Gibney Company: Up Close, with choreography by Rena Butler, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, Yin Yue
New York Live Arts, New York, NY, June 14-18,2022
At the end of Yin Yue’s “A Measurable Existence” on June 15, Marla Phelan and Kevin Pajarillaga walked stoically forward and back, one downstage and one upstage, standing in a glow of orange lighting. The piece is a feat of clever partnering and energetic contemporary phrase work that is intricate and challenging. In New York Live Arts’ intimate space, we can see even the beads of sweat that drip off of the dancers’ chins. Performing up close can be risky; but the Gibney dancers up close are perhaps even more remarkable than afar, as we witness in immediacy their precision, stamina, and dynamic performance. Gibney Company’s “Up Close” program, which ran June 14-18, magnified the excellence of its dancers and introduced three thought-provoking world premieres.
“To the End of Love,” a funny, sarcastic commentary on the online dating scene by the Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, proceeded “A Measurable Existence” and concluded the evening. The piece begins with a single dancer who walks onstage holding cue cards. As he drops one after the other, we learn things about him like his name, his height, his likes and dislikes and what he is “looking for . . . My keys, phone, and wallet.” His cards fall onto a stage covered by white cue cards which also hold essential information you might find in a dating profile, such as “5’8,” “Jewish,” and “brand names only.” As the single dancer is completing his introduction, other cue-card bearing dancers in white underclothes emerge on the scene, lonely hearts floating through the metaverse.
The piece depicts the trials and triumphs of 21st century dating, often emphasizing the ridiculousness of it all. One scene shows dancers emerging one by one from stage right in goofy costumes, dancing with big grins as a viewer swipes them across the stage. Sometimes though, the dancers land a date, and we witness the development of a new relationship. These relationships come in all shapes and sizes, in different sexualities and sometimes with polyamorous partners. The stories that emerge from “To the End of Love” are lovely and tragic. Ramírez Sansano’s transitions in and out of these stories are seamless and skillful, with no unnecessary blackouts to merge episodes. For example, after one heartbreak, a dancer falls to the floor and covers herself with cue cards in desperation. Shortly thereafter, a new dancer walks onstage and finds the buried dancer. Now, the cards become sheets, and the new partner uncovers her playfully for a new romance to begin.
Opening the program was a new work by Rena Butler, who is both a dancer with the company and its inaugural Choreographic Associate. She presented the first part of her study on Socrates’s “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s Republic entitled, “Re/Build/Construct (Part 1)” In his allegory, Socrates describes a group of people imprisoned in a cave since childhood. They are chained so that they cannot turn around, positioned in front of a kind of stage and even further back, a fire, which causes the free people in front of the fire to be projected to the prisoners as shadows. The shadows, the prisoners can see; but as the free people carry things and puppets and speak, the prisoners only see the shadows, and so recognize them and their sounds only in their illusory forms. Consequentially, the prisoners are convinced that this is reality.
Socrates’s allegory is already theatrical, with clear sets, lighting, and characters, and “Re/Build/Construct (Part 1)” makes use of all available material: There is a set by Tsubasa Kamei, a house that is made of white, sheer detachable panels which the dancers manipulate. Kamei’s lighting also creates the shadows, distorted figures on the backdrop. Darryl J. Hoffman’s original score draws from the text, which depicts the prisoners, confused, forlorn, and delusional. Being that the allegory lends so perfectly to performance, it would seem natural to create a straightforward portrayal, profiting off of the inherent theatrical elements, and simply adding the new medium of dance. Butler’s interpretation, however, is slightly more complex.
As the dancers emerge in relationship to the text, we cast them in our mind as “the prisoners.” They interact with the shadows and each other in agitation and despair. At one point, one woman is literally locked up in the house: She writhes, flipping upside down against the walls, collapsing to the floor. She does break free, however, and there is another point where the dancers are actually the ones controlling the lighting—the lights go dark and a couple of dancers use a flashlight to create new shadows of themselves and others.
Meanwhile, the dancers’ most obvious roles are actually as puppets: The choreography is stiff-legged and robotic, with tumbling on the floor to display a lack of agency over the dancers’ own limbs. They wear sheer clothing with neon underwear (costume design by Hogan McLaughlin) and their faces are painted with rosy circles which exaggerate their surprised and bewildered caricature expressions. Because the characters in the allegory are interactive and dependent (the puppets depend on the puppet-masters, who only put on the shadows for the prisoners, and the prisoners’ only perception of reality comes from these shadows), the appearance of one implies the existence of the other. For Butler, these roles are not fixed but constantly shifting: The same players can be prisoners and shadows who also sometimes control the sun. This changes the audience perception, as well: When the audience recognizes the dancers as puppets, we find ourselves as the puppet masters. Conversely, when we become transfixed by the imposing nature of the large shadows before us, we find ourselves as the prisoners.
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