COMPANY: The Weights
The Carrack Modern Art, Durham
Sunday, Dec. 14

“Site-specific” is a watered-down term. Plenty of choreographers and installation artists pay it lip service, dragging a hand along a wall or hauling a bunch of stuff into a room and claiming to be engaging with the space. But when I sit on my couch to watch TV, I’m engaging with the space of my living room. Can I have my MFA now?

But Justin Tornow’s evening-length dance work The Weights offered a terrific example of site-specificity in its DIDA premiere the weekend before last. Tornow and four dancers from her company, COMPANY, had brought a half-developed piece into rehearsal at the Carrack, changing the work substantially as it settled into the space. She positioned the seating in an X formation across the gallery, requiring dancers to slip between seated audience members.

The result was a tight, territorial dance that couldn’t have sparked the thoughts about proximity that it did if it weren’t custom-made for the Carrack. Every inch of the place was considered, so that every step the dancers took had a unique spatial context. There’s no way could Tornow drop this piece on stage at Reynolds Industries Theater next week. It would vanish there. It would look hesitant and precious instead of curious and fearless. It would look like four dancers taking too long to move across the stage instead of four dancers moving in lanes across floorboards, reacting to each step just after they took it.

At the front of the gallery, Tornow ran the lighting and manned the door, since late seating was impossible. Electronic musician Lee Weisert set up at the desk nearby, and saxophonist Matt McClure stood next to him. This side of the gallery was left open, while the side closest to the windows was split into triangular quadrants by the seating. Along one axis, the seats were arranged in a traditional row, but were positioned like bus seating along the other.

At the start, dancers Samantha Steffen, Ronald West, Emily Elizabeth Aiken and Amy Blakely stood impassively in a row. Functioning as the initiator throughout, Steffen looked from side to side while the others remained stoic, barely animate. Steffen gradually activated Aiken into a duet that conveyed a more active repose than the opening image, with Steffen laid flat on her stomach and Aiken sitting on her back like “The Thinker,” but with better posture.

By degrees, the dancers ventured to where the audience was seated. The farther they went into the space, moving first along straight lanes and then finding lateral paths between the quadrants, the more self-aware they seemed to become. Once that self-awareness took hold, the dancers also became aware of each other.

Self-awareness differentiates us from animals and plants, but it’s not essential for survival. In fact, we come to it kind of late, after developing a sophisticated awareness of our environment and other beings in it. Plenty of organisms lack self-awareness and thrive. Some even exceed humanity—jellyfish have persisted through multiple mass extinctions; kudzu swarms a landscape with shocking speed. Survival is rarely premeditated.

If the first half of The Weights showed the uncomplicated ease of creatures that lack self-awareness, the second half showed the anxiety that accompanies its dawning.

Tornow accomplished this in two ways. First, she created movement within the seating area that only parts of the audience could see. If the action was directly behind you, you had to decide whether or not to turn around to see it. Some people twisted around in their chairs while others sat self-consciously still. Floorwork was hidden from most of the audience’s view. You could only guess at the obscured movement from the noisy creaks of the Carrack’s floor.

Second, Tornow made you watch the other audience members, who were in your line of vision at all times, as much as the dancers. So you were aware that everyone else was watching you, too—passive viewing was impossible. Instead, you were part of a witnessing mass, like a chorus that never says anything.

The live soundtrack by Weisert and McClure reinforced the transition the dancers went through by moving from an underwater-sounding score into more defined and angular sounds, including an impassive yet authoritarian human voice reading random numbers.

Once the dance moved fully into the audience area, it revealed its territorial aspects. The choreography overtook the terrain the way kudzu does, by degrees rather than by battle, at the excruciating pace by which ruined or abandoned landscapes are reclaimed. Even the partnering was symbiotic and unemotional, like an organism briefly thriving within a provisional microclimate.

By the end, all four dancers had become fully aware of themselves as individuals, and this awareness turned almost predatory. They were evaluating whether they could take each other’s territory amid the quadrants, making forays, displacing each other. After all, self-actualization is usually at another’s expense.

The piece finished at a point of high energy, with all four dancers repeating the same leap-and-turn passage, going in and out of sequence with each other, conveying the inherent desperation of competition. The piece was supposed to end with a blackout, but in this final show of its run, the lightboard froze. Tornow’s harsh whisper to the musicians could be heard: “Just stop, just stop!” They did, as did the dancers, like an off-switch had been flipped.

It was an abrupt but, appropriately, less staged ending than a lighting change. It was a conclusion with presence that added to the essential quality of The Weights, which felt as if all unnecessary, obligatory movement had been pared away in rehearsal, so that what COMPANY presented felt like the result of going through a process together in a truly specific site.