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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
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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