Suspension. Stop-motion. Start. A slowing. Everything liminal, until it thaws. That’s how we were led into Arcane Collective’s “ebb” at Bodyvox.
Opening night was suppose to be on Thursday, until the snow started in Portland and everyone retreated slowly and safely back home. Closures around the city were announced one after the other, and freezing rain confirmed everyone’s reaction, confining us all indoors, encased in ice. So instead, Phillip and I attended the show on Saturday.
We’re new, Phillip and I: voyeurs in the performance art world. New to artistic directors and performers Morleigh Steinberg and Oguri, the duo of Arcane Collective. And we know little of the work of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, that influenced “ebb.”
We were graciously asked by Shaun Keylock from Bodyvox to review the show. This is admittedly less of a review and more a search for meaning: an engagement between being in the audience, the performance, the experience. As adults, we’re so often trained to find answers, that we’re good at training ourselves away from meaning, which is the close detrimental sister to training ourselves out of meaning.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his first correspondence in a Letter to a Young Poet:
“There is nothing that manages to influence a work of art less than critical words. They always result in more or less unfortunate misunderstandings. Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded. Even more inexpressible are works of art; mysterious entities they are, whose lives, compared to our fleeting ones, endure.”
We’re still haunted by the opening scene: a dark room; an old song from a scratchy record player attached to an amorphous figure in an unseen corner; nostalgia contained in mono.
The room emerged slowly, sleepily, under a dim copper glow, the floor still heavily shadowed, and a square-shouldered body silhouetted and encased in a cloudy hooded-poncho, walked barefoot, methodically and mechanically in a square, as the music filled the room in stereo. Stopping and starting under shadow and an anemic spotlight, soon, in a separate part of the room another square-shouldered body silhouetted and encased in an identical poncho joined the movement.
Then, one figure started the act of shedding its poncho, its head distorted through the vinyl like frosted glass: the way a mummy’s face, shrouded, is accentuated only by its sockets. It was unsettling. Then out peaked Steinberg’s frizzy dark brown hair, her eyes blinking, the plastic gathered in her fists by her mouth, she emerged out from under the film, turned around, and crumpled her casing behind her, tossing it away.
Both Steinberg and Oguri are costumed in almost identical gray business suits, except Oguri’s sports jacket has holes in the back, and he’s more subtly disheveled compared to Steinberg’s sharpness.
It’s not surprising that Steinberg, in addition to being a dancer and a choreographer, is also a lighting designer and filmmaker. Throughout the whole evening, the lighting and music were cinematic accompaniments to the surreal vignettes of the performance. Each act, ended with the lights off. Each act started with the lights: sometimes dim and fuzzy like film noir, or bright and glaring.
Photo Credit: Unknown
Oguri and Steinberg proceeded throughout the night, in what felt like fits of improvisational movement. At one point they were in opposite sides of the room, and as if suspended in water, mirroring each other a little, a little off key, a little off time. Then each, started the action of pulling one foot, lead heavy, trying to drag it across the room. It was as if one were the physical manifestation of the other’s neurosis. But who was playing the real business person and who was the interpretative part, is up for discussion.
It seems that Oguri was the mortal one, because life has a way of fraying the body; wear has a way of tearing holes in suits. This seemed to echo my own fears of what can be known about the unseen: what internal cracks, dysfunctions, sadnesses, boredoms will slowly seep into the visible temporal lines of my body, my facial expressions? In what ways does the ceaseless mind imprint on the ephemeral body?
One part of the performance, Oguri, singularly, moved slowly in mechanical, hunched gestures to the middle of the room under spotlight, while discordant metallic music piped through the room. At the height of the music, his system seemed overloaded and his arm jerked, hammered near his pelvis, then he crumpled with one hand raised toward the light: a tulip reaching, frozen. Steinberg stage left held a perfect carnation, with a long thick stem in her left hand, and with her hip cocked, she waved her right hand and pulled out the intentional danger implied by the scissors in her pocket. She pointed the sharp tips toward her temple, and slowly with purpose moved the scissors across her sightline to the carnation in her left hand: a straight snip between her fingers, Morleigh cut off the flower’s head and placed it into her breast pocket. The movement felt like a conceit of Oguri’s uncomfortable, stagnant hand. Steinberg, held the stem between her legs, then returned to the opposite side of the room, hunched over, using the stem as a walking stick. Lights off.
