Maybe it’s the season, but Zephyr Dance’s “Valise 13” made me think of the ghostly chemistry between buildings and their inhabitants, whose histories threaten to combine and combust. Maybe
it was the slow gliding of the two performers, wraiths swathed in white, from one space to another in a gallery on Chicago Avenue, a space likely dating to the late 1800s. Or maybe it was the eerie modification of the place for this brief event.
Overall the visually stunning “Valise 13,” through Sunday at Defibrillator Gallery, made me think about the spaces where we watch performance, and how they differ from our everyday digs. Though we might consider architecture permanent, a performance always makes me hyperaware of transience. And in “Valise 13,”
architect David Sundry’s designs also emphasized the impermanent, the provisional.
Primarily using unfinished wood and plain concrete blocks to build enclosures, Sundry makes the place look a bit like a construction site. Then he adds even less permanent, less substantial elements: Mylar ceilings, walls and floors; rectangles of black tissue paper — and lots of it in his main-floor installation, where it seems to have exploded to create an amphitheater.
Oddly, dancers Molly Strom and Michelle Kranicke, who is also head of Zephyr and choreographer of “Valise 13,” never go inside that. Nor do they enter a tiny red-lit dungeon (the stuff of nightmares) in the basement. At least, not that I know of: It’s impossible to see all of “Valise 13” because it consists of solos and duets, and if you choose to watch a solo in one spot, you’ll miss the solo in another.
Basically there are three performance arenas: the raised area just inside the storefront window, with Mylar floor, ceiling and walls; the basement, with its creepy recesses; and the garage out back, where the installation includes a stairway and short wall, so we look down into what seems a pool. But Richard Norwood’s lighting makes even the pathways numinous: As I watched Strom descend a stairway, her sudden turn back upstairs — arms crooked and raised, eyes wide — made her an avenging angel.
The movement generally is stately, even glacial, gravely and completely inhabited at every moment — no mean feat for a dancer over a continuous 75 minutes. Its parameters are basic: up or down, forward or back. Given the general slowness, balance and control are crucial. For me, the evening’s dramatic high point was the penultimate duet, when the two dancers first walked backward down the ramp, on half-toe, then back up it backward, on half-toe. Would they tip out of balance, even fall off the ramp? They did not: a heroic feat.
Wearing black tissue paper around their shoulders at the beginning of this duet, the dancers reminded me of birds, which reminded me of ballet — as did the “Bayadere”-like ramp. Sometimes even the floor work was reminiscent of the arm positions and turned-out legs of classical dance. But in the final duet, the dancers seemed creatures rolling at the bottom of a quivery sea, their reflections hovering above them like angels.
In dance, design is usually subordinate to the performance, framing and enhancing it. But here the two are equals. Together with a quiet sound design of what seems to be ambient noise, its segments soothingly repeated, they form a triumvirate of equals, creating an allover pattern that’s all background, no foreground. It’s a great environment for contemplation but doesn’t work as well for drama.
Laura Molzahn is a freelance critic.