We were ushered single file into the warmly lit building on Panamint St., our names checked off a list as we passed through a short, dark hallway before entering a bright studio outfitted for performances. The back wall that would frame the dance was stark white; black curtains lined the sides; behind us, stairs led up to a second level with a railing, which was where the sound and lighting boards were ready to go. In front of the dance floor, wooden risers supported rows of chairs; we found three empty ones, but the space was filling fast and more than a few people were left with room only to stand.
Nine simple black folding chairs were evenly spaced along the three-walled periphery of the performance space, unspoken as “reserved” but clearly marked as such in the world we’d soon see unfold. The buzzing room was silenced by a single dancer who walked swiftly and silently across the stage. She, like one of the male performers, wore a blazer, camisole tank top, and black shorts. From two entrances at upstage left and upstage right, eight dancers–well, so far just people, but with a stoically determined sort of aura–entered one at a time and took a seat. The house lights suddenly flickered off one by one, as if the lighting tech was just taking hers.
One dancer/person wore a tight-fitting, dark green dress. She got up from her seat to continue the compulsory game of musical chairs the choreography had laid forth. But as soon as she did so, another woman–in a leotard with nude-colored bodice and red bottom–came at her no less quickly, this time wielding a pair of orange-handled scissors. It was the first surprise in a dance that would repeatedly deliver them. As the red-bottomed woman began cutting a large hole in the back of the green woman’s dress, I closed my own agape mouth. My father used to tell me a joke in which the number eight was scared of seven. “Why, Dad?” I’d always ask, forgetting quite how it went. Because seven ate nine.
I’m not sure if choreographer, artistic director, and dancer Danielle Agami’s company Ate9 was named for this hokey play on words, but this work’s title’s CPR insinuation–”mouth to mouth”–betrayed no less infatuation with a sequence close to the possibility of death than my father’s pun’s numerical cannibalism did. I thought the piece might be intended to resuscitate the audience. If so, it had some success, at least from where I sat.
Indeed, it was the element of surprise on repeat that gave me the feeling I was jolting into another level of consciousness, over and over again. Three encounters with different pairs of scissors and three large holes in the dancer’s now-less-snug dress later, dancer David Maurice performed a solo to Nina Simone’s “I Got It Bad.” During the solo, which hugged the upstage half of the stage, three female dancers were seated facing the audience in the downstage half. Gradually, their faces began contorting in the way that tends to infiltrate postmodern European-style contemporary dance theater–impressively articulate, those scrunching, smushing, wide-eyed, fish-faced faces, but also tiredly discomfiting. (Really, again?) But I appreciated Agami’s original spin on the device: as Maurice came over to the three to see what was happening, he grabbed each one by the sides of their faces, momentarily calming them before he moved on to the next. As if juggling the three possessed heads, Maurice calmed each at rapidly diminishing intervals, until the section had no choice but to devolve into the next.
Other surprises came simply as effective shifts in dynamic; at one point, the company of eight was dancing a cacophony of solos and duets; this overflow of stimuli was broken by a single beat, in which one dancer seated another in a chair at center stage, all to an effectively timed cue in lighting. Silence and relative stillness then reigned for a satisfying lapse.
One of the hallmarks of the work was its constant crossings between and among the nine chairs, and across the length of the stage. Rather than walk, Agami seemed to explore every possible ambulation known to man or animal. Aside from dancier phrases, the movers kicked, crawled, jumped, slid, scurried, hopped, scooted, slipped, and somersaulted to the various edges of the space. This thoroughness was not isolated to traveling phrases; indeed, it pertained to the work for its duration. Despite the sections that definitely contained surprise and maybe contained some humor–at one point, a Pink Panther head, a Grinch mask, a panda bear mask, an Avengers mask, and four others were donned by the seated dancers, who were presumably deadpan inside them; since no expressions were legible at that point, I remained uncertain of whether a joke was being played, and we certainly weren’t in on it if there was one; but I received the spoon-like image of two mouths, one breathing, one awfully artificial–what I walked away with was the sense that Agami and her dancers had done a lot a work to arrive at this conclusion of sorts. What was lived out on stage was the product of serious study, a deep investigation into possible movements and their myriad fleshed-out meanings.
It struck me, too, that the world we witnessed–I won’t say entered, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment–was a world created purely by the dance. The dance deconstructed the green dress, making it what it wasn’t before; the dance introduced movement vocabulary that had no resonance for me with any other world I knew. The dance lived in and among the nine chairs, a landscape to which it remained grounded by this world’s particular gravitational pull. But why we witnessed it and could not enter it brings me back to the drawn-in focus worn by the very first dancer who entered. Clear and strong, pointed directly forward, blinders on, her performative style–like that of the other seven cast members–was a closed barrier to any inner workings of the piece. In a rather pure way, what was externally expressed by moving body parts and the piece’s composition was what we got. Like it or not, we were not welcomed into its jokes or its intentions, nor were we particularly graciously received at the end, when some of the bowing performers seemed unable to exit their own headspace, perhaps in some ways disenchanted to the tradition of receiving applause.