A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s art opening. It was held in the front room of a large Victorian with lofty ceilings and hip-to-ceiling windows that shone with dusky light. Her prints meandered like a black and white stream around white walls, and lay across a large table in the middle of the room. I started at the table, magnetized towards a small paper box with printed accordion fold-outs that stretched into printed images of verdant greenery.
“That didn’t turn out how I meant it to.” Artist Olivia Arau McSweeney looked on as I pumped the box open and closed, printed sides folding and unfolding in paper pleats. She picked up another small box to my right and pulled it open like an accordion. “See? This was my prototype.” The blank sides on hers stretched flat, while mine stayed furrowed and off-kilter. “I made a sketch of how it’s supposed to work here.” She pointed at a series of diagrams drafted with an engineer’s precision. “I think the ink affected the folding action?”
She replaced the box on the table. “Anyway, let me know if you have any questions while you’re looking around!” I nodded and she drifted away to greet a cluster of new arrivals.
Last Friday night, sitting in the ODC theater at Emily Hansel’s newest work, “Four By Four,” I couldn’t help but think of Olivia’s show. Though the setting (a dark and drafty theater), the art form (moving bodies on stage), the context (a “completed” work at the culmination of a month's long rehearsal process), and the themes explored (a “messy attempt at refusing productivity” and an exploration of “not knowing”) were distinct, both shows felt like invitations to enter the work through process instead of product. These invitations came not in the form of written descriptions or verbal explanation, but instead by way of the art itself. Both Olivia and Emily used the languages native to their work (sketches, paper prototypes, and choreography) to reveal the processes that had given birth to what we were seeing.
In doing so, both bodies of work unfolded for me in unexpectedly rich ways. Olivia’s folding box became not just a beautiful and clever paper contraption, but a study on iteration, noticing, and the unpredictability of working with uncontrollable materials like paper and ink. “Four By Four” became a series of infinitely branching questions around the communicative potential of moving bodies on stage—Is movement innately meaningful? What limits and potential do moving bodies have for precision in communication? To what extent is the meaning of a movement shaped by its context (physical, compositional, historical, sonic etc.)? How are all these things the same or different from other forms of communication? And on and on. By the end of the show, I was swimming in a gentle glow of non-verbal intention, clear that something had been given to me, but not yet able to put words to it.
The show took place in three 15 to 20 minute chunks of dancing separated by two 5 minute pauses. During each pause, we were invited to get up and stretch, chat with our neighbors, or do whatever else we wanted—a sort of choose-your-own-adventure palette cleanser. The chunks of dancing read like triplets to me—clearly of the same family, but different enough from one another to feel like separate entities. They became synergistically more fascinating when presented alongside one another.
Dancers and co-creators, Alex Carrington, Mia J. Chong, Shareen DeRyan, and Chelsea Reichert, danced in every section. Each wore an outfit of monochrome pastel—orange, pink, lavender, and yellow—and their movements stayed in a similarly narrow register throughout. I saw mechanical clocks and ballerinas, swooping birds, a wind-up toy, a water toss, a dog tail-wagging, hugs, butt scoots, and body rolls. Mostly, they moved with a kind of gentle staccato of linear arm, hand and leg gestures, accented by brief moments of stillness, a curve of the spine, spiraling turns, or minor upticks in speed.
It was often unclear if what I was witnessing was improvised or set—the movements were precise, and movement themes consistent enough to make me suspect it must be at least partially set. But they moved with a fluidity and presence that suggested spontaneous composition. After speaking with Emily after the show, I learned that the the first five minutes of the show were fully improvised—an open score to help the dancers “enter the work” from a place of authenticity as opposed to rote memorization—and that after that, the invitation to “do what you want at any time” applied at all times. “It meant every night was different,” explained Emily.
On the night that I went, each section felt like variations of the same dance—a liberally-imagined remix of the same modest vocabulary of post-modernesque movements. The first was a tour of solos, duos, trios, and quartet dancing. It felt like the most formally-constructed of the three sections, with the dancers following clear geometric pathways across the floor, and each movement section unfolding with a kind of symmetrical linearity. The formality broke down towards the end, when the dancers all went to exit the stage by scooting on their butts backwards through the curtain. The first three of them made it without a hitch, but Chelsea Reichert was left struggling alone, unable to quite make it to the curtain despite her absurdly gargantuan effort. She finally abandoned the task and closed the piece with a stunning solo downstage to the mournful croon of a cello.
The second section started in a single pool of rectangular light. Chelsea Reichert and Shareen DeRyan whispered to each other and they constructed a phrase we had seen in the first section. As they “remembered” more and more of the phrase, they moved across the stage through two more rectangular pools of light that grew to hold them. Mia J. Chong and Alex Carrington watched from the side of the stage, whispering to each other as if welcoming us into a most intimate rehearsal moment. The second section ended with the same cello as the first, this time with all four dancers moving before leaving Chelsea, once again, alone onstage.
In the third section, the dancers moved with the most energetic abandon I had seen yet—a kind of modest celebration performed in the vocabulary of post-modern dance. Once again, we saw echoes of moments from the first two sections, remixed and reworked. It ended with the mournful strings, this time leaving just Mia to dance in the glowing orange light.
Throughout, the phenomenally spatial soundscape by Ben Juodvalkis served as a central anchor for my meaning-making. Pebbles falling, children laughing, water flowing, and a deep resonating bass that reverberated through my very bones became a dynamic landscape, painting the action onstage as human, nature, spiritual or energetic. I felt invited by the work to follow the imaginary tangents sparked by the vast textural diversity of sound, somehow confident that there wasn’t a single “right” interpretation that I might miss by allowing my imagination to run wild. I think this spaciousness was created in large part through how the dancers witnessed one another, often with gentle smiles that suggested some kind of inside joke hidden between the seams of this formal movement.
Overall, the effect of placing three similar pieces next to each other evoked a similar fascination to what I felt at Olivia’s art opening. It made me want to look, and then look again. Each moment unfolded like that little paper box—one time this, the next time that. The same movements became something new each time I saw them, like the layers of a many-faced kaleidoscope, slowly revealed, face by face. The most conclusive “take away” I can share, is that by the end of the show I felt relaxed and at ease. I look forward to more from Emily Hansel and her collaborators.
This post was also published on national dance blog, Life As A Modern Dancer .