Stop. Return. Continue.
In Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts’s “Zero Return,” a Chicago extension of the group’s project “Number Zero,” a “semi-intelligent computer system” instructs the movements of the “semi-improvising” dancers. The results created by Disappearing Acts’s co-leaders Sheldon Smith and Lisa Wymore, along with Ian Heisters, Peter Carpenter, and Lisa Gonzales, were quite ingenious—and often quite funny.
The project is a clever adaptation of certain Merce Cunningham/John Cage approaches to chance, shaped into a generative system of choreographic composition. But in addition to unleashing dance creation to elements of randomization and spontaneity, the use of a rather Hal/Her-like computer director also lent the piece an element of cyborgian techno-social critique: what happens when a computer system, programmed by humans, starts programming them in turn? Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra. Every contemporary artificial intelligence designer, supporter, and critic should see this piece.
One of the key narrative and emotional moments in “Zero Return” occurred when the computer instructed the dancers to “continue.” It was a moment of release within the piece, a moment in the program when the computer ceded control back to the human dancers. You could see their bodies ease into agency and autonomy even if they still carried forward movements that had been partially instructed by the computer system. Whether they had to consider their own mortality or grab each other’s arms or throw themselves into a wall, they carried on, executing commands from without, but also reaching within.
Continue: it also might stand in for the central focus of the wonderful aMID Festival as a whole. Curated by Links Hall Artistic Associate Resident Michelle Kranicke, artistic director of Zephyr Dance, aMID explores the aging dancing body. Last weekend featured works by Bob Eisen, Cynthia Oliver, Deborah Hay, and Zephyr itself. This weekend, Zephyr continued, joined by Smith/Wymore, Pranita Jain, and a continuation of the ongoing improvised duets between Bebe Miller and Darrell Jones.
Zephyr’s work was a kind of still-life-in-white, with Kranicke slowly unfurling a scroll of white butcher paper around herself and then crawling out from the fort she had made for herself on an unfurled carpet of crinkling noise. It was vaguely reminiscent of the brown paper famously used in Anna Halprin’s “Parades and Changes” (but no nakedness here in this case, and something much more quiet and hushed). Her two additional dancers, Sabrina Baranda and Molly Strom, slowly moved through solid, marble-like poses to her side.
Then, suddenly, a few audience members started moving around the room. Kranicke had invited viewers to shift around and among the performers so that they could take in the sculptural quality of the composition from different angles. This made them part of the piece as well, their awkward but inquisitive curiosity blurring the stillness on stage with a buzzing energy intruding beyond it. One might typically characterize this kind of breaking of the fourth wall as rupture, a trespassing, a transgression of the rules of theater. In this case, at Links Hall, however, with the audience spread around the small room, a continuity emerged. Performing and watching bodies criss-crossed without ever quite dissolving into one another or interrupting the flow. Dance as stillness and murmur, a hum of all of us continuing to engage.
Pranita Jain presented a hybrid of traditional Indian dance and contemporary gestures with “What the Body Remembers.” Often moving in circles, spine erect with arms reaching outward in circles while her lower body either rotated slowly at the hips or her feet stamped, she expressed an intriguing mix of rootedness and adventurousness. She incorporated traditions of dance that carry thousands of years of history within them while also gesturing to the modern world. The contrast of her with the very young Manou Chakrovarty in a duet accentuated the awareness of age and time raised in the performance. There was something wonderfully solid about Jain’s presence, a depth that could only be communicated through an older body’s experience. Moving between past and present, playing with scales of temporality both beyond and within a lifetime, she let her body approach limits, strive to make peace with them, and even, in moments, challenge and transcend them.
The time that bodies bear and hold—and unleash. Something erupted within the final performance of the evening: Bebe Miller‘s and Darrell Jones’s continuing work on “Duet With Piece Of String.” Here was a performance that left the audience’s jaws dropped in awe and appreciation.
There was enormous tenderness between Miller and Jones as they began the piece by reaching their arms around each other, quickly, furtively, never quite touching, as if they were at once drawn to each other and repelled. There was a history there, communicated in gestures of moving toward and backing away. These were two characters who had hurt each other but loved each other too, perhaps. A son and a mother? Two lovers? Friends with a long history? Two humans in the world? It didn’t really matter what the relationship was exactly. The power of the piece was in the playing out of emotions that the relationship contained.
At one point, Jones threw a ball of string across the stage and into the audience, the threads coming apart, as it were. Then slowly, he entwined himself in it. Eventually Miller helped him to disentangle himself.
As the piece progressed this kind of duet of appreciation and retraction, of control and letting go, continued. The dancers moved away from each other, giving their counterpart space to shift from duet to solos. Eyeing each other from afar. Then Jones slowly accelerated in an angled, dipping, crouched weave toward Miller. Rejoining each other, the two dancers culminated this magnificent improvisation in a passage of vibratory virtuosity.
First, Jones using his hand to vibrate Miller’s body as if by remote control, then Miller turning the attention back to Jones, who slowly let the vibrations move up from his feet into his spine and back until his whole body was writhing. It was joy and pain, togetherness and aloneness, all at once. It was complete. It was something new, without years, unprecedented, original, never before made, and as young as young could be; it also, at the same time, shook us back to something old, ancient, elemental, always there below the surface, forgotten but buried within us. Jones unlocked it and let it out for a moment.
What was it? It wasn’t an escape in the least. It was an entrance. Two extraordinarily beautiful and powerful dancers who grabbed a moment from time, using technique to access something else: an intensification of the immediate from within the endless march of aging we all cannot avoid. It was a knowledge gained into things lost and found, always there and yet somehow also feeling as if it had never before been. The richness that experience, soaked into bone and muscle and skin and person, produces as immediate and innocent. Something like wisdom. Fully blown from Zeus’s head.
Except in this case it came from the spine. Undulating his, Jones carried the weight of the world on his back. Even as he bowed down more deeply into the earth, vibrating forward and back, up and down, as if taken over by a loa, he was in control. He lifted himself, and us, up from the dust that we all—him included—eventually return to. He was both the rider and the ridden. We all held our breath, raised and lowered ourselves with him. We all were there in that vibration, witnessing it, participating.
Everything was there in it, with precision and with an all-encompassing breadth. A pin prick and a solar flare into the universe, all at once, molecules shaking, almost breaking apart but retaining form.
And then he left it behind and rejoined us. We had moved through with him, on the vibrations that pulsate between innocence and experience, producing an intelligence no computer can signal or hold or determine or claim. We felt its passage—through us, with us, past us, in us, beyond us. It was there. An expansion. The whole point of it all. Then the lights went down and it was gone—a memory of an experience, not the thing itself. Stored away, the knowledge, for the ages.