A review of: Escapes & Reversals by Ginger Krebs
presented by the In>Time Performance Festival
March 7–9, 2019, Unity Lutheran Church basketball gym, Chicago
Made and directed with
- Maddie Kodat, Naoki Nakatani, Zach Nicol, and Harlan Rosen, dance
- Joseph Kramer, sound
- Christine Shallenberg, lighting
- Chris Cameron, Rillan DaSalla, and Christine Shallenberg, video
- Luci Lei, stagehand and rehearsal assistant
Image: Chris Cameron
Ginger Krebs’s latest dance essay, an hourlong piece played out on an indoor basketball court, is a devastating look at our current forms of empire and colonization: surveillance technology and image-driven culture. In Escapes & Reversals, five human bodies persevere, exerting themselves through a set of sharply delimited movement options shaped by the edges of a video screen.
The pileup of analogies is thick in this work—overt, perhaps inescapable. An insert in the program notes offers a warning of the seriousness and dark humor we’re getting into: a multiple-choice quiz that includes such challenges as these.
David Attenborough is to nature documentary as Predator Drone is to ________.
Threat is to extreme fitness as bribe is to ________.
Visibility is to democracy as mysticism is to ________.
Although we as audience remain firmly planted in our seats throughout the show, Krebs shifts our perspective in multiple ways. The dancers enter in tight formation, carrying clear plastic screens the size of a laptop computer, holding them vertically like windows or viewfinders. For the audience, these screens frame the dancers’ faces, reducing them to images. Despite their transparency, the screens serve as masks, protections, misrepresentations.
Of course the dancers are viewing and framing us while we are viewing them. But to us no eye contact is offered or threatened. We are left to see ourselves in the privileged pretense of invisibility.
In order to hold up the screens, the dancers must keep their elbows cocked and their hands clenched in not-quite fists. Eliminate the screens and they are each in a boxer’s defensive stance. Are they aware of how wary they look? As the formation slowly inches downstage toward the audience, they run through rhythmic unison exercises of head-nodding. Yes, they have some degrees of perspective on the matter. The downstage progress is repeated multiple times, with individual performers briefly breaking the pattern to shout “Me!” “Nope, back!” “C’mon, go!” This reset ritual provokes a backward shuffle-hopping and a renewed forward propulsion.
As they again draw near the audience, the dancers snap their calm faces into taut smiles, holding their grins steady for an imagined camera. A mask behind a mask. The audience laughs uncomfortably at this cheesy rictus, mirroring and amplifying the moment like social media.
The smiles are at an intimate distance from us and yet utterly remote. This tense moment resolves with the dancers scrolling away upstage once more. Reeled fully back, the dancers simultaneously release one hand to grab the necklines of their jerseys and quickly land a small pointed punch against their screens. The sound of their fists striking is a sharp surprise: Do they want to break through, or simply to verify that the screen is really still there? Either way, it’s an acknowledgment of a wall, perhaps the “fourth wall” of a theater of mediated self-representation—but the analogies to choose from are plentiful and it’s to the work’s credit that we can’t settle on just one.
Eventually the dancers ditch their plastic screens, only to find another frame-up. Clustered close, they circle the perimeter of the space wielding a selfie-stick that projects their image on the back wall. Oh, the places they’ll go, the sights they want to show!
But no, the actual prize is to be at the center of the group picture. Armed with their grins, they patrol themselves more than they patrol the space. Scenery is secondary to occupying the sacred space onscreen.
And yes, that’s how we do it now. Arrivals prove they exist within the placelessness of the internet: the plated food from your dinner with Alex, your friend’s trip to Amsterdam, your anniversary. Picture or it didn’t happen.
The selfie-stick might be a metaphorical weapon or pennant, but the cellphone videocamera it holds is clearly the engine driving the dancers’ journey, like a carrot motivating a mule team.
There’s one freedom implicit in the piece—or an oppression ignored—in that neither the costuming nor the choreography are burdened by gender marking. The performers sport combinations of red and blue athletic gear: shorts and jerseys, sweatbands, kneepads. That’s a kind of freedom, but the movement sequences they perform follow rigid game structures, sometimes in individual virtuosic bursts of athleticism but more often in field drills played out in time-bending repetition or staccato, as if the dancers lived between the shots of a stop-motion animation. Or as if they were the play figures in a computer game, vanishing to reappear with lives remaining.
Despite following the rules like automatons, the dancers exude individual character: their entropic energy teases the highly ordered system. Precise and motley, their identities oscillate: they are as natural as humans, as charmingly supernatural as pixies, as artificial as robots.
The performers execute their moves with almost unfailing accuracy, but we remain acutely aware of their fallibility and vulnerability, spotting with delight any small blip of an error. There they are, suited up and at the top of their game, and the pathos of the ritual is palpable. The structure is broken again and again by the human details—an elbow cocked in mismatch, a brief fit of eye-blinking—and these irregularities are what we live for in the piece.
