Rube G.—The Consequence of Action
Jody Oberfelder’s peppy, participatory dance inspired by Rube Goldberg Machines takes an optimistic view of human cause and effect.
Rube G. — The Consequence of Action
March 4–19, 2023
There is nothing quite like the distinct fear of impending audience interaction. New Yorkers are particularly familiar with the shifty eyed fidgeting of (inadvertent) audiences who have realized that a flipping and freewheeling subway performer is about to cast their cap to whomever makes eye contact first. In Rube G. — The Consequence of Action , choreographer Jody Oberfelder’s ability to not only defeat this fight-or-flight impulse but inspire enthusiastic participation is no small feat.
Performed in one of the largest studios at the Gibney Dance Center, Rube G. is, unsurprisingly, inspired by Rube Goldberg Machines. For the unfamiliar, Rube Goldberg Machines, named for their charismatic inventor, complete simple tasks through complex, indirect means. The topple of dominoes triggers the pull of a thread, which tips a cup of water, and so on and so forth until the light switch flips. With elaborate cause and effect so central to the Machines’ delightfulness, they offer a natural springboard for choreography.
The piece alternates between a few key activities. First is the most clearly derived from Goldberg Machines: simple actions passed around the audience who sit level with the dancers, filling the studio in an S-shaped curve. A dancer on one end performs a movement, and by meaningfully directing it toward the person next to them, sends the gesture on its way down the line of audience members until it reaches the other end. Second is more diffuse interaction — a dancer walks up to a particular audience member and shakes their hand, asks them to swap places, or leads them in a simple partner dance. The third is the three performers, also credited as collaborating choreographers, Grace Yi-Li Tong, Paulina Meneses, and Ashley Merker, dancing athletically and exquisitely. The movement combines crisp classical lines with a wiggling energy. Virtuosic stunts abound, as when the dancers stack on top of each other in plank positions, or create a human see-saw with long arabesques kicking up on either end. In her one solo, Oberfelder, significantly older than her on-stage colleagues, matches their physical prowess as she headstands and scissors her legs in the air, or demonstrates total core stability by spinning on her butt with perfect control.
The movement, music, and costumes are unceasingly jaunty. Dressed like mid-century modern clowns in pastel, color-blocked costumes designed by Claire Fleury, the dancers flaunt smiles that never wane. Though their glee is a bit over the top, the trio does seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company as they soar and prance, weave through the audience, intertwine their limbs, and giggle at strange partnering configurations. Between the performers’ endlessly cheery demeanors and the occasional clearly scripted spoken text, the mood doesn’t feel spontaneous and natural. Rather, the sense is that through this intimately staged, carefully planned display, we will all witness and experience the joy of interconnectedness.
In this dance, what is the consequence of action? Many audience members seem to share this curiosity when during the group activities they playfully try to affect the flow of the game by not passing the movement on as expected. Some try to send it back the way it came, others try to alter the action (clapping twice instead of once, making the tempo much slower or faster). Inevitably, though, Oberfelder and her collaborators smilingly insist upon continuing as planned. It’s a surprising choice in a piece so centrally concerned with how one object affects another. Inanimate objects are commanded only by the forces of physics. An expertly crafted, carefully calibrated Rube Goldberg Machine will always complete its task. Human beings, on the other hand, are commanded by all sorts of whims and fancies. To create a machine of people and not allow it to be affected by their human impulse toward chaos is a missed opportunity.
In some ways, peppy, participatory dance lowers barriers to entry for an art form that is often viewed as impenetrable and insular. In other ways, Rube G. raises questions of accessibility in interactive art. Upon entrance we received a perfunctory warning about “light touch,” and the evening was billed as participatory. Nevertheless, it was hard to know how much movement would be expected of us, and seemingly simple tasks such as standing up, crossing one’s legs, or rhythmically clapping are difficult or impossible for many people. The audience appeared generally game to perform the tasks, but old, disabled, and injured viewers may struggle in a way that puts them in an unwanted spotlight. Given the aversion to going off course, I can’t help but wonder what happens if and when someone can’t or won’t pass on the action.
Rube G. is a happy, crowd-pleasing contemporary dance, which at times feels like an endangered species. Close to the end of the near hourlong work, Yi-Li Tong and Meneses aggressively tickle Merker, chasing her around the space like older siblings ganging up on a younger one. What starts as another chance for mirth turns serious when Merker, having giggled “stop” over and over, suddenly lies prostrate and demands, loudly and sternly, that they really must stop. It’s the only moment of non-levity and comes as a surprise. Up to now, the thesis seemed to have been that relational movement brings joy. The sudden somber shift is a needed reminder that even causes with the best intentions can have negative effects. Still, Rube G.’s ideology is overwhelmingly optimistic. Heavier doses of realism, whether through a wider emotional range or truer commitment to audience interactivity, could ground the piece. As it stands, the dance views consequences lightly, an outlook which may resonate with glass-half-full viewers and chafe at the rest of us.