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A Response to Tara Pilbrow's "2+1"

Updated: May 9, 2018

When was the last time you straight-up, no holds barred, absolutely lost your mind at a dance show? I’m talking drool-worthy delight, gurgles of glee that escape unbidden and a body that wiggles like joy incarnate. No? Me neither. But last Sunday at the matinee showing of Tara Pilbrow’s “2 + 1”, I had the exquisite luck of sitting just four seats down from a young girl of about one and a half who redefined for me what it could mean to enjoy a show.

The piece itself was a delightful, at times poignant portrait of the world-altering swirl of early parenthood. Conceived and created by Tara Pilbrow and brought to life by dancers Roxanne Gray and Colin Epstein, it followed a young couple’s trials in simply trying to keep it together as they cared for a new baby. The set offered a hilarious and telling backdrop for the show’s loose narrative structure, strewn with a chaos of clothes and punctuated by a washing machine set into the back curtain. Over the show’s thirty minutes, the performers wound their way through what felt like a series of scenes from inside their home. Their movement ran the gamut between literal and abstract, slapstick, acrobatic, lyrical, and tender. Both performers engaged explicitly with the audience throughout, using absurd facial expressions and a high-level of sensitivity to calibrate and respond to the energy in the room. To me, their directness felt like a generous recognition of each of us in the audience as active participants in the space.

This was just as well, because from the moment the piece began, I found my attention straddling the piece itself and the reactions of my fellow audience members. Comprised almost exclusively of children under the age of 6 and their thirty-something parents, the audience was unlike any I have ever encountered at a modern dance show. Their reactions were immediate, public, and absolutely unselfconscious. In return, my viewing experience was one of the richest I have had in a long time. Their audible, visible, unedited reactions to the work served the purpose of the best post-show discussions, allowing me to consider the show from multiple perspectives even as I was viewing it in real time. Their spontaneous delight ignited exponential delight in me; their moments of boredom or disengagement, especially when they matched up with my own, catalyzed my curiosity even further about what was or wasn’t working in the piece that should cause our collective attentions to drift.

As the show went on, the responses of the children in the audience came to feel almost like a barometer for the authenticity of the physicalization on stage - they loved the physical gags (especially the scene in which Epstein flung himself around the stage with increasing athleticism and urgency in a mad-dash attempt to catch a spray of dirty clothes being catapulted over the backdrop from backstage), mostly loved the absurd noises (with one notable exception of a little boy who was terrified by them and began to cry immediately), and were largely disinterested in a lyrical solo by Gray about three quarters of the way through the piece that, to me, also felt somewhat unmoored compared to the intricate physical dialogues between she and Epstein that felt so immediately causational and clear.

Public opinion was split on the more task-based movement sections. While the older kids in the audience were rapt by the section at the end in which Gray and Epstein transported a clear bowl of water diagonally downstage using every part of their body except their hands, many of the younger kids seemed to quickly lose the thread on why or how this mattered. On the other hand, every forehead in the audience leaned forward ever so slightly the moment they set the bowl down and Epstein dipped his hand into the water holding a long piece of twine. Suds appeared as he churned his hand back and forth in a seemingly alchemical reaction. In the wake of the audience’s immediate and complete captivation, I noticed my own visceral engagement with his hand and the twine in the soapy water. I felt a physical empathetic response in my own skin. I noticed my delicious expectation in knowing that at any moment his hand would emerge, and it would be fundamentally changed - wet, not dry.

The reactions of my fellow audience members also highlighted for me how indispensible the washing machine was to both the structure and feeling of the piece. Every time the dancers returned to the machine, the audience’s attention calibrated like a laser to their movements. The performers returned to it over and over - to mark the completion of one idea, to bring back a previous idea, illustrate transformation, or transition from one scene to the next. They slept on top of it, Gray entered the stage by crawling through it, and Epstein spent a few hilarious minutes trying to cram the dirty laundry littering the stage into it, only to have laundry stream back out at him, pushed by an invisible hand backstage. It physically facilitated our experience of the “same, same, but different” structure on which so many successful gags and narratives rely. Visually, the machine rooted us in the domestic swirl of the dancers, and offered a subtly comedic foil to their disoriented dysfunction. Afterall, what could be more symbolic of early parenthood than a washing machine that not only fails to clean your clothes, but actually spits the dirty ones back out at you?

For me, the crowning moment of the show came right at the end, not from onstage, but from the audience. Epstein finally took his hand out of the soapy water with the dripping twine in tow. He slowly trailed the twine through the air, growing a shimmering bubble. “Whoa,” breathed a boy behind me. And this is when the little girl four seats down lost her mind. “Bubbles,” she said, rapt beyond measure. “Pop.” Epstein went back to get more soapy water, and from the moment the bubbles appeared until long after the performers took their bows, I swear she didn’t blink once. “Bubble! Pop!” Her pure pleasure expanded like a powerful celestial body in the room. Before long she was wiggling in her mother’s lap like an exaltation of life itself. “Bubble! Pop! Pop! Bubble! POP!” By the end, she had swept the entire audience into her delight - the entire cast of Alvin Ailey could have fallen from the sky performing “Revelations” and I would have been hard-pressed to pull my grinning face from the young girl’s joyous dance.

Ultimately, to me this felt like the quiet brilliance of Tara Pilbrow with “2+1” - to not only create a show that was so thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but to also craft it to provide so generously for her audience. As soon as the show was over, kids flocked the stage to play with bubbles, and the performers greeted them happily, facilitating an all-out bubble party for a good 15 minutes. Myself, I just hope to see a show with an audience so honest again soon.

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