Luminarium Dance Company Inspires Transcendence in Face of Uncertainty
Everything She Wrote
November 13, 2016
For many of us, the upending of the world as we’ve known it following the results of the Presidential Election may not have seemed a very fruitful climate in which to consume art- an act that is typically associated with introspection, moments of pause, and reflection. Feelings of grief can provide a nauseatingly kaleidoscopic filter that can distort that in which we would typically find pleasure to appear taunting at best, and completely mangled at worst. I realized this fully on Thursday morning when I began weeping while watching The Office in an attempt to start my day on a funny note after being distraught for the previous twenty-four hours. As I watched the characters laugh and jest, I found myself bitterly envious of their unwavering levity and humor, and I began to weep. Later on, I tried listening to Beyonce to feel better during my commute to work, and it simply hurt too much to listen to her words about female empowerment during a time when misogyny has shown its ugly head in the worst way imaginable, so again I began to weep. Now, anyone who knows me (or has spoken to me even once, quite frankly) knows that if I, of all people, cannot bear to listen to Beyonce, there is something gravely wrong. And there is. There is something gravely wrong.
Nevertheless, by the time Friday rolled around, I was feeling grateful to have been invited to Portal: Stories from the Edge, a dance concert produced by Boston’s Luminarium Dance Company. In spite of my relentless angst, I put on my “going out in public” shoes, and began my trek to the to the Boston University Dance Theater, clinging tightly to the hope that I could escape reality for a couple of hours to wade in the warm pool of human connection and emotion that dance had always provided me throughout my years of training and study of the art form. And sure enough- for the first time this week- I was not let down.
The show was followed by a talkback session with the choreographers and dancers, which seems like an odd place to start a review. However, host Karen Krolak, Artistic Director of Monekyhouse, asked the audience two important questions that really helped frame my synthesis of the show as it while it was still gelling in my mind. First, she asked for those who were stressed out by the political events of the week to raise their hands, and the room was unanimous (I love you, Boston). Then, Krolak asked the room to vote on which was more cathartic during times of immense stress: art that shows people in a state of happiness, or art that shows people in a tense, anxious state similar to their own. Much like the electorate, the room was divided.
I raised my hand for the second option. All five pieces in the show had- if not blatant, at least a subtle- quality of angst, dynamic tension, questioning, and uncertainty that was ironically comforting, and I left feeling like I was less alone in my unsettled state. Truthfully, I don’t know whether I would have been able to choose a side in the matter had my Office and Beyonce breakdowns not preceded this vote, and it was cool to use this opportunity to reexamine own my vantage point as a spectator, and how external events can alter the latter.
During the talkback, Merli V. Guerra, Artistic Director and choreographer of the concert’s first piece, “The Hostess Diaries,” divulged the fact that she had intentionally reworked the piece to be much darker than its original version as a response to her feelings of “doom” around the current state of our country, and I was glad she did. As a voter on the side of “stressful art is cathartic,” I deeply appreciated the piece’s ability to confront the idea of history repeating, for better or for worse. Lead performer Amy Mastrangelo navigated what I couldn’t help but narrowly interpret as a walk through the universal experiences of women throughout history. As the piece unpacked itself, Mastrangelo donned multiple variants of women’s period clothing to indicate the passage of time, but maintained the archetype of the “caged bird,” regardless of the generation through which she was moving. In each phase of history, we watched Mastrangelo move from a place of apparent stillness and self-awareness, to a frenetic attempt to “fit in” with the other women in her ensemble, eerily echoing the ethos of a society that wants women to submit, to obey. While there were moments of rebellion and outburst, we could always be sure that Mastrangelo would find her way back to desiring conformity, much like her female counterparts on the stage. By the end of the piece, I found myself marrying the metaphor latent in “The Hostess Diaries” to that of “The Yellow Wallpaper," (which you need to read after this, if you haven’t!)
