I had decided to reward, or perhaps challenge myself with an unadulterated experience of And lose the name of action by Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People on its opening night at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s brand new Fishman Space. In order to do so, I vowed not to indulge in reading any of the background material in my press packet before writing this article – as it turns out, with fascinating results.
This piece has neither a clear beginning nor a clear ending, and the white scenery sets the stage for a world that feels rife with possibility. The audience walks into the space in medias res as a multitude of murmuring voices are channeled through the speakers, much like that chatter in the back of the brain that one can’t quite seem to be able to shake off. The stage space is pure white, dominated by an upside-down parachute that creates a soft ceiling. Two screens are placed at the opposite corners, often displaying minimalist, black-and-white footage of a bearded British man in a suit, somehow reminiscent of Apple ads. As the man absent-mindedly engages in existential ruminations, I wonder whether he might be the subject of the piece, or the guru whose thoughts are piped in as food for thought for everyone (audience and performers alike) or, possibly, as impetus for subsequent ritualistic actions to be performed.
Whirling inside this white “dome” is a handsomely diverse cast outfitted with an array of flowing robes, vaguely invoking – or, rather, parodying – somatic movement practices, à la Isadora Duncan, or eurythmy. While this production does not (nor does it aim to) bank much on a strong narrative backbone, Gutierrez’s choreographic approach is rooted in divesting his performers from rational intention to move in favor of something much more intuitive, where the performers are either asked to honor impulses, execute performative tasks (often given by the choreographer himself on stage), or replicate gestural sequences displayed on a small screen hidden inside a white box.
Several minutes into the performance, I am suddenly struck with the sensation of having been unwittingly transported to Ojai (“The Shangri-La of Southern California”), witnessing a hybrid metaphysical workout, the term for which has not been coined yet. I could almost smell burning sage sticks in the air. The performers’ irreverence and a visceral way of being on the stage have a degree of authenticity that I certainly appreciated. Their bodies became vessels channeling uncanny energies/presences not quite of their own making. Not surprisingly, the cast features veterans of improvisation K.J. Holmes and Ishmael Houston-Jones, who put their expertise to good use. What is refreshing about this work is that it eschews the predictability of perfectly agile dancing bodies in favor of casting choices that reflect a diversity in age, body type and ability. One of the stand-out sections, indeed, powerfully contrasted nimble-footed Michelle Boulé – who seems capable of masterfully executing more or less any choreographic challenge flung in her direction – with the piped-in voice of a man affected by aphasia in the aftermath of a stroke, invoking a poignant awareness of the aging process and ravages of time.
As the evening wears on, ecstatic bodies give way to violent riots, subsiding again into controlled, gestural movement. However, each section feels too long, peaking fairly quickly and not developing a great deal after, so the feeling of sameness sets in for a bit too long. I sense that the piece would have felt more powerful if I were challenged to keep up with its pace rather than settling in “got that, what’s next?” a bit too often.
Early on in the show, an attempt is made to establish a sort of a communal experience, as Houston-Jones asks everyone – audience and performers alike – to join hands in a séance of sorts. However, after that moment, in spite of the fact that the performers keep returning to their seats in the audience, we revert to a clear distinction between “us” and “them”, not quite participating but rather witnessing – the theatrical convention being honored rather than subverted, as one would expect from such a non-traditional presentation.
Though each section is coherent within, the cumulative effect doesn’t quite pack the punch that some of the individual sections have, and the piece never quite adds up into a fully meaningful whole. With much of the experience locked in its creators’ rather hermetic universe, the purpose of the whole undertaking is mostly left to audience devices, and I’m not convinced that the disparate content is compelling enough to motivate one to make that investment.
To quote the bearded man on the screen: “I’m speaking honestly,” he proffered roughly half-way into the performance; “I’m not exactly sure what’s at stake here.”