Friday night I went to see Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin’s Corridor at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. I love these more avant garde (for lack of a better term) kinds of dance pieces — where the choreographer clearly has an idea in mind and wants to make you think about it. I seem to see a lot of this kind of work at BAC.
Corridor is about the effects of modern forms of communication on the human body, and the body’s ability to receive and transmit those forms of communication. Guerin said the work was inspired by a scene from Kafka’s The Castle, which was partly about the comings and goings of various people down a long corridor.
Here, there was a long walkway, a corridor that looked a bit like a catwalk, and chairs for the audience were set up on each side. The piece opened with one dancer receiving a call on his cell phone. He was sitting in one of the audience seats so it wasn’t at first clear that he was a performer and this was part of the performance. He sauntered around on the walkway as other dancers, likewise seated, received phone calls as well and followed him onto the walkway. As soon as the audience realized the performance had begun and quieted down, a sharp buzz sounded over the speakers (some of which were seated under our chairs) and the dancers immediately put their cell phones in their pockets, widened their eyes and, as if on command, began making lots of sharp, angular movements. Ambient sound (traffic, construction, chattering voices, chirping birds, etc.) now played over the speakers.
There was so much going on in this piece, which was, unbelievably, less than an hour long, and there were so many different parts to it, it’s almost impossible for me to remember them all (which is one of the things I liked about it). So I’m just going to talk about what I most remember.
At one point, toward the beginning, the dancers broke into pairs. There were three men and three women and each pair (comprised of one man, one woman) stood in three different sections of the corridor. The man of the couple would make various movements — an arm circling above his head, another arm jutting out, bending over sideways, etc. — and the woman standing facing him would follow him. Each man was facing the same direction, each woman was facing each man. At one point, it became clear that the man and woman farthest to the west end of the corridor were the “leaders.” Or rather than man was the leader. The men farther down the corridor kept watching him, and imitating him. Their women followers, who could not see that man since they were facing their own men instead, imitated their man. The more rapidly the first man moved, the crazier and more chaotic and confused was the movement of the other couples, particularly the women who basically were following a man following another man. It was really interesting, and you could see the frustration growing on the faces of the male followers and their women.
It was kind of like that game “telephone” that you played as a kid where a whispered statement travels around a circle and the last person on the line may wind up with some hilariously distorted version of the original. Here, though the effect wasn’t funny, but more unsettling.
At another point, the dancers were standing in one place on the corridor but were engaged in movement, and a man with a microphone comes walking by, stating on the microphone what each one is doing. Sometimes these statements are descriptive (“she’s wearing red lipstick,” “he’s wearing black pants,” “she has a tattoo” etc.), sometimes they’re prescriptive (the speaker will say “she’s swinging her arm around above her head,” “she looks like a monkey,” and the dancer will then make that arm motion, eventually making her movements large and roaming so that she kind of resembles a monkey).
At another point, some of the dancers were on the corridor moving and the others ran to one end of the walkway. They brought out two large slabs of glass. They took chalk and wrote words on the slabs of glass. At first you can’t see what the words are, then you see they’re more descriptions of what the dancers are doing, the motions they’re making — “she grabs her stomach,” “she nods rapidly,” “it looks like she is flossing her teeth.” These slabs of glass are on wheels and the writing dancers begin slowly pushing the glass toward the dancing dancers. There are four pieces of glass and eventually two dancing dancers are surrounding by the glass, boxed in by these words. They struggle to remain within its confines, kind of winding their arms and legs in, out, and around each other, snake-like.
At another point, a dancer walked to one end of the corridor and picked up a microphone; the other dancers were all huddled at the other end of the walkway. The dancer with the microphone began shouting commands. Initially, the commands were movement-specific (“I wish you would sing to me”), but they became much more vague and emotion-centered, like, “I wish you would hate me,” “I wish you would beckon to me,” “I wish you would defend yourselves to me” “I wish you would make yourselves beautiful for me.” I found it really interesting to watch how different dancers portrayed different emotions. Some were much more subtle than others, showing hate, for instance, only in the eyes, only in a stare. Others bore deep frowns or demonstrated hate with more physicality. When the voice called out “I wish you would change color for me,” one dancer began scratching his arm rapidly to make it red, another held his breath. It became rather amusing here.
