Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019

Von der Heyden Studio Theater, Durham

In the black box theater, a white floor and back wall form an open cube of performance space. It’s empty except for a child-size chair at the center. Shana Tucker sits at one corner, cello in hand, a table full of electronics blinking. The seating bounds three sides of the stage space, and a woman with long white hair suddenly stands in the front row. At first, I take her for a patron. But then, she turns around to regard us and begins edging back into the spotlights.

As Tucker electronically processes her breathing into the foundation of a breathtaking soundscape, the white-haired woman, Annie Dwyer, sits in the chair, slumps to one side, and slides to the floor. On the wall behind her, a small projection of biometric squiggles is growing larger. Dwyer is one of five trained dancers in the world premiere of They Are All at The Ruby; the nine other cast members are new to the stage. They were recruited through an ADF class for people with Parkinson’s disease, as we detailed in our preview last week.   

Angelika Thiele rises from the seating, wearing a knowing smile faintly streaked with anxiety. It’s eerily similar to the one that her longtime friend Murielle Elizéon frequently deploys in performances, including this one. Elizéon is the co-creator of the class and the show with her husband and Culture Mill co-director, Tommy Noonan. Thiele is jaggedly syncing her breath with Tucker’s, joined by a bass that thrums like a great buried heart. 

Dwyer is prone now, crawling almost imperceptibly slowly, as the dance’s taut rotations gather around her.

Thiele’s arms are sinuous; her fingers flicker through gestures of acceptance and refusal. With great control, she creates the illusion of not being entirely in control. Elizéon enters, at first mirroring Thiele, hands saying “come on,” before they duet in a touchless embrace. The impression is of bodies healing from injuries at time-lapse speed. On a larger scale, something is growing, changing, approaching. Tucker folds cello into her sibilant soundscape, and the breathing projection now fills the back wall. Thiele holds Elizéon as if catching her in a swoon, their hands entwining like swallows taking flight.

Dwyer is still tortuously crawling, her movement like a vast, slow metronome swishing behind all the activity on stage, marking off a deeper order of time.

Noonan slides in from the seating, belly down, and Elizéon climbs on his back as if he were a raft pointing toward the sea on which all these rivulets of humanity are converging. After crawling with a perseverance matching Dwyer’s, Noonan stands, bearing Elizéon with him. As she dismounts and lays her head on the knee of a seated performer, Noonan begins to run in a circle. It’s the first unencumbered movement we’ve seen, spell-breaking, with a Sisyphean athletic quality familiar from prior Noonan works. 

The sprint leaves him winded just in time for a solo. As he collapses, his head falls into the hand of Dwyer, who has finally made it to center stage and half-risen. Then he lifts her in a tender embrace. But by the time the other dancers begin to touch each other’s faces, getting to know one another, she’s back on the floor, as if forgotten.

Thiele is laughing desperately. Matthew Young has entered the fray, a ball of nervous energy. He grapples with Noonan, now fighting, now consoling, though always unbalanced, as Noonan is standing on one leg. There is a sense that all the pressurized placidity has been an unsuspected build toward something intense, even violent, which is about to occur. 

But the transformation that arrives is much softer, a last-second reversal of some social polarity on the brink of disaster. All the performers on stage take the hands of those waiting in seats, leading them into the space by twos and threes, gently, cautiously, and with a certain wonder, like children walking into a fairy tale. A utopian community is being born before our eyes, a human chain that communicates through touch—though, as if granting the fragility of utopias, there is a nightmarish edge to the soundscape, which is haunted by warped snippets of songs like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.”

All I ever wanted / All I ever needed / Is here in my arms.

Does this sound obscure or abstract? It didn’t feel that way. If the story of They Are All is an open form, the emotions in it are legible, precise, and accessible to anyone who has a body, wherever its inevitable limits are drawn. Insofar as it’s about anything, it’s about the different distances and angles that different capacities inscribe on the same blank space. It’s about bodies rejoicing within limits rather than despairing beyond them. It’s about age and time moving in and out of phase, now concordant, now grinding. It’s about how each person’s reality is scaled to the spread of their arms, the length of their stride. It’s about the beauty of the possible and the possibility of transcendence. It’s about love.

But it’s really the kind of show that makes “about” seem like an impoverished frame for an experience of immediacy and presence, something right here, capillary-connected and breathing. There’s inherent beauty in seeing body types and ages we don’t often see in modern dance, and all credit is due to the courage and achievement of the first-time performers. But not many choreographers have the will and patience to make it happen, and render it polished and profound instead of sentimental or patronizing. That’s something special about Elizéon and Noonan, whose established ability to press against physical limits in mindful, humane ways is thrown into a new light.

Toward the end, the solemn procession of performers turns seamlessly to a dance party as James Brown’s “I Feel Good” slices cleanly through the mix. All the performers sit in a row of chairs that has appeared at the rear of the stage, each touching the next’s knee. Hands shape invisible forms in the air as Tucker bows a plangent theme over a pizzicato loop. Gradually, all rise and move forward. One man does jumping jacks. One woman rocks cradling arms. Another pounds her fists in frustration or despair. One by one, they sit down again, until only the sporty fellow is left, shadowboxing. 

Then he, too, retires, and Dwyer returns, alone again but no longer prone, jogging in place until the lights fall.

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