when the blossom passes, what remains?
September 9–October 2, 2022
The comparison that leapt to my mind in the first moments of HOLDTIGHT Company’s when the blossom passes, what remains?, performed at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre, was entering the spa. I was handed a lantern fashioned out of loosely woven twigs and led to an indoor balcony where a few audience members already sat cross-legged on cushions amidst a foggy, harmonious environment. The strumming of the guzheng, a Chinese plucked string instrument, combined with sounds of trickling and bubbling water amplified from some live but unseen place created a tranquil pre-show atmosphere fitting for a massage.
Later in the ninety-minute, immersive, participatory dance, theater, and music performance, I wondered—without snark—if it wasn’t more cult than spa. The evening was bookended by communal drinking of “elixirs” from Furnace Creek Farm (Director Gwendolyn Gussman elucidated the healing powers of “Adaptogens” within); the lovely performers wore flowing blue linens; Music Director Jett Kwong created a continuous, meditative aural soundscape through the guzheng, her lilting, gentle voice, and fellow composer and sound artist Odinn Orn Hilmarsson’s live looping and alteration of the audio. These associations reflect the rare commitment to healing, peace, and sensation that characterizes massage studios, the hippie-leaning cults of my imagination, and this performance.
when the blossom passes, what remains? is ultimately a dance show. According to the program, Gussman, choreographer and founder of HOLDTIGHT, sought to model care for nature through care and healing of ourselves.
With the audience relocated from the balcony and now seated on all sides of the stage, we were introduced to movement leaning toward the durational, fluid, and seemingly semi-improvisational. The three dancers—Gussman, Xenia Mansour, and Nico Gonzales—shared a stunning capacity for flow. The choreography evoked time-lapse videography so often used to capture the natural world. The performers embodied an awakening forest through a slow, methodical ascent from the floor. They pushed their pelvises and limbs toward the sky and stroked their hands across their bodies, moving as if in a dream state. Almost imperceptibly, the dancers came together and conjoined, beginning a motif of interconnected negative space fulfillment. The three twisted in and out of each other’s nooks and crannies, creating an ever-evolving landscape of bodies.
Breaking through the hypnotic movement and sound, a performer would begin to speak, usually suddenly and without preamble. The bulk of the text focused on personal stories of nature, narratives seemingly drawn from the biographies of the speakers and told in the first person.
In a particularly effective scene, Mansour reflected on her childhood experiences of the ocean while moving between vintage-looking basins of water used repeatedly throughout the work. As she lifted a foot to take a step, Gonzales or Gussman would gracefully rush to place one of the three basins in her pathway. At first, they placed them close together, forming a continuous stream of tubs for her to walk in. As the scene progressed, they were placed further and further apart, eventually so far that Mansour couldn’t possibly have made the step. At this point, the other two performers lifted her up and placed her gently in them. Their physical chemistry and care for one another assured that she never even had to look down.
Later, in a memorable crescendo, Gonzalez and Gussman stomped and splashed in the buckets. Their arms twisted like branches in the wind, their feet moved faster and faster until nearby audience members were feeling the spray.
Another powerful moment, and testament to the impact of scenographer Anna Driftmier on the work’s potency, was the descent of a large canopy made of burlap from the ceiling as Gonzalez described a familial connection with a majestic, ancient Douglas fir. Thin, rectangular scraps of fabric dangled from the burlap like tendrils in a rainforest. These scraps turned out to be commitments—on each someone had written something they planned to leave behind, and what they thought would remain once they had. The performers invited each of us to add to the scenery, inspired by Hilmarsson’s tale about his namesake, the Norse god Odin who sacrificed his own eye in pursuit of wisdom: “By letting go, he becomes interconnected with the world.”
Many of the performers’ personal narratives seemed just that—personal. Though the work was clearly environmental in theme, often quite moving, and uniquely successful at creating an all-encompassing sensorial experience, I struggled to connect the individual narratives to a broader call to action. I wondered about this certain return-to-the-earth mentality focused on individual feelings, choices, and sacrifice without broader context of social, political, and cultural forces.
And yet, I was stirred by the closing invitation, set in the cell’s serene backyard, to reflect on what it would mean to be fully present with nature. When asked to write on a tiny scroll what I might be able to offer could I truly come into communion with the earth, I found myself inadvertently scrawling a full paragraph. When asked to drop my scroll into a bin and pick up someone else’s on the way out, I did feel inklings of the potential power of reciprocity. The work’s conclusion is a Carl Jung quote, spoken collectively by each of the five dancers and musicians and with a closing thesis spoken by Gussman: “There is nothing with which I am not linked.” At least inside the container of this thoroughly immersive performance, there is no question about that.