The Department of Improvised Dance: Stations
Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015
Durable Durham Warehouse

When the set is cluttered with props, you can expect the performance to be weighted toward the “theater” side of dance theater. That was the case in The Department of Improvised Dance’s new show, Stations, last weekend, which also kicked off Durham Independent Dance Artists’ second season. But almost all of the props were at the service of the movement, not the other way around.

In a new, low-ceilinged warehouse space on Ramseur Street, the set included a wire-frame bathtub with a light-fixture showerhead, a jammed-full clothes rack, a pile of dirt and three box-shaped wooden frames large enough for dancers Leah Wilks, Nicola Bullock and Matthew Young to stand in. Forced into close quarters, the performers interacted in subtle ways that were often charged with significance by dint of their intimacy. Perhaps it’s because I saw the last of four performances in two nights, but their commitment to one another seemed absolute throughout.

Each of the four shows had a unique soundtrack by composer Adam Lindquist, who wove music and sound collage through time-marked sound cues. Keeping with their structured-improv roots, the dancers did not listen to the soundtracks before the performances. In a conversation afterward, they said this led them to find very different emotional tones for the same sections of the piece with each performance.

Stations began in pitch darkness. As the dancers entered, they explored the space with flashlights. Wilks panned an iPhone light around the perimeter from behind a partial backdrop wall, which looked like the headlights of passing cars sending shadows dashing across your bedroom walls. Then she lit herself from above and entered the set. Bullock, however, shined her light in front of her as she entered, so that her body remained in darkness. Young clicked a light on and off between fast, spastic movements, making white figures on surprised retinas. Eventually, each found his or her way into one of the box shapes, which were wrapped in white Christmas lights that all turned on at once.

This wasn’t just a cool opening effect; it established the basic psychological roles each dancer played. Young was impulsive and only partially self-aware, his movement ranging from an animal’s to a child’s to that of some other, unnamed humanoid species. (After the show, speaking about the breathtaking intensity he’d achieved, he told me that a friend had called him an “outlier,” which is kind of perfect.) Wilks was the practical one, noticing when the behavior of the other two approached or exceeded a threshold of normalcy and offering help. Half aesthete, half athlete, Bullock was a reflective observer, orbiting in and out of situations relatively unaffected.

Stations dealt with interpersonal relationships of the social and familial kind more than the romantic. In one section, Young leapt into the dirt pile, scattering it everywhere. Wilks busied herself with tidying it, but Young continued to mess it up. Bullock watched this transaction and retreated. Eventually Young calmed into a realization of what he’d done and apologized to Wilks. There was a moment of tenderness and tolerance between them.

But, as always in Stations, tender touching transformed into a kind of tussle. Young and Wilks leaned on each other in a physical stalemate. Bullock, meanwhile, turned on a single bulb dangling from a wire and swung it back and forth. The swinging gradually transferred into Wilks and Young, who settled into the movement in unison. This pulsation between conflict and resolution is the essential form of a Department of Improvised Dance performance. A pair of dancers establishes and then accelerates or exaggerates a relationship dynamic. By the time things begin to go out of control, the third dancer has come out of an observational orbit to intervene.

Transitions between these episodes were made more dramatic with multiple blackouts and resets. I was left in the dark for a few moments with the last lit image in my mind’s eye before another light came on somewhere else in the space to show a very different configuration of performers. By diversifying the transitional passages throughout Stations with a particular attention to site-specificity, the group made a more complex performance without compromising its emotional impact. This is a great trend for a company that seems to be hitting its stride.