Dance is music and music is dance and none more so than in “Love is Blind” by choreographer Russell Dumas. What we hear moulds what we see, and what we see moulds what we hear. As befits the black ink setting where faces are glimpsed and bodies are cloaked, this work teasingly and beautifully poses more questions than it seeks to answer, as it looks to renegotiate the terms of engagement of dance and music. This is a work that “investigates the intricate relationship between sight and sound and the somewhat surprising way that hearing trumps seeing.”
We enter the dark and inviting space of the theatre. On the back of Nat Cursio’s “The Middle Room,” seen the previous day, the veil of a little darkness is a welcome one I don once more. Places found, the audience settle. Feet shuffle, glasses are sipped from, and seated in the middle, a man, illuminated by a small screen, prepares to record the performance; the intoxicatingly dark performance, it transpires. This arrival is as light as it visibly gets. The stage before us is one dark cavernous space. Upon reflection, I register that I have never really seen the Sylvia Staehli Theatre. For both Ashley Dyer’s “Life Support” and Atlanta Eke’s “Monster Body” (both seen as part of Dance Massive 2013), the space has been kept deliberately shrouded by minimal lighting.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Love is Blind” presents us with a conversation between the song cycles of Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert and the complex, yet simple (and simple, yet complex) choreography of Dumas as told to us through the dancers, Eric Fon, David Huggins, Nicole Jenvey, Beth Lane, Molly McMenamin, Esperanza Quindara, and Jonathan Sinatra. And just as Schubert’s song cycles can been read as a conversation between composer and the German Romantic poet Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller (elements from both Die schöne Müllerinand Die Winterreise were set to music by Shubert), so is the case with this work. The two parts equal a new reading not possible without the other. The words become music and the music becomes words; the dance becomes the music and the music becomes dance. Together, in collaboration, a new reading is possible.
And this new reading is one where ears lead eyes. In the dark, fragments of a dancer’s body can be seen. Seven performers all dressed in uniform black pants and tops disappear and become one with the dark. A face illuminated like a Caravaggio painting. A light like a candle glow. Dancers appear as clear as Caravaggio’s painted reflection of Narcissus (c. 1597-99).
Feet are heard more than seen. And they make no effort to mask sound. Feet here stomp and shuffle and gallop. Hands clap, twice. We hear everything. Dancers run in a circle, faster and faster, and one drops out. Falls to the sidelines. We strain to make out forms and we let our ears inform us that a hand is sweeping across the body of another. The sounds of fabric brushed. We piece these suggestions together with the grand universal themes of love and its associated ache covered in song. We catch sight of figures writ large on the wall. Shadow play flashes on the stage wall to the right. Figures grow large and small depending upon how close they are to the light source. Edges are impossible to decipher and so are read as one moving, cohesive and beautiful mesh. We are both the miller (of the poem), covered in white baking flour, and the object of his affections. And we are heartbeat, heartache and breathe. We are the body in this sensory exploration.
“Every solo dance is fundamentally multiple narratives that share both a heartbeat and a breath …. The heart generates and reflects emotional climate and orchestrates different rhythms while the breath gives melodic phrasing to both movement and language—in that order.” –Russell Dumas
This layering of narratives told through movement, tied seamlessly to a layering of sound, mirrors the way in which all the dancers move as one body; in unison, in absolute harmony. The overall effect both hypnotic and meditative, and perhaps none more so than when the dancers form a ring on the floor that when subtly lit from above renders interwoven arms the appearance of a wicker basket. Bodies collapse into one another. They push and pull, and perhaps ask: Do you love me? Yes or no?
Ja, heißt das eine Wörtchen, Das andre heißet Nein, Die beiden Wörtchen schließen Die ganze Welt mir ein.
The one little word is “Yes;” The other is “No,” Both these little words Make up the entire world to me.
Franz Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, set to the poetry of Wilhelm Müller
And just as many questions are raised by such a sensory work: one wonders, for example, if the pounding mill-wheels of the poem and heard also in the composition are represented by the dancers running anticlockwise. Or is this a reference to time being non-linear (as in Japanese Noh)? Does it matter how you read or feel it? Can you, as an audience, experience something sensory incorrectly?
“I am interested in the treatment of time in Noh. The Noh is like dreaming in two registers. The dream that is the here and now, unfolding before us, and the dream that is the past. There is a deep satisfaction that affirms our sense of place, our participation in the order of things, the oneness of time and place. The reality of the past in the dream of the present—a duet between then and now.”
The slow and comforting rhythm of the performance, I wished it to last, like love. After a 15-minute interval, we head to the upstairs studio, where previously I had seen “dance for the time being — Southern Exposure” (also as part of Dance Massive 2013). To me, this space suits the subtlety of the work, and with its pleasing echoes and sound bounce, the space feels twice its size. The space amplifies the squeak of feet, the swing of arms, and the sound of one body appearing to effortlessly crumple or yield to another. The unmasked windows let in the gentle light of night, and we view what Dumas himself introduces to us as a work in progress, the research for what has been and what is to come. Dressed also in black, he could easily be about to perform, but his stance tells us he is keen to retreat to his seat and let the work speak for itself.
And this, like all work, it does. If you want to understand a performance, you’ve only to look and allow yourself to feel. Fuzzy-edged geometric rectangles of white light are cast onto the surrounding walls, at tilted angles that, though they do not move, replicate the dancers at times. Before this illuminated ground, our figures once more, clearly visible. I appreciated the chance to see this work in, literally so, a new light. Seeing a little of the process, the bones still awaiting their flesh, throws into sharp relief all that I saw or thought I saw in the darkened theatre space downstairs. As it should be, this performance, the first of two parts, leaves me eagerly waiting the second.