There is nothing like a bit of sensory deprivation to jolt one’s senses, and that is exactly what I got at Saturday evening’s performance of What We Were Handed, during its world première staged by the Mari Meade Dance Collective, inventively paired here with Dana Salisbury as part of the annual FLICfest (for the uninitiated: a festival of Feature-Length Independent Choreography).

© Julie Lemberger
© Julie Lemberger

I am being ushered blindfolded into the performance space. I have had no prior visits to the Irondale Center, where this evening’s performance begins to unfold, so I literally have no idea what I am walking into. I cannot see a thing, so one of the performer guides me, speaking in hushed tones. As I settle into my seat, and begin getting accustomed to this state of blindness, I automatically revert to my other senses in an attempt to decipher my current state. A gentle chirping – apparently generated on the spot by a multitude of mouths – pervades the space, which feels cavernous. I am daydreaming, and my mind is jumping from one image to the next in lightning-fast transitions. At first, I am presumably transported to my Mediterranean childhood, the crickets’ relentlessness in the bright sunlight and billowing pine branches; next, it is a negative image of a huge cathedral with rows upon rows of silently seated figures; before I know it, I am in front of my office door and I am approached by a smiling face I haven’t seen in weeks (it belongs to someone I refer to as my “it’s complicated” – in a nod to Facebook). You can probably imagine where this goes next.

A sudden noise (is someone shaking a bucket full of rocks?) breaks my reverie. “Damn,” I think, “it was just getting good.” On the other hand, I really should not be thinking about my “it’s complicated”; I am here to write a review. No sooner than a hand runs gently down my arms, and another feeds me a dried cranberry, does a voice instruct me to remove the blindfold, revealing a mysterious stage image of a pair of women wrapped in a billowy, translucent fabric, and a perfectly motionless man lying on the stage floor. It is as if a woman was guiding the one in front of her as a puppeteer by pulling on the fabric – an older woman shadowing her younger self. Soon, the fabric is dropped like an empty cocoon and the younger woman is abandoned, and proceeds to contort strangely, as if trying to learn how to move through this strange space on her own. The whole space, as it turns out, is indeed huge. Cut.

The following scenes are presented as a sequence of puzzling vignettes punctuated by stark lighting and evocative, atmospheric sounds and minimalistic interventions by a cellist, held together by a distinctly surrealistic aesthetic. Three women, bound together by elastic bands, emerge from the wings and morph their way through the space as an organically interconnected unit, occasionally making ululating sounds. Cut. The man on the floor seizes violently on the floor until a woman appears to calm him with the touch of her hand (the gentle touch I received while blindfolded immediately comes to mind) and from there on fluid partnering on the floor ensues – as if each has become the other’s pillow. Cut. A sextet of dancers enters the stage accompanied by a cellist. They deftly navigate an obstacle course of sorts, built of plastic bottles filled with water, and connected with strings (again!) and cardboard shields. Cut.

It takes a while to figure out just exactly what one is witnessing, but the patience is richly rewarded in the show’s final section. Everything, as it turns out, has been building up to this moment – as if the creation of a certain code, or a performance vocabulary, was being witnessed by the audience, and is now being executed with a vengeance. In a powerful coup de théâtre, the ensemble seems to bend time and space by setting earlier scenes on a relentless collision course, with an impressive amount of variation. Some of the images and choreography is clearly recognizable, but in this section, what may have been a trio is now performed by a single dancer, while the other two may be recreating another section, and on to the next. There is a violence in the sound, in the transitions, in the lighting changes. Chaos reigns.

In the vocabulary of the piece, which culminates in this final choreographic firework, there is a leitmotif of limitation and hindrance to a human form, and, conversely, an effort to overcome it. While Salisbury is known for her work involving sensory deprivation of the spectators, and Meade Montoya has been creating an oeuvre with a distinctly comedic touch, there are much darker and more mysterious forces at work here, and the collaborating artists deserve praise for transcending the boundaries of their previous work. What We Were Handed is an inventively assembled performance, characterized by a highly effective use of the theatrical space, sound, lighting and movement – with a touch of induced daydreaming added for a good measure.