They bring on the funk, playing a glitch track of humanness (incorrigible, irritable) in counterpoint to the rigors of the game. As an escape from exploitation, maybe our refuge must be the body itself. With its mortality, imperfection, vulnerability, and charming failure to match all ideals, it slips free. And, phenomenal performers all five, the dancers hack the system by being their unfathomable selves.
Demanding the audience’s focus, the piece asks a lot. It prompts questions with multiple answers that won’t stay put, that dance into political and philosophical territory.
Such as: In a culture that glamorizes efficiency, can we see our imperfections as a saving grace? Brands like Nike market their products as “high-performance wear,” and the human body is exhorted to behave at a continually reset peak of strength, fitness, health. But us self-improvers go failing and buying, failing and buying, and succeed in becoming thoroughgoing consumers. Cogs in a machine producing rivers of Amazon bubble-packs.
Is a body behaving unpredictably where to find the dance of life? In the strict mechanics of this piece’s choreography, every twitch and glitch is a glimmer of vitality.
The actions in Escapes & Reversals play out a tight logic, but apropos of the title, the function and framing of these actions dodge about, launching up dusty thought clouds in which the particulate matter seems inextricable, likely toxic.
Let’s keep breathing the questions anyway. The sports analogy is overt, but if this is a competition, what constitutes a win? If it’s a a team-building exercise, why does a sense of aloneness pervade even the moments when the individuals are performing in strict unison? If these are warm-up drills, what are these team members being trained for?
It’s a warm-up with a chilling effect.
Sports is overt, but the analogy of military operations is fully embedded, not only in the dancers’ tight formations and floor-wide deployments but also in the lulls and barrages of Joseph Kramer’s sound score and in Christine Shallenberg’s lighting that goes from undetectable to extreme. The performance space seems not an active war zone but more a field-mapping of past and future decimations. More questions exhale: If this is a tactical training exercise, what engagement is in store for these bodies? If this is a military engagement, are these five performers all on the same side? If so, who or what is the enemy?
But look, they’re civilians in polyester mesh, defenseless except for their selfie-smiles.
About midway into the piece, a video projection appears behind the dancers: a static, unpopulated landscape over which the camera’s autofocus bracket wanders unashamed, glitchily hunting for its subject and failing to lock on. As indefatigably as the human dancers before us, this technology seems to aspire for something elusive. But its bobbling seems less innocent, more dangerous. In the inscrutable landscape (a clouded postwar plateau?) nothing happens. No projectiles intrude, but the camera itself has photobombed the scene.
It’s funny, ordinary, uncanny, and scary all at once.
And soon enough the dancers are blown up in explosive jumps. Pronking like springboks, their spines round skyward while their feet, hands, and heads point earthward. Their brief breaks from the horizontal look partly instinctive, a startle response, and partly involuntary, as if they’ve been hurled up by landmines. From the ground up and from the heavens down, this work is infiltrated by the question of free will. Every visible movement seems driven by invisible vectors.
But also (like all dance?) these leaps are thwarted flight. Though unable to escape the ground for long, the dancers are able to meditate on their predicament. Like cud-chewing prey animals, they work their mandibles with docility, gazing inward, until they are sprung upward again.
Boing, mortal coils. Quickly landing back on their feet, they each scoot here and there to find somewhere to crouch, hiding in plain sight. (The midcentury nostrum “duck and cover” is beyond passé in our surveilled times.) Butts up, sometimes they huddle in protective pairs, sometimes alone. When in pairs are they safer, or are they human shields?
Are they intrepid resourceful soldiers, or pawns in a game in which the full consequences of their actions are not visible? Is this simply life as an elimination round?
At another point in the piece, the performers form a phalanx facing the audience, holding the plastic screens before them as baffles. Hiding transparently. They sidle in ranks like pixilated, pixelated alien ships in the 1970s arcade game Space Invaders, and their crossings produce brief moments of eclipse that are punctuated by a simple social script. Each time a performer passes behind another, they say, “Hey, how are you?” The performer in front responds, “Good, how are you,” and the one behind volleys back, “Good.” Meanwhile, unflinchingly, gamely, they weather a sporadic barrage of tennis balls flung into their midst by a mechanical ball launcher tucked away behind the audience.
It’s a simple demo of the bonding and power games implicit in social interactions. This the audience perceives while safe from the fusillade. But the visual rhythm of the balls, both regular and random, comical and maybe dangerous, changes the texture, widens the picture to something else, confounds a simple reading. The piece chews on politics, but its scope always opens out into metaphysics. The depth of field shifts and we get a blur. “Good” means: “You there, me here; we are together whether it’s good or not.” “Good” means: “I’m unhurt; I won’t hurt you, although maybe I could.” “Good” is meaningless, or a lie. The moment of phatic communication is natural as birdsong and artificial as robocalls. Escapes & Reversals is a continual interrogation of the fuzzed boundaries between nature and artifice.
As the formation of dancers navigates the space, one of the dancers, Maddie Kodat, occasionally manages to get left behind. Drawing our focus, Kodat seems both vulnerable and liberated: should we worry about or rejoice for him? During one of these stranded moments, Kodat, gazing opaquely, works his face in a compelling ballet of lip-biting and grimaces, as if unobserved in private space. As if he wants to eat away the selfie smile. Blink and you’ve missed it; soon he morphs again into a cud-chewing animal.
