We may be alone among animals who have religion, but we are not the only creatures engaged in ritual. All creatures address their basic needs through movement, and what birds and bees and gorillas do to capture a mate must be called a dance. Erotic play is not the focus of choreographer Katie Faulkner’s Divining, showing now through February 16 at ODC, but the movement unfolds as an expression of the search for union, of the path through the body toward the elimination of the fears that attend its vulnerability. Throughout the piece, the dancers — Alex Carrington, Chinchin Hsu, Tara McArthur, and Suzette Sagisi — join and depart from collective movements that touch on the range of actions we human animals do to build ourselves a bower in the infinite.
The piece’s opening scene might illustrate an ancient text. McArthur holds Sagisi as if to dip her in baptismal waters, Hsu steps careful fingers on Carrington’s palm as if describing a pilgrim’s route. Ben Juodvalkis’s musical composition relies on the breath throughout, and the opening begins with breathy rhythms that seem to come from inside a body, to manifest an internal reckoning. We hear not prayer exactly, but what comes before it. Do you know the word welkin? It’s gone the way of Newtonian physics, but I don’t think we’ve found a replacement that means the vault of heaven. In Divining, Faulkner reminds us of the boundary of the body, that ceiling we hit whatever we believe about the ultimate. We whisper negotiations, we seek release, moving these bodies to relieve ourselves, for a moment, of their restrictions.
The sounds shift from amplified internal whisperings to heavy floor shaking drones while Allen Wilner’s lighting ranges from ambient dappled forest light to authoritarian brightness. There are surprising shifts in the piece, as when McArthur’s closed-eye walking meditation, accompanied by frogsong, turns to a blast of sound and light that might announce the arrival of the pope. Where does the magic lie, Faulkner asks, in reverence for the natural world or in the codified laws of religious power? Perhaps she doesn’t put such a find point it, but rather returns to the question of individual aberration, the role of the seeker in relationship to community. When the dancers flock and thrum together, there is relief to be found in repetition and rhythm. When each dancer takes her turn walking a particular path, things become more unsettled. Often the other dancers seem to want to draw the seeker back into the fold.
Divining risks derangement, and therein lies its power. The movement that is close to the ground, the crabwalk and heel drag, suggests both evidence of possession and self-inflicted corporal punishment as a means to approach the spirit and leave the impurity of the body behind. At one point, Sagisi begins her trip by carefully licking her lips. The gesture is as fine and particular as Hsu’s finger-language in the opening scene. Here, the dance is in Sagisi’s face, which contorts with silent laughter, then the sound of laughter comes in, becoming increasingly intense and layered. She walks across diagonally across the stage, interspersing spasms of laughter with a hand held up as if to say no more. Excessive emotion takes her, but it’s not joy, it’s an intensity of feeling that shifts as the sound trips and doubles back on itself. Sonically and kinesthetically there is a movement toward the ecstasy of grief. At the beginning of this sequence, I heard some titters from the audience infected by the laughter, but by the end I thought I felt a ripple of discomfort from being witness to actual madness.
Whether you are a believer negotiating the welkin’s rigging in an effort to approach the ultimate light, or a physicist parsing the cosmos with math, your body is your mechanism. Can you find respite in frogsong, or do you need human-made authority? As an animal aware of your mortality, how do you walk on the earth, and who and what do you touch? The rituals we engage in are like placing sandbags against the ultimate flood. We are like other animals in that we take comfort in the flock, eating and mating and creating in ritualized ways. Are we different in that we hold aloft, and continue to kill and die for, ideas of sin and purity? Magic is what we make to address our shortfall, the gap between our limited bodies and minds and the totality we long to know. Faulkner and her little seismic dance company crew have made some of that in this disturbing and particular and beautiful piece.