Of Otherness

EDIT: This is an archived post from a while back in my review-writing history that has lived for a long time as a draft. I hope readers will still find it of value.

April Biggs’s new dance work, Of Otherness, which debuted earlier this month in Columbus, is deeply, viscerally uncomfortable. As I watch the five dancers stagger, cling, kiss, buckle and crawl around the space my chest tightens, and my fists clench around a word that I would rather shove back down into safety and silence. I do not dare let my breath out – fearing that a whisper of that word would be enough to out me from my place in the audience and shatter the taut space from which this dance emerges. That word is “Yes.”

In the black box of the theater the white screen door hanging above the space looms large in our vision. Darkness and light, opacity and transparency are echoed in the dancers’ costumes, designed by Kat Sauma: white shirts with black borders and ornamentation, splitting along spines and shoulders to reveal dark mesh underneath. The piece begins together – the dancers exploring their skin, the space, the time of their movement in a slightly desperate search for… what? One by one they are caught in curiosity, only to rejoin the group a moment later. Kathryn Nusa Logan sits cross-legged downstage on a white rug, filling the space with resonant, almost percussive strikes of her guitar.

As the piece progresses the movement becomes more and more disparate, interspersed with long solo sections; Kat Sprudz’s early solo in particular has a quiet hunger as she seeks through the space. The dancers work out over time how to interact to individual voices through observation, echoing, shadowing and support. There are also more troubling interventions – Ashlee Daniels Taylor is held in the air by the cast as she sobs and struggles to get down. Released at last she gasps and whimpers in paroxysms of pain as the rest of the cast watches impassively.

The first kiss, when it happens, is so soft and still as to be almost lost in the upstage shadows. Holding a white sheet between them, Biggs and Taylor kiss through the fabric, showing simultaneously the desperate need for, and ultimate impossibility of, connection without compromise. The sheet calls to mind Puritan nightgowns and queer anonymity: the danger of touch overcome by human desire. Later kisses push those boundaries further, couples dancing as their lips remain entwined through the fabric, their limbs flailing into space as they struggle to move without breaking contact.

There are undercurrents to this piece that I do not understand. The use of projections in particular defeats my attempts at reading: Lesly Gore singing You Don’t Own Me, and family footage of children in a paddling pool, splashing, playing, and calling to their father. I am being told something—but like the dancers behind the sheet I can only touch the edges of meaning, connect to what is within my cultural understanding, even as I know that other signs are passing me by.

I suspect that other audience members who perhaps understand these visual signs might be similarly perturbed when the broken strains of Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan come floating and distorted through the space. The music forms a backdrop to an extended solo by Meledi Montano that both sings exquisitely through the phrases of the music and mirrors the spasmodic jerks of the shadowy reverberations. Montano’s movements begin with tender clarity, before speeding up and hyperbolizing, breaking the lines of her torso as she struggles to exaggerate even further. Despite a fall and collapse she returns to master the struggle, finding space, speed, and weight in her dancing. When she leaves the space she does so with breadth and purpose, sweeping up the rest of the cast as she goes.

Of Otherness ends with a return to its beginnings, with a musical and choreographic repeat of its early spatial and tactile explorations, a choice that to me is both smart and deeply satisfying. It seems trite to say that the piece explores ways of coming together and living in spite of difference and struggle, but Of Otherness offers the true complexity that such a project implies: never making the easy choice, never giving us anything simply, never letting us resolve our feelings into an answer. The piece baffles, drawing you in even as you fail to comprehend your compulsion to keep watching, moving you in a way that defies clear words. I am privileged to have been asked to review this work, enabling me to watch it repeatedly, and still I can only come back over and over again to my initial, gut-felt response.

Yes.

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