Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched?
That’s what it feels like when you walk into “Chapel/Chapter,” the latest choreographic work by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which had a four-night run at the Institute of Contemporary Art last weekend. There’s a sort of a pre-show setup in progress as audience members trickle in and are promptly invited to sit on pew-style benches lining the perimeter of the performance area instead of their assigned seats. Astute observers will notice Jones himself, perched on the end of one bench located across the stage from the audience.
But Jones is not the star of this show; instead, he is watching the audience. They point, whisper, wonder and cough as more people take their seats. And Jones seems very interested in them.
For their part, the audience is interested in the stage, set up in two rows of five 6-foot-wide white squares. The show was originally designed for the Gatehouse Theater at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem, and Jones remarked in his blog that “its site-specific nature will always make it a challenge to move and remount.” Some reconfiguring was done for the ICA auditorium, but the affect is still unique. Red curtains adorn the back and side walls. A projection screen on the back wall reflects the floor’s 10 squares. Chairs highlighted with a spotlight are perched at various points around the grid.
As “Chapel/Chapter” starts, six dancers in dark blue exercise clothes stand around the grid, and one dancer in an orange jumpsuit is introduced to the area. He walks with his eyes closed until he nears the edge of the grid, and one of the blue-clad dancers redirects him back into the white area. A second orange dancer is added, and a third, and soon, with half of the company in orange jumpsuits, blindly walking the gridded area, it becomes a game of people-pong. Orange balls are bouncing off of the walls of the grids, skimming past one another at different speeds, feeling for the edge when they get nervous. The latter movement is the only sign of humanity within the grid.
The whole game is fascinating to watch, almost like an episode of “Survivor” that leaves the audience trying to anticipate the plotline: What will happen next? Who will be introduced to the group and how will they influence the collective personality? What happens when two of them collide?
But like reality TV, nothing much more than what we expect actually happens. For all that hype, the end result is just a bunch of people in orange jumpsuits bumping around inside a grid.
The show’s main body consists of three tragic stories of murder, accidental death and child abuse. The first story is the 1974 murder of Joseph Soto, told through the disturbing narration of a burglar (danced by Peter Chamberlin) who binds, tortures and eventually kills the family whose house he is robbing. A jumpsuited Chamberlin interacts with company dancers playing a mother (Leah Cox), father (Charles Scott), two children (Antonio Brown and Asli Bulbul) and a dog (Erick Montes). As the family’s struggles against their attacker are voiced, the dancers’ acrobatic movements interpret the tragic situation through geometric, rhythmic movements, presenting a fascinating juxtaposition of such physical creativity against a harsh story.
Though brief, the second story of “Chapel/Chapter” is its most creative. It is the true story of a company member who, as a child, witnessed the drowning death of his friend. The story is short, but the visual is everlasting. Montes smoothly throws his body into flowing shapes as if he is floating across the stage, onto which the projection screen tosses a swimming-pool-like digital abstraction. The narrator, another dancer in an orange jumpsuit, stands by the edge of the “pool,” seemingly incapable of saving his friend. A shorter version of this swim-scene is repeated once later on in the program, perhaps as a reiteration, perhaps as merely a transition between stories.
The amazing control the company’s dancers exhibit in segments like this persists throughout the performance — there are acrobatic inverted poses, strange contortions of the body, unexpected shapes that are passed through, and more common modern dance positions. The new shapes and movements are striking on their own, but when they are hit at such slow speeds, it seems that only superhuman strength could support them; imagine a splayed-out backward roll in slow motion. It takes a true technician to control such a movement and perform it to perfection at such a reduced pace.
The final story of “Chapel/Chapter” displays the acrobatics without replicating the pace. A father (Andrea Smith) talks about his unruly young daughter (Maija Garcia) and recounts his decision to lock her in a room, feed her cat food and make her use a litter box. Upon release, Garcia’s character jumps to hug her dad. Smith catches her, then lets her go, forcing her to roll all the way across the stage. In an interlude, other dancers also jump up to him and are rolled away. Such powerful movements provide a visual representation of the father’s true feelings — he repeats that he wanted to give her away, leave her at a church, sentiments echoed in his physically pushing her across the stage.
Near the end of the program, audience members are reminded that they are participants in this show, not solely observers, as the house lights became blinding, backed by deafening sound. All in the room are made to feel like a star surrounded by paparazzi. Audiences are not usually encouraged to step out of their traditional role as passive viewers, but there seemed to be a growing tension in the room during the program, like one would have while sitting in on a courtroom hearing. Interactivity is an emerging subject in contemporary dance, and Jones certainly knows how to play with those boundaries.
The show’s live soundtrack is the last piece of Jones’ gripping formula. Soprano Jennifer Jade Ledesna walks amongst the dancers, while guitarist Lawrence “Lipbone” Redding (who provides the voice of the burglar) and cellist Christopher Antonio William Lancaster (who also uses real-time samplers and effect processing) remain stationary. Ledesna’s vocalizations frequently call to mind the minor elaborations of a cantor in a synagogue while also signaling minor-key music’s familiar use to accompany darker themes — an uneasy mix of cultures that adds another disturbing element to the show’s storytelling and movements.
“Chapel/Chapter” has no real conclusion; with a courtroom as the venue for the storytelling, the audience can only imagine that the resolution to these tragic stories will be found in the verdict. But as Jones wrote in a November 2006 blog entry, the show’s “solutions are not ultimately narrative ones.” For a dance show, such a premise is unusual, but combined with the production’s imagery, it is powerful. The colorblind casting of the roles lays bare the human sides of these stories, particularly the victims’ tragedies. The dancing shows how much the body can do; the show tells us how emotions can influence us physically and how our bodies and our minds can surprise us.