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Flash Review, 8-9: Dancing in the Dark
McGregor Tries to Shed Light by Removing it

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- From complete darkness, fluorescent lights popped on over the stage at the New York State Theater, flooding the audience with light but only barely revealing the two dancers onstage, thus beginning the opening section of Wayne McGregor's "AtaXia," seen July 21 on Random Dance as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. While it was easy for a reviewer to take notes, it was hard to see the performance about which he was presumably writing. The dancers, accompanied by the bleating minimalist music of Michael Gordon, appeared small and dim. I was sitting in the middle of the orchestra; I can't imagine how the people in the boxes or balcony could see a thing.

Throughout the first section of "AtaXia," 16 bare-bulb fluorescent lighting fixtures were turned on and off, lighting the stage (and audience) to varying degrees. Lucy Carter used two, four, six, eight or all of these obnoxious, glaring industrial lights, ultimately failing to illuminate the stage and dancers but succeeding in casting the audience in an inhospitable glare that nearly obscured the exacting movement of the practiced performers.

Over the past 20 years, it appears to me that the choice of this type of lighting has become de rigueur in an avant-garde European-style event. The concept of using a different, non-theatrical lighting source seems to overwhelm one of the main functions of stage lighting, which is to illuminate. While fluorescent light is capable of effectively "soft-lighting" a performer without nary a shadow, providing a subtle and complementary addition to more typical stage lighting, more often than not, we see these lights visibly employed as artistic sculptural statements that are thought to symbolize the harsh industrial world. Hogwash! The problem from the audience's point of view is that the exposed fluorescent fixture is indeed harsh but it is also obscuring; the bright linear bulb literally blinds the eye to the subtleties of the performance. The eye is overwhelmed by the singular brightness of the exposed fluorescent light bulb (or tube) and is thereby physically limited from seeing the performer with any sort of clarity.

The problems inherent in the fluorescent trap were demonstrated even more dramatically by McGregor and his lighting designer near the end of "AtaXia"'s first section, when the lighting shifted from fluorescent to theatrical sidelight and for the first time we could clearly see the performers. They appeared sculpted and visually alive as they performed a rough and tumble, stop and go, clinging duet. This exquisitely performed, loose-limbed, mutually dependent interaction, which was now so visible, appeared at first to be propelled by the relentless music, which sounded like a minimalist soundtrack for an action movie, but the dancing energy did not keep up with the musical drive. The players were no longer able to keep up; perhaps life was passing them by?

In the next section the fluorescent lights came and went for mercifully brief interludes, but still for no apparent purpose. Plexiglas panels flew in and divided the space, providing private performance areas that were lit individually to poignantly highlight a particular dancer or pair of dancers. Throughout this section, video images of what appeared to be an abstraction of automobile headlights moving quickly, evenly, and continually along curvilinear paths were projected over much of the stage, Plexiglas panels, and the shiny black back wall of McGregor and Carter's set. In retrospect this private view of people in a larger context reinforced the lonely existence of the afflicted.

When the music changed in pitch, like the sound of a vinyl record slowing down, the Plexiglas flew out, and a new section began with solos and duets accompanied by the sound of a single horn which quickly metamorphosized into horn-honking minimalism. The dancers began a choppy side to side motion in a serialized fashion that had them snaking their way to the center to form a chorus line that shifted left to right, as they extended their limbs in an arm-arm, leg-leg pattern. Spots and amber pools of light covered the stage, an effective use of unconventional lights. (In this case, sodium-vapor industrial area lights.) This group exhibition of the less than coordinated was a bit of overkill and bordered on bad humor.

As Gordon's score grew in intensity and speed, the loose-limbed movement continued unabated. Suddenly a smallish projection screen flew in from above, landing center stage right (our left), the dancers fell to the floor, a video projection appeared on the screen and the stage lights were blacked out. The music shifted to violins with voices as the video, by John Warwicker, added text to the visual mix. Talk about visual overload! While the dancers lay on the stage, they were now delineated by a glowing band of blue light, part of Ursula Bombshell's costuming, while overhead a relentless stream of too-quick-to-read video text snapshots zoomed by, momentarily pausing on the phrase "The ear hears the silence that the eye sees." Was this a metaphor for the disease ataxia? The flood of information certainly looked and sounded like a confusion of the senses.

At this point, the video became a montage encompassing the entire stage, bouncing off the shiny black backdrop while the dancers slowly stood like wind-up dolls in their electric blue striped costumes. As they wandered the stage like glowworms, the Plexiglas panels flew back in, catching and reflecting some of the video garble that was now wearing thin, while the music of strangely pitched electronic tones and vocals sounded more and more demented.

Suddenly, the video projection stopped, a lone guitar note shattered the visual and sonic cacophony, and a singular blue-striped dancer struggled on the stage floor like a wounded creature. Mercifully, the scene gradually built from solos to vignettes scattered about the stage, some backlit behind frosted Plexiglas panels that replaced clear ones, evoking a voyeuristic view through a shower curtain, with the remainder of the stage lit with the same amber pools. As the lights brightened, the sound grew louder and the movement, still loose-limbed, became more jerky and involved more struggling. An especially engaging quartet dominated the scene with high overhead lifts.

Abruptly the lights dimmed and the dancers separated and moved about the stage; I couldn't see a darned thing. Why?

Finally, the stage brightened by theatrical lights from the side, and the shiny black backdrop began to rise, revealing a bright rear-lit pearly white background. Was Heaven poking its nose under the tent? The entire company went into overdrive, enacting duets of fall and recovery as each of their bodies flopped in disconnected movements that completely lacked control -- mimicking the disease, perhaps? The music drove on relentlessly, building in intensity like a runaway locomotive as the pearly white background grew in size, volume and brightness. The dancers finally seemed to lose all body control and were subsumed by the overwhelming intensity of the light and sound. I guess they died and went to Heaven.

Understandably, the subject matter of a wasting illness that slowly and inexorably removes the body's ability to control itself is a tough subject. But since we know, from the numerous previews and publicity, his subject matter, McGregor's task of keeping us in suspense until the finish is nearly impossible. I can understand, from a research point of view, how the examination of the complexities of movement and the studies inherent in understanding and reproducing the various levels of de-construction of bodily control defined by this disease would be fascinating. I found the exhibition of this research and its emotional baggage on stage as art slow to build, hard to follow, at times nearly impossible to see and in the end unsatisfying.

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