiff, like a clown. As in parts of minor matter, a metronomic click sound underscores the scene. Sometimes she moves to the click, sometimes she falls out of step, or breaks out in a frenzy of gesture. Her face moves from exaggerated pain, to panic, to glee, eyes crossed like a Kabuki performer. Upstage, in the haze, the three remaining performers slowly assemble a series of tableaux. Their bodies twisted together, reaching, faces in anguish, like a white gloved Laocoön. A projection at the back reads “Part 1.”
Adebayo, singing a single note, rejoins the group, forming an exaggerated all-female version of something like Caravaggio’s Deposition. A new performer, Susanne Sachsse, sets up a microphone downstage. With her black kitten heels, greased down dark hair, and sheer pantyhose, there is more than a whiff of cabaret. She starts speaking in German. The music changes to a more complex choral arrangement, like that of John Taverner. One performer begins to swing another performer on the rope. The piece slips further toward the nonsensical, a cacophony of disparate elements drifting apart in a vague crescendo. The cabaret allusions, extreme facial expressions, exaggerated costume and emphasis on lighting and sound in an otherwise bare stage all recall the theatrical designs of Robert Wilson. By employing these exaggerated staging elements, Lewis enters into a long-established dialogue around theatricality and spectacle. Sachsse waves at the audience, smiling brightly, while her other hand moves up and down in front of her crotch. Devilishly, she holds her fingers in a V and licks between.
Perhaps Lewis’s intervention in the post-modern aesthetic lineage of style and spectacle is a feminist one, but not overt. The historical precedents Lewis builds on, such as the work of Wilson, shared an avant-gardist prioritizing of the “auteur” and his “vision,” often assembled around a dictatorial and masculine understanding of genius. These methods formed a system repeatedly uncritical of the labor of its performing bodies who manifest the work. Lewis, in her work and practice, is aware of the troubled politics surrounding this kind of theater, making it unclear what she is doing here in these murky waters. In what ways do her interventions differ from those raised by the work’s stylistic predecessors? The bodies of Water Will’s performers are strewn across the stage; beneath a deep hum, they slowly touch themselves sexually. One at the back screams silently, the back of her hand pressed to her forehead in a silent swoon.
The transition to the final act of Water Will is abrupt. The lights snap up. Happy music plays. They dance parodically in aerobic style movements, grinning at us. Then a snap. The curtain falls, lights shut off and the bodies fall to the floor lifeless. Applause. A searchlight scans the audience, the sound of a helicopter overhead as atmospheric music welcomes in “Part 2.” The same stage, but a fine mist of water pours from above. Drippy and dark. Theatrical parody appears replaced by something more somber and serious, just as in Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s acclaimed Betroffenheit (another work that invests heavily in the metaphoric potential of theatricality, clowning, and mime). The second act of Betroffenheit saw the stage stripped bare and the theatrical tropes substituted for an abstract void of cavernous shadows. In Water Will there is a similar effect, as if suggesting the devices from Part 1 were somehow superficial, a masquerade, for show. This final, shorter act is an unmasking, an unearthing, a slow collapse. The performers stagger around, lost, their constant mutterings echoing and incomprehensible. Lewis appears to attempt to make herself sick. They slowly pull the wings in, closing and breaking the dark space. They shiver in the wet.