Jill Johnson's "The Copier" at Cedar Lake

So, my review of The Copier: I arrived a bit early last Wednesday evening, walked into Cedar Lake’s giant warehouse-like space, where they had a “stage” constructed of two large mats arranged in a T-shape, surrounded by a few box-like stools and three long, rectangular riser-like boxes for spectators to sit on. There wasn’t anywhere near enough seating, which was fine since the audience wasn’t actually supposed to sit, although I did. Found I had the perfect view of the whole seated right at the top of the T. I didn’t really see how my view could have been that different had I walked about.

Anyway, I really had an ideal space:a few minutes after I arrived, an air shaft above me began blowing strips of shredded paper down our way. It was like snow. The girl sitting next to me, who I initially thought was a performer here although I’m pretty sure in retrospect I was wrong, took off her shoes and began playing with the shredder copy. The dancers came out and began warming up, as nature sounds played over the speakers — mainly the sounds of chirping birds. The girl next to me imitated the dancers, stretching and pointing her toes herself, even getting off the sitting block to roll around in the hay-like mounds of paper. I nearly gave her seat away thinking she was eventually going to take to the stage.

(my favorite dancer in the company, Jon Bond, is center in my little abstract photo above, and lying on the floor warming up in the picture above that)

Soon, the ticket-takers called for all spectators to come in and find a viewing space and shortly thereafter the large garage doors slammed down, darkening the place, creating a rather eerie effect. Bars of light began to shine one at a time on the sides of the stage, looking initially like the heating rods of a just-lit oven.

All dancers lay down at various spots on the stage as the music turned more mechanical: cell phone rings, landline buzzes, cars honking. The dancers then rose and moved about in units. A dancer would begin a phrase, an expression, another would join him, in imitation, another would join, and so on. Eventually, one from the group would break free and pursue individual movement, followed by the others, the group disbanding, making the stage would look a bit cacophonous.

At one point, one person began walking toward the edge of the T, another followed, yet another, and another, until all dancers walked toward that side of the stage, exhibiting herd mentality. Once at the edge of the stage, dancers looked back and forth, this way and that, trying to figure out why their randomly-seeming designated “leader” had led them there, as there was clearly nothing to see. They began making their way back to center, again pursuing individual movement, eventually meeting up with one another, forming groups, one beginning a movement phrase, it catching on, a whole square of dancers moving in unison.

At another attention-catching moment, an entire bar on the loft’s exposed ceiling would move across the T part of the stage, carrying with it a horizontal series of lights, As all other lights were turned off and the one bar made it’s way across the top of the loft, it lit the stage just like a copier machine. At first the dancers looked confused and frightened, like they were within the machine itself, not knowing how to escape. Many dancers walked offstage, leaving a few who stayed on the T mat looking, by turns up at the light bar, and at the movement of shadow it made across the stage. By trying to walk away from the shadow, they ended up moving in a line, pretty much in unison, captured by the light rod, its movement across the ceiling completely dictating theirs on the stage. Little captured humans. You imagined if a giant hand pulled off the ceiling like a copier’s cover, the paper copy would bear the exact imprints the human bodies made trying to run from the light.

Following this, the other dancers took the stage again, some now running its length, both horizontally and vertically. At times a dancer would interact with the spectators by, for example, sitting next to us on the block, or parting a couple of standing viewers, to make their way through the crowd. Evan and Philip describe this as well.

More dancing solitary, then in unison, followed. The music turned more melodious, and dancers would dance in twos and threes. At times a dancer would emulate the actions of his or her partners, at times, the dancer originating the actions would reach out and grab the “emulator’s” hand, caressing it, drawing it to him, brushing it against his face, stopping all imitation, achieving human connection. But just for a fleeting moment.

I also noticed that at least one dancer, my favorite Jon Bond, had a coiled black telephone cord snaking down his back, connected by the neckline of his shirt and the waist of his pants. At times he looked entangled, his movements writhing on the floor, flexed feet, contorted center, so awkward.

In the end, a single female dancer, the mesmerizing Acacia Schachte, is left onstage alone, making soft, feathery shapes with her arms, to the equally soft, mellifluous sounds of a solitary piano.