When the lights came back on, Steinberg had three umbrellas, one in each hand, and she carried another half open and dangling from her mouth. Oguri took them from her, closed each of them up, and started repetively hooking them on one arm, then the other. There were three umbrellas, and it was as if he kept trying to find the even balance on each arm, except the absurdity of his attempt–the audience was well aware–was impossible, yet he proceeded with the repetitive obsession. An audible chuckle from an audience member. Then Oguri breaking stoicism, looked into the audience, smiled ear-to-ear, too wide for comfort. After speaking with someone else who had been to the show, she said, “I took the umbrellas as very Beckett-esque, the need to keep checking, even though you’ve already checked.”
After the performance, Phillip shared that he had tried to create a narrative that explained the moments and their progression. The slow pace of the performance was largely painful for him, and felt less like a dance and more like glacially-strained movements. Some of his translations included the flower and the jerking hand motions - youthful sexual explorations and repercussions. The poncho a heavy-handed birth and gestation scene. The umbrella act was where Phillip imagined that the narrative had hit a wall – eventually settling on the understanding of objects: a child learning to count and place numbers and objects in an order of some kind. When the crowd laughed, Oguri smiled. It was uncertain if the uncomfortable and prolonged repetition was meant to be funny, or if members of the crowd simply did not know how to feel. Slow birth, and at times stillbirth, were the words Phillip kept repeating in his mind as he watched “ebb” unfold, as opposed to Jenny’s experience of the word “suspension.”
The description for “ebb” in the Bodyvox program is that:
Waiting is a game, abstract and absurd, a dance suspended in time. Tension is the ultimate path to release. Arcane Collective’s latest production, “ebb” flows from a continuing exploration into the quagmire of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable and Waiting for Godot. Presenting a non-linear storytelling, “ebb” embodies the resonant images and wrought emotions characteristic to Beckett’s world. “Ebb” emerges as an intimate portrayal of entrapment, of life at the end of its tether, as if only there can the core of the human condition be approached.
Morleigh, in a statement also in the program, mentions that the Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot’s “complex starkness stuck with me; its characters, peculiar and pained, its impeccably detailed stage direction more like a dance than a play.” Fitting that her interpretation through dance was much more of a play. In Oguri’s statement, he is drawn to, in Beckett’s work, a “severe and fundamental demolition of language. [...] Ordinary actions, mundane objects defined then rendered useless - empty casks.” In one sense, it’s quite nice to see a modern dance performance that can be explained to you by the artists, and in another pulls away some of the mystery.
Photo Credit: Unknown
In the final scene, the literal tether, Steinberg pulled out a white rope. She walked the perimeter of the room, clipped the rope into carabiners placed in the four corners, pulled the rope taut and tied the ends into a knot. The rope created a square, like a boxing rink, like the mundane boxes that our lives exist, like that boxed-in feeling we get in the day-to-day. Oguri and Steinberg leaned their torsos and backs up against the rope. They twisted, they leaned, they suspended. At one point they spun toward one another becoming entangled, back to back. They untangled. Then the rope was untied, the carabiners unhooked.
Under spotlight, the rope ended up as an un-patterned pile on the floor, until Oguri and Steinberg started curling sections, into waves and half circles, and the mind started seeing meaning from the unruly rope, like Van Gogh's “Starry Night.” Soon from the pairs’ finger drawing, an image of a human figure emerged. Bagpipes filled the room. Steinberg and Oguri retreated to a darkened corner, crouched in the shadows they slowly pulled the ends of the rope, like a funeral procession, like the tide being pulled back into the ocean in slow motion, until the outline of the person became imageless, and the rope altogether disappeared, followed by darkness, then silence.
Morleigh Steinberg is a dancer, choreographer, lighting designer, and filmmaker. A formative member of Momix, she went on to co-found ISO Dance, along with Daniel Ezralow, Jamey Hampton, and Ashley Roland. She toured the world extensively with both companies and with her solo work. Morleigh’s choreography earned her an Emmy award for best screen choreography in Episodes, a PBS presentation of ISO repertory and her work has been performed in the Academy Awards. Reviewed by The L.A. Times as “a dancer of frightening integrity…”, her most recent performances include Caddy! Caddy! Caddy!, choreographed by Oguri, and the production of Cold Dream Colour- a dance homage to Louis le Brocquy which was made possible in part from a grant from Arts Council Ireland.
A native of Japan, Oguri is an internationally acclaimed dancer who has been described as a master at redirecting the way one sees and encounters the physical environment, his choreography emphasizing the unpredictable. A resident of Southern California since 1990, Oguriteaches and performs worldwide, including site-specific work in nature and urban landscapes – plazas, architectures, and streets – as an improviser and with musicians. He develops multi-media productions using literature, daily life imagery and simple materials to transform space and time with dance.