It is a fitting and ironic symbol for our times that last Friday, the opening night of Whim W’Him‘s CONFIGURATE, in the execution of the complex, split-second beginning of Ihsan Rustam’s Seed (which alternates blackouts and bright light), a malfunctioning Q-lab lighting program necessitated restarting the piece. That should have been frustration enough for dancers, choreographer and the meticulous Olivier Wevers, Whim W’Him artistic director, who is, in reviewer Alice Kaderlin’s words “committed to a total theatrical experience through careful attention to sound, costumes and lighting.” But on Saturday, after it was decided to run the cues manually, a lighting board went haywire with the same result, a restart.* Yet together these setbacks and the grace with which the company coped also constitute a startlingly beautiful real-life example of just what the three choreographers, in their very different ways, were exploring and illuminating in the show.
What one actually has to work with in this life is flawed, comically or tragically, often both. To me it feels inaccurate to talk about a ‘broken world.’ ‘Broken’ implies something once whole. Instead we live (always have, always will) in a world of pieces, fragments, shards, swirling mixtures of chemicals or muck heaps of earth, worms and decomposing leaves. And each of the three Configurate works focuses on lives and relationships that exist in a blur of desire or hope or outrage, of wishful thinking or a Platonic ideal of wholeness.
During the Q&A after Saturday’s performance, I got to thinking about the way dance works are created, gestated, grown, put together—and what it is I love about this art form. Gabrielle Lamb, Olivier and Ihsan began with more or less well-defined notions, but, creating with the dancers in the studio and without them later outside, they all opened up to letting their initial ideas be worked upon and changed, sometimes quite out of recognition.
An incoherent stew of seething images in the mind of a choreographer becomes purified and clarified in the presence of the water and nutrients supplied by the dancers. Or a rich and nuanced mediation on a subject grows out of a single simple idea. Configurate provides three delicious examples of these complex processes.
Gabrielle started with the idea that “broken things, people, and connections are worth repair”; with an image of Neanderthals nurturing an impaired member of their clan; and with kintsugi (Japanese pottery mended with gold), a Japanese poem and an analysis of certain Chinese and Japanese characters. Her Joinery became a study in how, out of the disjointed pieces that compose our lives, we build, like fine cabinet makers, beautiful individual creations or moments that may come unglued in the next instance, but which the human spirit can and will find ways to recombine into something perhaps even more compelling and sustaining.
Olivier began thinking about his piece many months ago, intending to create a series of duets based on notes between famous lovers. His idea metamorphosed into Six Love Letters, intimate and particular portraits of universal emotions: he deals not just in romantic or erotic love, though, but in the convolutions of familial love as well. Dysfunctional, evolving and even, momentarily at least, perfect.
Who each of us is—as a small child, a teenager, a young or middle aged or older adult—changes. We reinvent ourselves at every stage of life. That sounds like a metaphor, but it’s the plain truth. Across the course of our lives we concoct themes, tell tales, form objects, conjure sense, connect to or separate from others, and make art, sometimes managing to transform the cacophonous flow of life into a luminous progression of love stories.
Ihsan’s Seed germinated from a rich compost of ideas. His original notion was to follow, with a humorous twist, the life trajectories of two individuals, born with different endowments, in different environments, and who come to very different ends. The humor remains, but as the piece developed, it became the story of one person, danced by Karl Watson, dumped (literally) as a baby onto the scene by a cloaked figure, who seems part avenging angel part flasher.
The vicissitudes of Karl’s life begin when the Devil (Tory Peil) wrests away the nurturing watering can of God (Cameron Birts), setting off a whole series of negative encounters that feed into the questions of a psychotherapist, whose quiet voice (that of the choreographer) asks him questions of the “What-did-that-make-you-feel-Karl?” variety, to the background cacophony of other voices, neatly representing the influences and hardships he has labored under. A surprising final section expresses, wildly and movingly, the agony and (perhaps) redemption of Karl—to the stark, raw Nina Simone version of Sinnerman.
Lives begin with birth and end with death, but our personal stories can start and finish at many places. Each life is a continuum from which we choose to draw our tales. We all decide what kind of stories we choose to tell and what kind of note they will end on. As stated by the choreographers’ statement which set the stage for this program, In these troubled times filled with hatred, fear, discord and irreconcilable opinions, we have undertaken to create new contemporary dance works that will inspire love, compassion and empathy. The three pieces of Configurate chose to zoom in, from disparate angles, on themes of hope and tell stories of rebuilding what is broken.
*At last, for the third performance, everything went right—it was, in Olivier’s words “the real premiere of the piece.”
Photo credit: Bamberg Fine Art Photography