The piece was accompanied by cellist Jonah Sacks and singer Mali Sastri , whose beautifully haunting line, “I sit alone and listen to the old clock ticking,” was repeated over and over towards the end of the piece, enforcing the idea that time changes, but patterns and modes of behavior do not always follow suit. As Guerra described during the talkback, “It doesn’t matter what century you are in, you will read the same diary entries about heartache, pleasure, pain, and day-to-day pleasantries, pressures.”
The concert’s second piece, “between words and space,” choreographed by Artistic Director Kimberleigh A. Holman, turned inward on that pressure and examined the question of “how to communicate our joys, our daily cruelties?” With duet performers Katie McGrail and Katharina Schier playing what seemed to be opposing parts of one “self,” the audience was able to view the physical manifestation of one’s daily internal conflict. Feelings of cyclically opposing inflation and deflation were reflected in the way one dancer would engage in hyperbolic and frantic movement, only to flop on the floor and have to be physically picked up by her partner, or “alter ego,” in order to continue on. The next beat would have the roles reversed, where the once deflated psyche would play the inflated psyche and so on. There was a beautiful snapshot towards the end of the piece, which saw one dancer was lying on the ground, the other hovering over her face and staring right back at her. From here, I was instantly transported into my bed at home, staring up at the ceiling in the early hours of the morning, gently asking, “What does it all mean?”
A similar question materialized in Guerra’s “The Grass Never Grows,” which set out to “explore both the allure and fear of slowing down.” The piece opened with an original poem by Guerra, including a line that advised, “Don’t let the grass grow under your feet, for then you will be still,” a sentiment that pulses uninhibited through our lives of constant stimulation and bottomless responsibilities. The narrator of the poem answers with a briefly romantic, “But what if I do (let the grass grow)?” and then quickly determines, “In truth, I fear I’d be forgotten there. If honest, I worry I would disappear.” We then experience her Alice In Wonderland-esque journey through the metaphoric blades of slow-moving grass, and we watch as she revels in her moments of solitude before snapping back into the allure of the omnipotent “rush.”
Noticing a theme here? There were a lot of big questions being asked, and I was digging it. It was a wonderful reprieve from my previous days’ questioning, which consisted entirely of screaming, “WHY?! HOW?! WHY!? HOW?!” over and over at the sky.
Following the concert's first intermission, Holman’s “rabbit hole series" deconstructed the idea of performance in a way I had never seen before, despite having grown up on a stage. To start, the dancers who performed the piece were stretching on the stage during intermission and interacting with audience members in the most nonchalant way possible- a couple even asking for a compact mirror so they could put on their lipstick without smudging. When they started dancing without any prior notice that intermission was in fact over, my friend and I leaned over to one another and asked, “Wait, is it starting again?” which immediately pinned down the question of, “what is performance?” Throughout this incredibly multi-layered piece (I imagine I would have to see this one five or six time to even start to absorb everything that was there), the dancers played with everything from stage lights, to backdrops, and even confronted the show business rule of “smile for the audience,” by making either really happy or sinister faces at awkward times throughout the piece. With an soundscape of exaggerated breath, performer sounds (thuds, stomps, claps), manipulated rehearsal recordings, and an uncanny toy piano, the full effect of traversing down the proverbial “rabbit hole” from the perspectives of both performer and observer was achieved to an impressive and beautifully intelligent height.
The show wrapped up with a gorgeous and athletic modern piece choreographed by both Guerra and Holman, which was originally performed at the TEDxCambridge Commission. After a night of heavy introspection, while this piece still carried the same air of wisdom as its counterparts, its role as the finale piece served the purpose of bearing a sense of hope and power that many of us now find ourselves yearning to reclaim. I could have watched it go on forever, because in that world of strength and movement, I felt blessed to be liberated from reality, even if only for a fleeting moment.
At the end of the talkback, Karen Krolak reminded us that when it comes to art, and especially live performance, “we need it now more than ever.” And she’s right. So decide what is going to make you feel best during these trying times (and that may change from day to day; I was, after all, able to revisit The Office this morning, sans tears!), and get out there and engage with the art scene in your city or town. No matter how you’re feeling, the simple act of being around others provides a profound “Portal” to healing.