Text messages in white Helvetica pinged onto a black backdrop, then faded away. In REALITY/Stardust, choreographer David Roussève depicted a fragmented reality that existed in the form of these messages, sent to an unknown number by an unseen diarist. On Saturday, September 27, the messages were projected against the backdrop of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center stage in Long Beach, CA. Amidst the constant barrage of texts were dance movements and video art by Cari Ann Shim Sham, which served to illustrate the protagonist’s teenage experience–namely, one that delved into being queer, African American, and living in a foster home.
At the beginning, crickets softly chirped as warm light slowly flooded the stage and the dancers began to move in unison through a slow gestural phrase. They were interrupted by the sound of a “ding!” followed by that shuffling-paper sound of emails getting sorted or trash being emptied. These sounds helped define the narrative from the get-go. The audience powered off their own devices only to escape to this brave new world, one presumably located in the fictional message sender’s–or choreographer’s–head. (Or more disturbingly, because it’d remove us even further from our humanity, the sender’s phone.)
Clad in pedestrian styled slate gray costumes with harem pants and zippered vests, one dancer turned upstage, following the incoming messages with an extended arm and pointer finger. “Dear person who b at this #,” the anonymous protagonist began. He confessed that he was unable to cry, despite feeling strongly compassionate for a classmate at school who had dropped her tray in the cafeteria. Instead of holding her like he said he wanted to, he stabbed her in the ear with a pencil. (The audience, comprised largely of university students, tittered softly at this). The dancers slouched into one hip as the gesture phrase expanded, accenting their movements with breath. As the work continued, we were led deeper and deeper into this young man’s troubled head and heart, and into the world where his feelings were not welcome. We learned that he was most at peace when he looked at stars or listened to Nat King Cole, with whom the score was studded. We learned that his grandfather, who had passed away but who appeared via Skype in his dreams (thanks to some of Shim Sham’s contributions), was his best friend, telling him to be “who you are.” And that when he tried to flirt with a jock on the football team, he got his front teeth punched out in response. They went in his pocket. “Best part of smile in pocket,” he texted us. Aspects of street culture appeared in the work in the form of hip hop and breakdancing movements, which were woven through release-style modern. Fighting was construed through confrontational partnering sequences. Pedestrian walking patterns seemed to release tension between sections, but I tired of a motif where the dancers clutched their crotch.
At several points, the written story stood out as the work’s most memorable aspect. For instance, the protagonist was told by his counselor to get a pet to care for. So he purchased a hamster. Success. The hamster gave him responsibility, allowed him to express his love for another being, and provided companionship, even at night–he slept with it next to his pillow. But it also happened to bite: the “hamster” turned out to be an app on the character’s phone, and since he had dropped the phone and cracked the screen, he cut his finger whenever he petted it. I don’t recall what dancing accompanied this scene, which says something, but it stood out as a favorite–and humorous–section nonetheless.
In contrast, occasionally the dancing served as a central element that helped tie the narrative and other production elements, such as lighting, together. When the main character went on a field trip, he said, his classmates liked the Rembrandt, admiring its realism. By contrast, our hero selected Van Gogh’s Starry Night–it was about what you felt like, he said, not looked like. We already know what the world looks like, his argument went–shitty. Meanwhile, a single male dancer stood center stage with his arms making a circle in front of his body. One by one, another dancer would crawl over to him and squirm up into his arms to create an embrace. Then each dancer would crawl back out, roll into a supine position with arched backs, and scoot backwards. Soon multiple dancers were surging forward to fill the negative space created by the first dancer’s arms. It was a moment that expressed vulnerability, and the story seemed to orbit around it, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, a disco ball painted tiny circles of light over the backdrop, curtains, and floor.
These were the moments that defended Roussève’s decision to combine text, dance, and video in a comprehensive work. At times, the text took me–and my eye–away from the dancing. But the playing field was leveled by the fact that all three aspects disappeared almost as they occurred. Incorporating text made sense–it would be difficult to convey with any accuracy the experiences of an underprivileged, orphaned queer black teen with just dance steps, and that specific identity and experience was part and parcel to the work’s existence, reminding me of works by Junot Diaz, for instance. At the same time, there are situations in which physical movements have the power to articulate more successfully than words, especially texts, which are limited by their abrupt and disconnected format. Whereas the words that appeared onscreen were often abbreviated and their author remained anonymous, the choreography was fluid and we were face-to-face with the dancers. It was important that the text be broken up, so that movement and video had somewhere to go. And while the narrative tied everything together, choreographic elements served as subtext, smoothing the abruptness of the written story and the way it was delivered. The dance delved into the character’s sexuality (the word “horny” was punctuated by one dancer humping the floor, then the air, as he rolled from a supine to a prone position–later, the same dancer performed a vogueing sequence that had a supple, indulgent quality to it); loneliness; desire to connect; and pain (another soloist performed a very athletic sequence but eventually was overcome by her own breath, and ended up hyperventilating as she tried to complete the phrase).
In its structure, REALITY/Stardust was intellectual and well thought-out (which its subject matter demanded). The performances were strong, although some of the dancing’s nuance got lost beneath the text. It is a work that has something to say–quite a lot of somethings–and I felt I would benefit from both a second viewing of it and some kind of discussion to explore its message more deeply with the choreographer, other artists involved, and audience members. In the meantime, like a good book, it has continued to reveal itself to me in my own mind even days after the final curtain call.