Image by Paul Mitchell
If a dancer jumps in a room and I’m not there to see it …
That variation of the tree-forest-falling thing kept running through my mind as I watched Debra Loewen and Wild Space Dance Company’s latest creation, Sight Readings. I also thought about the latest thing in performance—environmental theater—in which you wander around a space and piece together a narrative from scenes and vignettes you may or may not stumble upon.
Sleep No More, a version of Macbeth spread over four stories of a New York City warehouse, is a heady experience, allowing you to happen upon intensely dramatic scenes and follow characters as they race toward their next appointed rounds. The problem is you never see all of it. Perhaps the show has run for three-plus years because people keep going back to try to see what they missed.
There isn’t a story in Sight Readings, however. There is a space—University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s INOVA Gallery—or rather a collection of connected spaces, each with its own unique qualities. There are 14 dancers, a blend of UWM students and Wild Space regulars. There are video projections by Jake Fuller and Tom Bamberger. And there are eight “structures”—some improvised, some choreographed. That’s the dance part.
Oh, and there’s a guy in army boots playing with dolls in the corner.
Unlike many of Loewen’s site-specific works, Sight Readings isn’t about history. A gallery space, after all, is designed to be a neutral backdrop for the art it contains. But it is about architecture and space.
Here’s some of what I saw. In a long, dark, gray-walled gallery, four dancers entered and clicked on a small light on the floor. It bathed them in a film-noir glow and filled one of the walls with shadows. Later, two dancers entered wearing camping head lamps, one of them carried a mirrored disco ball. They played with their two beams of light, creating shadows, isolating hands or limbs with the intense glare, or scattering flecks of mirrored light around the room.
Next door, a trio of dancers perched on a post-modern, Philippe Starck sofa in front of a wall-size video of a placid white cat. It was an exercise in nervous cat-like tics, as if the feline gaze was the source of genuine discomfort. In a larger gallery, the walls were filled with slowly morphing videos that looked like overhead shots of a barren landscape. A quartet improvised on a vocabulary that included sweeping, balletic gestures, and mime that suggested explorers in a strange landscape. Dancers joined, others left. And it ended with a unison set of lyrical phrases.
In a corner, the man in the army boots created silent shadow-scenes using a flood lamp, lay figures (the wooden dolls artists use to practice figure drawing), string and an old suitcase. Stories of giants and superheros.
And in the main space, Fuller’s video showed the shadows of birds alighting on tree branches. Dancers improvised, following instructions and concepts chosen for each quadrant of the space. In the finale, the whole group paraded in for a curtain call.
That’s what I saw in one installment of the performance (there are two nightly shows Friday and Saturday). Even though the evening was structured so that you moved to each space in turn, you were free to wander, obsess, explore. And the most fascinating aspect was the tension created by the limits of your own perception. Sitting in one room, I wondered what was going on in another (particularly if I heard laughter or other noises). I wanted to see it all at once, clock all the performers through the 50 minutes of the piece. Curiosity pulled me to abandon what was in front of me and explore what was hidden. But perception, architecture and time wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t put one room on pause, and wander over to see what was behind that wall.
Of course, the same thing happens on a traditional stage. Directors and choreographers know how to attract your focus, but watching that center-stage pas de deux means you aren’t attending to another couple's witty bit of comedy in the background. True to its title, and to its location, Sight Readings uncovers and explores the very basic ways we relate to the world, and the way it presents itself to us. The specific site for this “dance” was the INOVA gallery, but the space it explores is the one between our ears.