Closing and Opening and Breaking and Liss Fain Dance

Photo by Stephen Texeira

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May 7, 2019

What holds a dance together? Or any work of art for that matter? If coherence is something we (we being the maker and/or the audience) are after, how can we get it? Or maybe a better question is, once we create a pattern or a frame, how can we violate it effectively? Joyfully even. To violate a frame, we need a frame. I was thinking about such things after seeing Liss Fain Dance‘s “Close the Door Slowly” at Z Space. I have to admit that I found the performance a bit difficult to read. For me, it didn’t quite cohere.

Apparently Fain created this piece while confronting the challenges she faces as she loses her husband to early onset Alzheimer’s. The piece is Fain’s effort to explore — with dancers Keryn Breiterman-Loader, Sonja Dale, Sydney Franz, Anna Greenberg, Megan Kurashige, and Shannon Kurashige— what it means to chart a course in unknown territory, and ultimately to let go. Underlying the piece are open questions, so perhaps a quality of indeterminacy is to be expected. And yet, as I watched I found myself wondering if a question was being asked at all. I felt that certain decisions regarding the shape and form and intention of the piece had never actually been made.

There were moments when the movements seemed headed toward mime, as if the dancer were doing an explicit gesture, one that could be associated with a particular phrase —such as “I held up the baby,” or “I lunged toward the sandwich”— but there was nowhere for meaning to land. There were several specific-seeming gestures that seemed neither in contrast to or in concert with the world that was being created for the audience. I felt that the sphere of the performance space, that magic place, never came alive.

The intention, as stated in the program notes, was in part to defamiliarize ordinary objects, such as a lamp in a study. A lamp is moved and passed around and stepped over, but it never loses its steadfast lampness. Books are piled on a table and are stepped on, chairs are picked up and swung around and sat in and balanced on. I wonder what could enliven these interactions? Is there a way, I wondered, to make this more dangerous? To have a chair capture a dancer, to have a book nearly strike someone. To engage with the menace of ordinary objects. They are, after all, implacable. They remain when people die, they seem at times to conspire against us. The possibility of menace might have served this piece well. A touch of evil, which goes hand in hoof with a touch of humor. If you are engaging with the surreal you ought to invite that in, replace the lightbulb with an onion, so to speak. Have a cry when you try to change the bulb.

I was struck several times by the way, during solos or duets, the non-involved dancers watched. They seemed to see each other not through the eyes of creatures whose only world is the one that is being created on the stage, but rather to be watching from a distance, or waiting for their turn. They seemed to be waiting for what I was waiting for, a change that never came. Now that is a subtle quality that it is easy for me, someone outside the experience of creating this piece, to say is missing.

Look, everyone is a critic, and that’s the risk of making art. That you become so intimately connected to the world you’re making that you forget that you need to enchant the audience (or in some cases to disgust the audience, but that too, is a type of enchantment). One way to do this is by engaging a bit with chaos. I know, I began this post talking about order, patterns. I think you have to make them to break them. Let the movement be clear so that other movements can be in contrast. Set the pattern clearly so that you can tear it down joyfully. Risk something. Stub a toe and curse what you can’t control, there is danger in real play.

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