Later, some dancers brought sheets of white paper out on the corridor. They sat down and watched the dancing dancers, writing on the paper what the dancers were doing. Their faces became contorted as they seemed to struggle to concentrate on using the proper words to describe the dancers. Or at least that’s what it looked like to me, as I watched the mesmerizing Lee Serle, who was situated in front of me throughout much of the performance, and who was most expressive with his face. Finally these dancers crumpled up the paper into balls, in frustration.
Soon, jackets made of paper were brought out and the dancers donned them. The paper clothing soon became restrictive, one became a straight-jacket for one man, who wrapped a woman’s paper clothing around her neck noose-like. Another dancer emerged with a group of lights on a wheeled tray and began wheeling the lights around, sometimes creating a glare that was blinding — both for the dancers and us. The white jackets and the harsh lights made the corridor now resemble some kind of laboratory or operating room.
Eventually, the dancers all stood and someone shouted commands over a microphone. Some of the commands, again, were movement-specific and easier. But some were more vague and almost impossible to portray in movement or facial expression. “Be younger” was one of them and it was interesting to see the dancers try to make youthful facial expressions or do something their younger selves might do. The commands became harder, though — “stop thinking,” “stop your blood from flowing,” “find an end to world hunger,” “solve the Mid-East crisis.” The dancers looked around, trying to come up with something, to figure out how to do that. Eventually, they gave up, ripped their paper jackets off themselves and walked offstage, or off of the corridor.
This happened at the same time that the man wheeling the pack of lights around received a call on his cell phone. He began moving the lights haphazardly not really shining on the dancers anymore, his mind now occupied with the words spoken over the phone. He ended up wheeling the lights off the corridor too.
And then the performance was over. And still, with all that, I left out several parts, like one where two women stand at one end of the stage and cry, keel over as if ready to vomit, scream curse words, etc., all in unison. The dancers were all very brave and daring, and I felt like the piece left me with so much to think about, but I could never fully figure it out.
I don’t know if there’s a direct parallel, but the parts with the commands being shouted or written, the straight-jacket paper vests, the confining glass slabs, the harsh lights that almost made it seem like an operating room, kind of made me think of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he talks about the effect of the Panopticanal prison model on, I guess not the human body, but the human mind (assuming they’re separate, which now that I think about it, Corridor is suggesting they’re not). The modern prison is designed so that each prisoner is housed in a cell, one end of which consists of a window looking to the outside, the other a window connected to a central guard tower inside. The prisoners can’t see the guard tower, so they don’t know when they’re being watched by the guards, but they know they always can be watched. This knowledge acts as a kind of self-surveillance or self-imprisonment: since they know they may be watched at all times, they become their own over-seers.
Here the information — the words, both verbal and written, purportedly describing what the dancers are doing, end up becoming prescriptive as the dancers try to emulate what the words are telling them they are doing. Eventually, the words become constraining. It’s like the people in the corridor are under surveillance, their lives being put under a laboratory microscope, but it’s not clear who is actually doing the surveilling since they’re all subjects. You’re almost thankful when the guy with the harsh lights receives the cell phone call because then he retreats into his own world and the manipulation seems to end, the others can escape. Yet his his initial call on that phone is how the whole thing began. I wish I had read The Castle.
Anyway, needless to say I found the piece intriguing. Here is Roslyn Sulcas’s NYTimes review. I think today is the last day for Corridor, but from October 1-3 Guerin’s company is at Dance Theater Workshop, performing another dance — and one which has received numerous awards — Structure and Sadness. It’s about the true, 1970 collapse of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, which killed 35 people. According to the press release, this work “introduces a movement vocabulary based on the engineering principles of compression, suspension, torsion, and failure.” It sounds fascinating but unfortunately I don’t think I can go — I’m already all booked up for those days. If anyone does, I would love to know what you think of it.
Photos above by Julieta Cervantes.