The Bipeds: 54 Strange Words
Thursday, Jun. 21–Sunday, Jun. 24
The Fruit, Durham

Perhaps halfway through local dance-music company The Bipeds’54 Strange Words, which premiered as the closer in the DIDA season near the end of June, I saw something I’ll never forget.

Dana Marks, whom you likely know as an actor and director with Little Green Pig, emerged into the performance space at The Fruit, joining dancer and choreographer Stacy Wolfson, banjoist and singer Curtis Eller, and their ensemble of dancers and movers among the smoldering shadows.

Wearing stilts beneath a long robe that had a rib cage on the outside, with her face whited to a ghastly pallor, Marks sang garbled arias and made eldritch gestures with her hands before reinforcing her height with an upright bass. The impression was of some heretofore undreamed fusion, as if Studio Ghibli had made a live-action horror movie about a saint in a medieval painting. Check our Instagram to see for yourself, including the haunting moment when Marks enfolded Wolfson under her robe.

This tableau was the purest implementation of the unusual all-singing, all-moving idea behind The Bipeds, which clearly is seeking to blur modern dance, live music, and theater into a dreamlike unity, not to paste them into a simple collage. It was also the clearest vision of the piece’s purported origins in a nightmare. Elsewhere, the show achieved this balance and focus to varying degrees, with the music (which is also available as an album) sometimes overwhelming the dance.

But put aside dance for a moment, because by any measure, this was a vivid, memorable show.

Eller, who fronts the band Curtis Eller’s American Circus, is a gifted, natural performer, not just of music—with his gruff but sweetened tenor that easily projects—but also of stage movement. Dressed like a California gold-rush prospector unwinding at the saloon, he began by waking up the cast members feigning sleep on the ground. (The music, which blends acoustic instruments in the performance area with an electric combo on the periphery, is of a piece with this noir-ish sepia setting, the songs rooted in American spirituals, blues, and boogies.)

Beginning to play his banjo, which he likes to swing around as if it were shooting out rainbows, Eller planted his feet like a root, his body bobbing around the notes, a daisy on its stem. More surprising, because we haven’t really heard her sing before, Wolfson has some really strong pipes, unleashing steely blasts against Eller’s wiry lines and the group’s impassioned harmonies. The piece has many more than fifty-four strange words, though I felt compelled to soak it in as a total sensory and emotional experience rather than trying to follow a story in the lyrics.

The show has plenty of interesting movement, most of it happening when dancers and musicians blend into one roiling mass, pulling each other into acute shapes and drawing hard-striking lines across the stage, their voices joined in a threnody.

But the dance-iest dance parts, the solos and duets, felt comparatively low-impact and disconnected. They didn’t harm the piece, but they didn’t add to it. They were just there, unfolding in niches and corners, like isolated signposts reading, “Here be dance,” whereas the most riveting movement existed in wild, teeming ecosystems. Also, the piece ended perfectly with the showstopping title track, but then it went on for ten or fifteen minutes more.

Those issues aside, 54 Strange Words works, and often captivates. It gave me an unforgettable image to take away, something I have written about prizing before. If The Bipeds either knead the dance deeper or go all in on their own brand of experimental musical theater, a show that’s already cooking hot will boil right over.