Only one of the performers is in possession of a literal weapon, and even this weapon blurs its function. At one point, after the ensemble has paced out various motor stereotypies like caged animals, Harlan Rosen withdraws a pair of nunchucks from a fanny pack and proceeds to rhythmically slice the air like a Vitamix switched full-on at puree.
It’s a private practice, no sparring partner needed: each deft and rapid stroke ends with a thump on Rosen’s own back. An exercise of agile self-defense that looks very much like a ritual of self-abuse. The percussion of the nunchucks on Rosen’s body adds a passage of dance-club beat to the sound score. Some lyrics are imaginable: Who Needs to Get Hurt Tonight? The flurry of radial slicing makes for propeller wings around Rosen’s shoulders. Angelic or demonic, this helicopter drone bug stays on the launchpad but announces a possibility of flight.
In a short while the performers do take flight: singly, and without fanfare, they propel themselves out of the performance space and exit through the side doors of the gym. One, however, remains marooned onstage. Naoki Nakatani, tall and slender, with a tiny fountain of ponytail exploding from the top of his head, performs a series of gestures (petitions? placations? runway signals?) and then moves downstage to speak a complaint that may or may not have been embedded in the gestures. “Did you get my message? I sent it five days ago—did you read it?” he says. “Read it. Read it.”
The relation of figure and ground, or figure and screen, depends on an outside eye. Of course. In Escapes & Reversals the framing resonates with theology, suggesting an unseen observer on high. Throughout the piece, we as audience might choose to ask: Are we a god watching over the dancers, powerless to intervene in their actions? Or are the dancers the gods, and we the audience captive to their caprices? (Okay, we might also indulge such Greek-drama questions while bingeing on Netflix or at any other moment of existential doubt.)
But toward the end of the piece the options telescope: as Nakatani in solitude insists that we open his message, another video projection appears in which the dancers, pinned and foreshortened on an outdoor topography that looks strip-mined, are witnessed from the lens of a drone camera hovering at enough distance that they become wee atoms crossing the screen. This nimble eye in the sky seems less powerless, with the potential to call in a strike or call in assistance, but its vision remains a stand-in for our own eyes and we’re still left to wonder who’s at the joystick.
This use of imaging technology calls to mind pre-Renaissance religious paintings in which the stigmata (those bloody embellishments on hands and feet signifying the wounds of Christ) are delivered to various saints via stringy etherial radiations emitted by a flying seraph. More than the seraph itself, these radiations were a painterly challenge—Visible or invisible? Let’s go with translucent!—and so a good naive look at these images might suggest that the saints had kite-flying skills and were effulgently topping from the bottom with nylon filament. But the story goes more like this: The seraph (a fiery angel usually dressed in full bling with six wings) is a holy drone that’s got the earthly figure in its crosshairs. A holy drone that’s a vehicle of knowledge, able to deliver suffering and glory.
Although a modern drone camera may not be one of our better angels, it’s what’s finding us now.
The final section of the piece sees Nakatani rejoined by the other dancers, who enter
in the same formation as at the start, once more holding their plastic screens. Now, as the group performs the geometries of a community dance, the screens find a new function, serving as mirrors between the performers. They arrive at a game of telephone, catching and passing a simple movement phrase around a circle, pivoting in crisp angles to fling the signal around faster and faster, adding tiny bytes of information every few circuits, driven by algorithms both apparent and mysterious.
As an ending this is both fascinating and frustrating in its propulsive circularity. We see a system working beautifully and we feel the crushing cost of its operation. The sound score now buzzes and clanks to a relentless beat. Chaplin’s dance among the gears and conveyors in Modern Times is utter freedom compared to this. The performers seem distant from us, away upstage, thoroughly concentrated in this locked-in inescapable whirl that could go on endlessly. Then it stops, and it’s hard to say how: Do the lights fade? Is it slowed by fatigue or friction or simply cut to a halt? In recalling Escapes and Reversals, the answer to this vanishes.
But shortly before this final dizzying whirligig starts to spin, there’s a brief moment of almost-intimate contact between the dancers. Accompanied by astral sounds, they pair off, smooshing their faces together with the plastic sandwiched between them, twisting their torsos as they slide their feet Egyptian-mural style across the floor. Even in this attempt to hold together in collaborative interdependence, there’s a funny distortion; they are held apart by the medium of the screen.
Carole McCurdy is a Chicago-based artist whose work addresses grief and anxiety, duty and resistance, and the absurd mysteries of embodiment. With Aurora Tabar she curated Power Ouch!, a festival of body-based performances about violence, at Links Hall in February 2019. She has shown her work at the Chicago Cultural Center, Defibrillator Gallery, Epiphany Dance, Hamlin Park, High Concept Laboratories, Links Hall, and No Nation, among others. She received a 2016 Lab Artist award from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and was a Fall 2016 Sponsored Artist at High Concept Laboratories. She created and directed an ensemble piece, Waver (2017), with support from CDF, HCL, and 3Arts Chicago. carolemccurdy.com