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The Eyes Have It 

The Tiffany Mills Company and Ensemble Ipse recently teamed up for a weekend of shows at the National Sawdust Theater. Theirs was a good, symmetrical pairing: Mills brought seven talented dancer-actors to the party opposite Ipse’s seven talented violists. Yet despite this balanced equation in personnel, their combined efforts leant more towards destabilization than tidy sums. Over the course of an hour, the musicians and dancers presented three different works. On their own, these pieces were slightly impenetrable, but, considered together, the artists wove a dreamlike tapestry based around the tentpole themes of sight and suffering.   

Performance

Tiffany Mills Company + Ensemble Ipse

Place

The National Sawdust Theater, Brooklyn, NY, December 2, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Jordan Morley and Emily Pope of Tiffany Mills Company. Photograph by Robert Altman.

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The first two dances, “Poem of Exile” and “Doa Persembunian—A Prayer for Refuge” were loosely linked musically, topically, and geographically. Violist Stephanie Griffin composed the score for the former and arranged a choral composition by Tony Prabowo for the host of violas for the second. “Poem of Exile,” per the program, was “inspired by Ovid’s account of his wife’s agony while he was exiled to the remote regions of the Roman Empire (now Romania).” And “Doa Persembunian” was based upon a work by Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad about a woman’s despair during the modern day Romanian civil war. The casting for these dances was similar too, but additive. The trio in the first dance—AJ Guevara, Jordan Morley, and Emily Pope—expanded to include Guanglei Hui and Tiffany Mills in the second. And both works were built upon guided improvisation.  

The similarities ended there. “Poem of Exile” was, true to its title, a lonely work. It began with a snakelike solo for Pope to eerie viola sounds, including scraping noises from bowing along the bridge of the instrument. Guevara slithered in and commenced rigorous floorwork. While they danced, Morley stood frozen against the back wall, creepily facing it like a doomed teen in The Blair Witch Project. He was stuck there a long while until he sprang to action and ran multiple circles around the stage. But even when in motion, he still felt stuck. Like the laps, many of his moves were repetitive, as when he returned to the wall and endlessly pawed his leg while leaning against it. He could have been the exiled poet spinning his wheels or the despondent spouse going mad from waiting. 

“Doa Persembunian” started in lonely silence as well, as Hui performed a stirring port de bras sequence that started slow and then accelerated. After the music came in, Morley repeated this arm motif with a very different inflection. Where Hui emphasized fluidity through hyperextended elbows, Morley’s interpretation was gawkier. Control versus wildness was a theme of “Doa.” Sometimes the cast worked together to form chains with sustained counterbalances. At other times they thrashed and stamped chaotically in a circle or ricocheted back and forth across the floor in waves. Though these opening two dances were loosely based on female suffering, everyone seemed to be carrying a great weight. But in contrast to the solitariness of “Poem,” the “Doa” quintet sometimes shouldered that burden together. In between moments of frenzied paranoia there were some tender, comforting sequences—like dancers softly catching each other in slo-mo falls. Pei Chi Su uniformly dressed the “Doa” cast in matching coveralls in dark shades, like factory workers or inmates. These were people united by turmoil. My favorite image from the night was of this group in a connected, amoebalike pose, with a few dancers touching at the soles of their feet.  

Guanglei Hui, Ching-I Chang, Emily Pope, and Tony Bordonaro of Tiffany Mills Company. Photograph by Robert Altman

At first, the surreal closer “Vapor/Blood” seemed like a departure. It introduced new, theatrical elements like spoken text, props, and aural looping. This world premiere was collaboratively conceived by Mills, Max Giteck Duykers (Ipse co-director and composer), and dramaturg Peter Petralia. It began with a Narrator, Tony Bardonaro, who strolled onstage in a gray Newsies vest and directly addressed the crowd with a series of questions about sight. Like a hypnotist, he counted himself into a different reality. At the end of the work, he began to count himself back out, though he was cut off by a blackout after the first number. In between these countdowns, a trio in vivid red costumes attacked him, helped him, rode him, stripped him, caressed him, haunted and taunted him.               

