3rd Law Dance/Theatre, a Boulder-based company known for its innovative use of technology and theatrical integrations, transforms motion into poetry in its production of The Sea. By turns elegant, violent, meditative, playful, haunting and nuanced, The Sea takes the best elements of poetry – compression, lyricism, metaphor – to create a multi-sensory experience that investigates the sea and our relation to it.
3rd Law primarily uses an historic lens through which to examine water and humanity’s relationship to it. The first movement, “Leviathan,” uses the whale as a central image and examines the history of the whaling industry. Rich in mythical, religious and literary symbolism, the whale stands as a creature of reverence and fear simultaneously as expressed by a quote from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that opens the performance: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” Dressed in a gauzy, ethereal, white-to-blue ombre material, the all-female company gradually comes in view, swaying softly side to side, each dancer her own gentle, bobbing wave.
Composer Paul Fowler stands at the edge of stage left, barefoot with only a microphone and his laptop. Fowler’s score integrates original music, sea shanties and field recordings of water, wind, ice and ocean vessels. Throughout the performance, Fowlers combines real-time voice layering, electronic manipulation and improvisation, at times pounding his hand to his chest or stomping his bare heel on the floor. Fowler’s voice and his layered manipulations of it sound at times like whale vocalization.
Text projected against the backdrop describes of the Faroe Islands’ whaling practices and the intimate nature of the North Atlantic people’s tradition that annually slaughters 800 pilot whales by hand on the beach. All but two dancers, one humped over the other, leave the stage. Intertwined, almost inextricably, the women move as a single unit, mimicking that striking intimacy of predator and prey until they are finally able to release one another, only to be locked in mirrored movements.
The rest of the company rejoins the stage, shoving, lifting, and tossing one of the duet dancers among them. The single dancer, we soon realize, symbolizes a pilot whale as she fights for her life, twisting and wrenching her body. At times, I had to close my eyes and remind myself to breathe so visceral and raw was the dancer’s agony.
The only area of improvement for 3rd Law in this performance (and there would be only one, so tightly constructed was The Sea), would be to trust its audience more to connect the movement with thematic concepts. The footage of the Faroe Islands pilot whale slaughter, for example, seemed almost patronizing compared to the live dancers. While I can appreciate the environmental and ethical impetus of such footage, the dance itself did an even more effective job of capturing the turmoil of the slaughter. Compelling artistically and emotionally, the physical presence of the dancers, their lurching and falling and running, trumped the flattened, distance of a film, no matter how graphic.
The second piece, “A Sense of Place,” explores the migratory movements of Europeans across the Atlantic to Ellis Island. The costumes take on earth tones such a rust-colored reds, slate greys and pinkish browns, and the dancers move in colored clusters almost to suggest different immigrant segments. The dancers move in swirling duets and trios interspersed with striking solos full of power, grace, and an almost obsessive tendency towards repetition. During this section, I was reminded of a performance I’d seen last year at the Newman Center of Israeli company Vertigo. At that performance, I thought there wasn’t anything these dancers would not do. Comfort, safety, the laws of physics: all simply irrelevant. As with Vertigo, every member of 3rd Law’s company exhibits this same level of dedication to the movement. The all-female company exhibits its strength with overhead lifts and throws, moves typically under the purview of male dancers.
The final section, “61°08’S 55°07’W (Elephant Island),” takes the Endurance Expedition of Ernest Shackleton as its subject. Shackleton, one of the principal figures of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration from the late 19th century through World War I, led an expedition to cross Antarctica from sea to sea via the South Pole until his ship, Endurance, became trapped in an ice pack before being crushed. The crew escaped by camping on the sea ice until it melted then took lifeboats to reach Elephant Island, some 800 miles away. Miraculously, the expedition returned without a single man lost.
3rd Law uses sounds and video footage of polar ice flows. The temperature in the auditorium feels as if it’s dropped by twenty degrees. The dancers, dressed in white, slowly move from stage right to left, angular and the floor with occasional jolts up or sideways like the ice on the screen behind. A single figure, representing Shackleton, then takes the spotlight. Fowler recites an inventory of supplies. Gradually, the stakes raise as the music ratchets up, the dancers become agitated. The litany of recited items turns into “Please God.” The desperation, hopelessness and the will to survive become palpable in every motion until finally they reach their destination.
At the end of the performance, I found myself a little shipwrecked perhaps, stunned at what had just transpired. I wanted more. I can only hope that 3rd Law has more odes in store for the future.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.