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Space for Transformation

Having just experienced the unboundedness of smoke that blew in from Canada’s wildfires to blanket the Midwest and the East Coast, I pondered “Extinction Rituals,” a dance-opera developed by the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary duo Ximena Garnica, originally from Colombia, and Shige Moriya, from Japan. Engulfed in yellow haze, New York City had registered the worst air quality on record. Events were cancelled and people were advised to remain indoors. The notion of extinction and its rituals took on an alarming urgency. Our interdependence with the environment had never felt more real.

Performance

 “Extinction Rituals” by Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya

Place

Japan Society, New York, NY, June 10, 2023

Words

Karen Greenspan

Irena Romendick in “Extinction Rituals” by Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya. Photograph by Maria Baranova

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Described as “a poetic tribute to life and loss,” “Extinction Rituals,” at Japan Society, was the first phase of a larger journey of introspection and action that will involve various mediums and modalities over several years. But this conversation cannot wait, so it’s fortunate that Garnica and Moriya and their ensemble, Leimay, are conceiving a language for this encounter now.

Although the work is a movement-based performance, the original scores and performances by renowned composer-instrumentalist Kaoru Watanabe and vocalist Carolina Oliveros are what give it impact and cohesion. In fact, it is Oliveros’s plaintive cry and gritty chant from the middle of the house that commences the piece. She sings out a soulful tune while threading her way in the dark through an audience row and down the left aisle to her corner station below the stage. No sooner has she arrived but a loud, crackling drumbeat greets her from the opposite corner below the stage, where Watanabe is. Through the course of the evening, he plays an entire orchestra of instruments. These include taiko drum, bamboo flutes, Japanese harp (koto), and various Japanese percussion instruments. 

Carolina Oliveros and Kaoru Watanabe in “Extinction Rituals.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Insistent drumming accompanies dancer Masanori Asahara as he swirls about in the darkness around a single low-hanging light. As the lamp rises, Asahara enters and remains within the cone of light like a moth drawn to flame. His movement grows wild and jerky. He leaps and falls, grunting with exertion, until a blackout engulfs him.

The magic of the visuals and costumes is quickly apparent in an eerie scene that seems to combine Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” with Noah’s flood. Bathed in smokey amethyst light and vibrating vocal echoes, a frozen sculptural figure (danced by Irena Romendik, who also codesigned the costumes) is pulled dreamily across the stage on a rolling platform. She reaches upward with one arm while clinging to a gnarled tree branch with the other. Adding to the surreal scene, two long tendril-like antennae sprout from her temples and a short branch grows from one breast. The backdrop flickers to gold as she pauses her journey to look back. Then she continues her crossing.

After a blackout when the musicians leave their posts and climb onstage, the lights rise on a dialogue between Oliveros’s voice and Watanabe’s flute─coming from opposite sides. Oliveros’s phrases sound like pleas─perhaps the unanswered, intensifying cries of a child seeking comfort. They belong to an invented language. Watanabe contributes a flurry of shrill cadences on the flute. The voice and flute overlap, matching energy. Then, in an amazing physical feat, Watanabe and Oliveros descend to the floor and roll slowly toward each other─all the while, continuing their vociferous duet.

As Watanabe plucks delicate strains from the koto, a fluctuating, fiery nebula is projected onto the backdrop. Spot-lit, dancer Akane Little slowly rotates─feet gliding along the floor, arms and torso spiraling in floating suspension, as if locked in a transfixing orbit with the distant, luminous nebula.

More visually evocative scenes roll by until all five dancers fill the stage. In what might be a formal ritual, they begin pulsing, reaching, spiraling, twitching, and jerking to a rhythmic chant and the drums’ steady beat. The dancers accompany themselves in this last gasp for life with vocal shouts and vocalizations of whirring and whooshing. On the backdrop white cloud-like forms ripple through a sea of purplish blue that eventually turns a solid red.

From left: Peggy Gould, Yusuke Mori, Akane Little, Damontae Hack, Carolina Oliveros in “Extinction Rituals.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

One at a time, the dancers bend backward with an aching slowness to finally collapse to the floor, before repeating the descent in twos and threes in a rapidly increasing succession. The dancers scream as they collapse, as does Oliveros as she ascends the stage. At first, she sounds like a bleating animal. But as she arrives at center stage, it turns into a mother’s lament.

The dancers have formed a line across the back, now bathed in orange-red. They walk forward ever so slowly as projected black horizontal lines move down their bodies. Eventually the descending lines thicken─until the dancers’ forms are completely cancelled out and Oliveros finishes her cautionary lament.

After the performance, Garnica hosted a post-show Q&A session with a special guest to explore the issue of extinction beyond flora and fauna. Jennifer E. Cuffee-Wilson, Elder of the Shinnecock Nation, reminded us that cultural genocide has been perpetrated against her people from the moment European colonizers set foot in the Americas. These are the kinds of discussions that Garnica and Moriya endeavor to generate through their work. And for the next iteration of “Extinction Rituals,” the pair will travel to Garnica’s native Colombia to engage with rural communities in an exchange of dance practices (yes, dances, languages, and knowledge also suffer extinction). They will hold social actions with corporeal elements to garner media attention toward development-driven environmental issues in these communities. As always, the aim of the duo’s work is to create the conditions for transformation.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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