Black Irish Baile: līv ˈtiSHo͞o (live tissue)

★★★★

Jun. 30, 2019

Cary Arts Center, Cary

In a recent article on the neurodiversity website The Aspergian, author and activist C.L. Lynch asserts that our conventional understanding of autism is mistaken, in part because of the language that describes it. The problem lies with the word “spectrum.” Generally, we use the term to describe the condition’s intensity: Someone’s on “the severe end of the spectrum.” And conventional usage suggests the presence or absence of constituent components: “I may not be autistic, but I’m definitely on the spectrum.” 

In her article, Lynch points out that, as a spectrum is a continuum of different colors that exist simultaneously, autism is a group of intertwined, co-existing neurological conditions affecting areas including sensory and information processing, social awareness, and neuro-motor differences. “If you only check one or two boxes, then they don’t call it autism—they call it something else,” Lynch observes. “But if you have all of the above and more, they call it autism.”

Lynch’s article comes to mind as I consider Black Irish Baile’s new evening-length dance work, līv ˈtiSHo͞o (live tissue), which premiered on June 30 in Cary. It’s a sensory-saturating fusillade that attempts to translate choreographer Ronald West’s own neurological experiences with an epileptic disorder and those of the dance students with autism he teaches into a staged, shareable experience performed by professional-level dancers.

The piece’s fusion of high-velocity hip-hop and modern dance moves—and its engrossing soundscape incorporating spoken word, club music, and other ASMR-generating audio—at least suggests the challenges of sensory overload. The mash-up of relationships and social interactions depicted inscrutably veer between comfort, support, coercion, and abuse. Sometimes, curtains on the Cary Arts Center stage mimic an autistic narrowing of focus, framing sequences like letterbox videos.

If līv ˈtiSHo͞o (live tissueis a trip—and it definitely is—it’s riddled with sudden drops, stops, and unexpected switchbacks. It careens through bonfires of technical brilliance, and exuberant ensemble sections slam into sober, soulful solos, duets, and trios. Dancer Natalie Morton’s technical precision and commitment made her the most riveting executor of West’s take-no-prisoners moves. Superimposing DJ Shadow’s “The Mountain Will Fall” against Harry Styles’s “Woman” gave a dissonant, deeply unsettling resonance to a sequence in which characters portrayed by an evasive Josie Kolbeck, a haunting Raquelle Pollack, and an assertive Chania Wilson articulated different negative relationships with West’s character. 

Not all sections achieved that level of artistic fusion. While amusing, the solos illustrating wacky chitterings and other mouth sounds didn’t surpass the sketchbook level; neither did the brief, non-sequitur deployment of glow-in-the-dark gloves. A blacklight body-paint sequence with West and principal dancer Morton was a technical misfire. I also have to observe that the abrupt ending, a single sore-thumb sound cue, and other isolated moments suggested a show that may have run out of rehearsal time.

West’s penchant for outré fashion design worked well, as Wilson animated a tactile white top suggesting a nimbus cloud of silk strips, and Ryane Lake and others gave parabolic flight to various capes, much as Loie Fuller did a century ago. Mitchell Morton’s tasteful sax and Alfredo Hurtado’s guitar accompaniment added to this ever-restless, often-exuberant odyssey through a spectrum of experiences we seldom see on stage.