★★★ ½
Jul. 11–15
The Fruit, Durham

For a show that consists of things happening inside boxes, SHOW is awfully hard to put in a box.

Premiering at The Fruit last week, the virtually un-googleable performance installation by Justin Tornow and COMPANY is a maze of dance-tech dioramas in which enticements for free-range viewers lead not to resolutions, but to further enticements. You may come to feel you could drift through it forever on a Möbius path of your own choosing, yet always with a hint of FOMO.

After all, the entire multilevel venue teems with simultaneous activity, like a hive—but you, busy bee, can only be in one cell at any moment. (Stupid linear time.) The comfort of a traditional performance is that it is not like life, in that you can get it all inside you, not missing a thing. But SHOW is disconcertingly lifelike. It doesn’t enter you. You enter it for an allotted span and see what you can see.

This is apropos of the prompts the dancers and multimedia artists behind the enterprise were working with: absence and presence, visibility and invisibility. Tornow, a Durham-based dancer and choreographer steeped in the anti-narrative tradition of Merce Cunningham, habitually blends rigorous modern dance with other artforms and technologically mediates the results in order to modulate—perhaps experiment with—the viewer’s experience and agency. SHOW’s clinical open-endedness instills a paradoxical sense of both freedom and captivity. Despite being engaged, I was still just a rat in a cage.

The prompts are apparent in many aspects of the work, which uses light and space, concealment and revelation, to defy our expectations of optical focus in performance and distort our usual ways of looking and interpreting. Let’s take a walk.

Entering The Fruit, we drift into the large room to the right, where large scrims flickering like a dead TV screens and a box of iridescent green light on the floor outline a stage in the dark. But there’s nothing there except for our looming shadows in the projector beam. After backtracking through the bright, socially buzzing foyer, we plunge into a deeper darkness in the cavernous room on the left, where lonely spotlights pick out artists Stacey Kirby and Warren Hicks quietly laboring over typewriters, as well as dancers Caitlyn Swett and Megan Yankee (this is July 12—other nights had other performers), all entombed in John Osburn’s eerie sound design.

We slip through a door into a two small, connected rooms where sunlight streams through glass-brick windows. Surveillance videos of other parts of the space play over a crumbling white brick wall. Hands gesticulate on one old TV while another shows static. Up a narrow stairway canted by Alex Maness’s sinuous light sculpture, we find dancer Jasmine Powell improvising as artist Heather Gordon lays geometric patterns of black tape on a white wall. Past another wall covered in newspapers with grim headlines and blacked-out pictures, we enter a room that’s half brick and half lambent blue, with Kai Riedl and Sean Thegen improvising on electronics and dulcimer on the brick side and dancers Austin Dixon and Maggie Bradley glowing in dreamy footlights on the blue side.

All this, and we haven’t even gone down to the basement yet.

Nor have we experienced the second half of the piece, when we are corralled back to the glowing stage space where we began. Enclosed on some sides by the scrim, Tornow and her dancers perform half an hour of angular, repetitive movements, flexing through their permutations like clockwork tracking a more fitful, rococo order of time. Audience members could watch from any side; I wandered around the perimeter to observe both through the scrim and not. The stage picture was striking but naturally felt inert compared to the first half. I realized I missed motion and discovery, which was part of the point.

It wouldn’t do to put too specific a meaning on SHOW, but I sensed that the first half was demonstrating the artistic labor that often goes unseen behind what we usually do see: the second half, the thing itself. The flatness of the second part compared to the absorbing depth of the first seemed designed to underscore a seldom-discussed fact of artistic process, which is that what we don’t see may be more beautiful, more rich and alive, than what we do. So what if the viewer were shown that, instead?

Durham performance artists are keenly alert to site. Architecture doesn’t just house their pieces; it heavily participates in their authorship. The Fruit, with its pronounced character—its more than twenty thousand square feet of crumbling, eclectic post-industrial space—exerts an especially strong influence. Everyone wants to turn it into a funhouse or a haunted house, because that’s totally what it wants to be. Most recently before SHOW, we saw this approach in Monét Noelle Marshall’s Buy My Body and Call It a Ticket, which had a similar structure, with a self-guided installation funneling into a seated performance.

I happen to tremendously enjoy this use of The Fruit, which has the interesting effect of mingling an art experience with a social experience. As I wander around, I run into people I know and chat, sometimes about what we’re experiencing, sometimes just about hot goss on the art scene. When Little Green Pig turned Scrap Exchange’s empty complex into a theatrical funhouse in This Is Not a Novel, the time I spent in it virtually alone to write a preview was the more art-focused experience, while being there when it was open and full of people was like going to a great party with cool, weird stuff happening all around.

Is this good or bad for “art for art’s sake?” Does it even matter? I’ll leave that up to you. But works such as these, in giving the viewer agency, illuminate how much art as we have known it depends on taking agency away, and we may pause to reconsider what kind of art we want. That’s an important question because the answer does double duty; it also tells us what kind of world we want. I guess, as SHOW would have it, it all depends on how you look at it.