Choreographer Jill Johnson has said that with the piece she seeks to ask what is “the impact of our culture of repetition and routine and what happens when we break from it … Now that we can create perfect duplicates of photographs, music, livestock, do we put a greater value on things that are organic and made by hand, or do we prefer the perfection of a seamless copy?” To me, she posed these questions beautifully. While the idea that unthinking imitation may lead to herd mentality is a bit of a cliche, the light bar going across the ceiling with the dancers running from, struggling to make their own imprint yet dictated by that all-encompassing machine, was strikingly original, as were the attempts to begin new movement patterns, run from the group, strike out on one’s own, violently grab the hand of a fellow dancer doing as you are and caress it. Not only are creativity and originality lost by mindless replication and repetition, so is what it means to be human.

Here is Claudia La Rocco’s NYTimes review.

Did anyone else get a chance to see it? I mean besides the people who wrote about it?

5 Comments

  1. It’s a really interesting premise, and it’s been fascinating reading about it. Do you think Johnson was successful in what she sought to express? Would you have known her point by virtue of her choreography alone, had she not explained it in words?

    It’s also interesting you weren’t sure if the girl next to you was a dancer or not! I would have followed her, hehe, and started dancing. Then you’d make people around you wonder if YOU were a cedar lake dancer. 😉 The pictures are fun too, especially seeing audience members standing around the dancers. It must be the first time for a lot of people, to see dancers dancing that up close.

  2. Hi Jolene – -that’s a really interesting question. I thought she was successful at least in asking the questions and making me think because on one hand when you looked at the dancers dancing in unison, there was a kind of flow and continuity, but when they all broke away and started doing their own thing, there seemed to be cacophany and lack of order. But then when the bar of ceiling lights (some of the other bloggers — I think Evan — got good pictures of this, so definitely visit her blog — my camera battery ran out) passed over the group of dancers on the floor and they looked up at it and the shadow it cast on the ground, frightened, that combined with all the industrial noises from the speakers, really was rather eerie. It really did look like they (and we, with them) were all in a giant copy machine, and it looked like the light was a giant roller-pin about to run them over. I think that part did drive home the potential threat of endless replication.

    I thought that was also driven home by the way a dancer would start a pattern, another would look at him, join him, then the original dancer at one point would touch the copying dancer’s hand, the human contact ending the replication, or the synchronized movement, and creating instead a kind of sensuous pas de deux. But this is something we’ve all seen before in dance — synchronized movement of an ensemble, combined with various pas de deux — so I don’t know if that alone would have made me think of the way replication can affect human contact and connection. I think her stated goal in her press release made me come to that conclusion there. Although… I may have got that from the title of the work combined with the excellent ceiling light manoeuver as well.

    I’ve started paying more attention to press releases because a book critic recently told me you should judge a work of art by how well the artist meets his or her own stated goal, rather than trying to decide whether they met your own personal expectations. It made sense to me; seems to make critiquing not SO subjective.

    Thanks for asking such a great question!

  3. Thanks for a great answer! I’ve been trying to read between the lines in different reviews, and haven’t really had my question answered so I thought I’d ask directly. :) I mean, her stated goal is very eloquent and impressive, yet it’s always interesting how a choreographer accomplishes that goal. Yes, it’s gorgeous and interesting and lots of great dancers, but what I’m hearing that’s really interesting is how *human* the work is, and each dancer’s individuality stands out.

  4. Nice review. To me, it was pretty clear the choreographer not only achieved her stated goal of showing how copying is part of everyday life, but also made a comment on conformity vs. individualism, especially as it plays out in an urban setting.

    First the dancers seemed to be swiping invisible metrocards, then wound up at the side of the stage peering into the distance waiting for something to come — a train in the literal, something/anything else in the abstract.

    While the majority of the company was assembled there, a quartet of dancers appeared on the other side of the stage in a gorgeous improvisation. The stationary dancers reached out to them but stayed put, as if they wanted to break free from their routine but could not.

    Later, while the Xerox machine-like light rolled overhead, a trio of danced beautifully in and out of the copier light above them. While they were being “copied,” they resisted copying each other. This was one of my favorite parts of the piece, and Jon Bond was great in it (as were Acacia Scachte and Soonji Choi.)

    Machine and traffic noises started the piece, but it concluded with a single dancers’ flowing movemengts to the sound of an acoustic piano. To me, this was another pretty clear representation of the dance’s intent: the human spirit triumphing over routine, machine, and expectation.

    The Copier was one of the best things I’ve seen all year.

  5. Thanks for commenting, Shinto! I missed the swiping of the invisible metrocards so I’m glad you added your interpretation. My favorite part was the Xerox-style light overhead too. Seems the same for most of the critics, based on what I read. That was really brilliant of Johnson. Also, I love how you put the ending: “the human spirit triumphing over routine, machine and expectation.” That’s really lovely!

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