In her career as a performer, Stefanie Batten Bland assembled a CV filled with prestigious dancemakers. She has worked with Bill T. Jones, Lar Lubovitch, Sean Curran, Angelin Preljocaj, Julie Taymor, and Pina Bausch, any of which may have left an imprint on her creative process. In the case of “Embarqued: Stories of Soil” I couldn’t help but feel an echo of Bausch’s Tans Theater Wuppertal, both in its structure and production values. Batten Bland, an award-winning choreographer and filmmaker in her own right, makes good magic with elegant costuming, sculptural props, original sound score, delicious abstract movement, and a mature ensemble of physically striking performers who display vivid individual personalities. If “Embarqued” is missing Bausch’s wicked sense of humor, Batten Bland can be forgiven due to the gravity of her material. “Embarqued” is inspired by the Middle Passage of enslaved Africans to the Americas, a sobering and shameful era that Batten Bland brings to light in a surprisingly engaging way.
As storyteller, Batten Bland offers a dreamscape of symbolism rather than details. Patience is required of the viewer who wants to immediately know what’s going on. It’s as if Batten Bland is painting a mural that gradually populates in layers as the story develops. “Embarqued” opens within a cavernous ship’s hull. We discern this from hints we are given: the moody darkened stage where a rope is strung end to end with what appears to be items of clothing carelessly slung over, and a soundscape of surf, the ringing of a buoy. It takes a minute to realize the zombie-like movement of the dancers represents disoriented, dispirited, and perhaps sick passengers getting their sea legs. A repeated movement motif has the dancers bending unnaturally as if bowled backward by a strong gust of wind.
The five characters eventually bond as a group, arrive to dry land, establish a community, plant and harvest crops, sell their goods to the public. What I thought was clothing on the line is revealed to be large panels of fabric in muted shades of russet, burnished gold, khaki. When attached to poles the panels become flags and are also hoisted as sails. Sans pole, they shroud or cocoon bodies, drape into dresses, become cloths for washing, wet laundry to slap against rocks. A segment where the dancers twirl and spin like a flag team is hypnotic. At one point the music rises to crescendo and the flag wavers gesture frantically as if to a passing ship. Do they need rescuing? They gradually lose hope but one man won’t give up, jumping and waving his arms after the others have given up.
The flags later morph into pouches of seed to plant and then to carry the harvest. At one point, flags wrap four bodies lined up on the ground while a man stands guard, his fingers insolently taking aim like a gun. Ultimately the panels and poles become a sculpture—a mast and sail structure that is a brilliant multitasking feat performed by F. Emmanuel Bastien, the photographer, videographer, and sailboat captain who designed the set. Costumes by Shane Ballard are suggestive of the period but heightened—the three women in complementary jewel toned skirts that billow and glow when they move, the two lanky men are boho pirates in pants and flowy shirts.
Batten Bland surprises us midway when the stage lights brighten and the characters break into conversation with each other and the audience. The space becomes a public square with theater audience serving as passersby, bartering for goods. Jovial banter turns into animated bickering in French between Emilie Camacho and Raphael Kaney Duverger. At the height of their exchange, Duverger suddenly grabs Camacho and lands a passionate kiss on her lips. Caught off guard, Camacho touches her lip and smiles. The group gradually fades back upstage to continue in the original mute mode.
Each of the five performers is astonishing. We’re not aware so much that they’re dancing—rather they fully inhabit the characters, using movement to voice their experience. Every swoop, twirl, kick, frenzied fit, each gesture of proclamation or supplication adds to the greater narrative. Camacho has a riveting solo near the end during which she cups her breast, jerks her head back as if being slapped or punched, walks on her fists like a gorilla. She is perhaps possessed—grabbing her elbow, her ankle, inserting her finger to tug the corner of her mouth—while the rest of the cast slumps over the ship’s mast as if limp clothes on the line, harking back to that earlier image. As the show comes to an end, the haunting experience it reflects has not. Batten Bland and her collaborators have raised our awareness.