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Reflections on Kristin Damrow's "Impact"

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

Shareen DeRyan, center, with ensemble, in Kristin Damrow's "Impact". Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

I was aware of my size the minute I entered the space. Three enormous cement blocks hung over a vast stage, surrounded on three sides by rows of seats. In the cavernous Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, the blocks looked small. I felt even smaller.

Kristin Damrow writes in the program that her newest show, “Impact”, was inspired by the Brutalist movement in architecture. According to Brutalist scholar Reyner Banham, Brutalism was “an attempt to create an architectural ethic rather than an aesthetic”; an ethic that valued function over frivolity. “Brutalist structures continue to hold a history that prioritizes equality for all people and reminds us of the power of a united community,” the program suggests.

The cement blocks hung over the stage like provocative abstractions of the Brutalist movement. When you’re proposing to prioritize function over form, ethic over aesthetic, what are we to make of enormous cement blocks that serve no visible purpose but to cast shadows like looming threats? I found my gaze seeking the softer forms of audience members across from me and meditating on a vision of “egalitarianism” that so intentionally de-centered individual humanity and aesthetics, and so fully prioritized function. Who defines “practicality” in this case? How do we decide what merits our collective efforts?

The lights faded to black in resonant silence. Footsteps, lights up. It was a rivetingly brutal beginning - bright lights, jumping right into the middle of a moment. One dancer (Anna Greenberg) lay at the feet of four other dancers as if defeated (Heather Arnett, Allegra Bautista, Shareen DeRyan, and Hien Huynh). The standing four exchanged looks in indecipherable silent conversation. A crowd of dancers dressed in black emerged from behind, moving in synch. Lights out.

A series of tableaus revealed by brief moments of light began to paint a picture of a dystopian world of an epic scale. Unmoored in a deeply satisfying way by the nonlinear exposition, I was thrilled by the audible efforts of the dancers to get to their places in the dark commas between the light.

I found myself increasingly drawn to watching the “chorus” of dancers in black. Their uniformity and exclusively synchronized movement suggested to me that they were intended to be more metaphor than human. But in their work to become a single entity, every tiny difference was fascinating to me - every variation in angle, gaze, curve and rhythm felt like a bright ray of humanity leaking through the cracks of an otherwise monolithic construction. I found myself musing at the difference between synchronized group choreography - at which this group was prodigiously skilled - and deep group listening - where I felt they were less in tune. Could the distinction between these two modes of group engagement also stand as a metaphor for the distinction between conformity and community?

Where the chorus deepened and texturized as the piece progressed, the principal dancers coalesced into solid archetypes, each defined by specific, caricatured movement. Anna Greenberg, the dancer at the others’ feet in the opening image, began to stand for me as an evil queen. Where she went, the chorus in black seemed to follow. She held dominion over them, physically and energetically manipulating them to do her bidding, which more often than not included oppressing the other principal dancers through physical obstruction and domination.

Were the chorus an externalized manifestation of her power? Magical shadowy subjects? Human subjects oppressed by an unjust power structure? Or some other metaphor exposing the dark sides of power? The explicitly narrative interactions between dancers, the archetypal roles they played, and cohesive, albeit nonlinear, plot made me lean towards literality in my viewing.

Anna Greenberg with ensemble in Kristin Damrow's Impact. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Over time, I decided we were seeing a series of flashbacks to explain the dramatic opening image. My questions kept me fully engaged like a good story - primarily, how had the queen gone from all-powerful monarch to the defeated figure from the opening? Why and how had she come to hold dominion over the others? And how had that dominance been lost? The five principal dancers, including the queen, wore the same style of simple grey and blue costumes, and I found their movement to be largely descriptive as opposed to expositional. Because there were no particular clues to explain Anna’s primacy, I concluded that the arbitrariness of her dominance must be intentional - a broader suggestion at the arbitrariness of political power in general.

A solo by Hien Huynh about two thirds through the show heralded a narrative shift. With exceptionally nuanced and deeply-felt movement, he became the first of the principal dancers other than Anna to influence the shadow chorus to his will. Under white-blue light and the ever-looming shadows of the cement blocks, he banished the black-clad chorus from the stage with full-bodied energetic sorcery. The sound score shifted to what sounded like ocean sounds, the most “natural” of the soundscape thus far. For the first time that evening, I felt transported outside of the concrete building to a place at once more and less human than the harsh pragmatism of this Brutalist world.

Once again, I found questions unanswered; what gave Hien the power to banish the shadow chorus where the others had failed? And at what point had I ceased seeing the chorus of dancers as individual humans in favor of a symbolic abstraction? Was it intentional that he, the only male of the dancers oppressed by Anna, uniquely possessed this power? My meditations on the role of gender in the landscape of power increased triple-fold as a love story between he and Allegra Bautista began to unfold. Their amorous duet was so archetypal - he the powerful and capable man and she vulnerable and in need of protection - that I was unclear whether it was meant to communicate something in particular about love, power, and classic archetypal gender roles, or if it was simply a narrative device.