In all the Narrator’s interactions with the red people, eyes were a preoccupation—eyes open and closed, eyes covered with hands or sunglasses. The cast spoke of black eyes and unseeing eyes. They made intense eye contact with each other throughout. Ching-I Chang sported black shades as she pretended to be a fly on the wall. This prop was cleverly overdetermined like dream imagery; the sunglasses acted as bug eyes while also referencing the black eye injuries mentioned frequently by the cast. There was lots of talk about dreams, and there were many nightmarish elements too. Pope menaced Bordonaro on her hands and feet. Bordonaro’s spooky moves included scraping his chin side to side along his chest and making little steps in a forced-arch first position with pterodactyl arms. At one point, Chang hounded Bordonaro while he told a story, her legs slicing dangerously close to his head like helicopter blades.  

Recurrent step motifs also contributed to the dreamscape feel. Hui’s stirring ports de bra from “Doa” returned in “Vapor,” as did Pope’s attitude front refrain from “Poem.” One of the first sequences in the show featured Pope balancing for a long spell in attitude front with windmilling arms. It came back in “Doa,” and in “Vapor/Blood” the red people made an attitude front tunnel for Bordanaro to crawl through. I haven’t seen enough of Mills’s work to know if these steps are part of her everyday dance language—Mills-isms—or if they were newly wrought as connective tissue for this program. But there were other elements of overlap too. The stringy, dangling red hair accessory worn by Morley in “Poem” matched the one Chang sported in “Vapor/Blood.” 

Ching-I Chang, Tony Bordonaro, Guanglei Hui, and Emily Pope of Tiffany Mills Company. Photograph by Robert Altman.

These choreographic and sartorial commonalities hinted at the evening’s overarching themes. In her associative, fragmentary way, Mills posed some big questions about perception. Waking, literal sight versus the internal sight of the mind’s eye was key to all three works. Which kind of vision is more important, and which contains more objective or emotional truth? Perhaps more pressing than the idea of perception was that of attention. Where do we bestow our attention and why? Pointing was a persistent theme in “Vapor/Blood”; the dancers frequently directed each other’s (or their own) intense gazes with their fingers. But gaze and attention do not always align, as Mills showed. The fixation on sight in “Vapor/Blood” dovetailed with the questions about presence and absence in “Poem” and “Doa.” Mills nodded at a looming issue in the modern news cycle: the visibility of refugees and the exiled.    

Audience attention too is a wily thing, and this was a challenging triptych. I found some of the non-sequiturs in “Vapor/Blood” too precious at times, but the occasional opacity was countered by the immediacy of the venue. The National Sawdust Theater is like a basketball court reflected in a funhouse mirror, with black slashes that continue from the walls to the floor and crisscross jaggedly—wormhole compressions of foul lines and end zones. Most of the seating is courtside, and very close up. You can feel the floor bounce as the dancers move. Some of Mills and Petralia’s references might have gotten lost in a larger venue, but not at the intimate Sawdust, where the audience is rocked by the performers’ vibrations. It was a pleasure to see such committed performers at such close range too. Pope’s pillowy arches were lovely in all her curvilinear movements. And Chang is a particularly engaging presence. She repeatedly threw her hands up and licked at her armpit with impish surety, providing a much-needed dash of humor. 

By the end of “Vapor/Blood,” recurrent imagery from all three works had accumulated greater meaning. And Mills et. al. had demonstrated the importance of the intangible. The effects of dreams, nightmares, longing, suffering, art, and ideas are not vaporous. Blood and breath are equally important to the functioning of the human body, though one is a contained, quantifiable entity while the other is unfixed and unpossessable. Like ourselves, these pieces amounted to more than the sum of their parts.   

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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