Their love affair also represented the first notable moment of connection between the principal dancers since the opening image. Until now, each of the principal dancers had been existing in effective isolation from one another, oppressed by the queen and her shadow army in the midst of impassioned solos. Anna and her shadowy minions descended on the lovers to tear them apart, and Hien was imprisoned, harsh bars of light traversing the stage. In an unexplained move towards solidarity, the three women (Allegra, Shareen, and Heather) united in their efforts to free him. Was it significant that romantic love alone prompted this move towards community?

With a scene shift, the queen returned, and all of a sudden the clump turned against her. Though a shift in music and lighting supported this dramatic pivot, I was left questioning if there had been a driver for the turning point in movement or physical narrative.

The three women arrived to save Hien from a breathtakingly poetic physical lament of repeated jumps. Mad from extended imprisonment, he collapsed to the floor with every attempt they made to heal him. In what felt like a parablistic allusion to “pulling himself up by his own bootstraps”, Hien returned to his power only after the three women finally let him fall unsupported to the ground, at which point he leapt to his feet three times and finally stood on his own two feet. The quartet departed for the final showdown.

Anna, broken and defeated by the figures she had dominated for so long, was carried onstage by the black-clad clump. In another unexplained and somewhat baffling twist, the group of principal dancers that the fallen queen had oppressed all show, without seeming to miss a beat, unanimously and instantaneously chose mercy. Together, they began to “battle” the chorus in black, freeing her from their grasp and finally succeeding in subduing them to the floor.

One part of the message seemed crystal clear - together as community, we can overcome what alone would be impossible. But another part of the story felt muddier to me; why had all four previously oppressed dancers so quickly jumped to arms on part of the fallen oppressor? Again, I was confused as to whether I was meant to read this decision as an intentional commentary - on power, forgiveness, and morality - or if it was included simply for dramatic effect as a narrative device. Either way, I felt burningly cognizant of the fact that three of the four oppressed dancers appeared to me to be POC, while I read the queen as white. As a result, regardless of the intention behind the choice, I saw on stage a realized prayer for mercy from the formerly oppressed in the face of adequate weakness and remorse on the part of the oppressor, an uncomfortable echo of the classic white liberal fantasy of redemption.

The four dancers joined the fallen queen downstage, and the evocative opening image materialized, she at their feet. The standing dancers helped Anna to her feet. Together, they surveyed the wreckage like superheroes, and then exited upstage as if walking into the proverbial sunset. Just as the lights were about to fade fully to black, the dancers in black began to stir and rise once more: “The fight is never fully won.” But at this point I was unclear if the fight was against “evil” or “injustice”, or both, or neither.

In a show that portrays such a harshly stark political reality, what are we to make of power dynamics that appear unquestioned and unexplained? When the premise of the show is meant to conjure “a set of egalitarian and socialist ideas” but doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the systems of oppression that so deeply characterize the time they evoke, how do we create a more nuanced portrayal of “social cohesion” and community? How do we employ the power of archetypal narratives for the depth, entertainment, and legibility they offer our work without recreating the systems of oppression they are born from and describe? And what does it mean to use groups of people primarily for their symbolic potential, such as the dark clump, as opposed to their individual humanity? Especially when the context of the work deals with meditations on collective justice?

The lights came back up and many in the audience rose in a standing ovation. The show was inarguably ambitious, epic, and stunningly successful in so many ways. In the discussion of power, I can’t help but to zoom out and reflect on the power dynamics inherent to dance writing in general, and dance criticism particularly. While the hours, days, and years of love, sweat, and labor contributed by every artist involved in “Impact” is, in many ways, innately transitory, the words I set down based on my singular, completely subjective experience of the work will be far more permanent, accessible by many for potentially years to come. In this discussion of power, what value might I offer in sharing my personal experiences and thoughts prompted by Kristin Damrow and her collaborators’ work?

Above all, for me, “Impact” was an invitation to reflect on and discuss the roles narratives, both intentional and incidental, play in our work as artists. To what extent can we be aware of the multiplicity of narratives inevitable in our work? How can we cultivate opportunities in our creative processes, both before and after performances, to hear the narrative perspectives of others? And especially, what might we learn from the narratives that pop up unbidden?

There are many moments from “Impact” that continue to stick with me, and I suspect will stick with me for a long time. Each image evokes a question, and in that way, “Impact” may be one of the most important shows I’ve seen in a long time. Thank you to Kristin Damrow and all the collaborating artists for such a thoroughly immersive and provocative experience.


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