There’s something about an intimate performance that compels you, sinks into you like no traditional stage performance can. It might be something about feeling the stomp of a heel or the crash of a body reverberate across the floor and tingle through your shoes into the soles of your feet, up through your ankles, knees and thighs into your core. Or maybe it’s how the breaths of the dancers carry above the music to fill your ears with their deep, rhythmic, mammalian sounds or perhaps it’s how clearly you can see each sinewy tendon strain, witness each bead of sweat condense, hone in on eyes honing in on you. At the world premiere of Ojo: the threshold, the second ATLAS collaboration between Syzygy Botuh, Ana Baer-Carillo and Sweet Edge Dance, you’ll feel the power of the human body and spirit in all its beautiful, terrible, awkward, painful and humorous glory – and always within 100 feet of your person.
Once you find the ATLAS Institute on the CU Boulder campus and descend two stories down into its bowels, you feel slightly like Orpheus on his descent to Hades. Once your eyes adjust to the black box theatre’s dim lights, you’ll start to notice three men of Syzygy Butoh, their backs painted by Tom Cross, sitting abnormally still in dresses among the patrons. After that, you’ll see the faintest glimmer of a figure across the theatre, equally as statuesque and haunting. Once the orangey cone of the spotlight appears you’ll see the figure which you now understand is just a prop, but that won’t convince you any less of its ghostly presence or that it can indeed move.
While you’re distracted by that figure, you’ll catch the glimmer of a turquoise taffeta, silky maroon or sparkly black gown in your peripheral vision moving at a glacial pace. You’ll watch in awe as a foot and its skinny toes stretch and reach and yearn from under the skirt for that next step. While these bodies slowly make their way to the theatre’s center, you’ll watch, enraptured and horrified, at their fraught movements at once so foreign and familiar. You’ll think, this is how zombies – no, heroin addicts – no, Holocaust survivors – no, multiple sclerosis – no, Parkinson’s – no, cerebral palsy sufferers move. When the dancers finally discard their dresses, you’ll see at once the androgynous beauty of their lithe bodies. As they turn away from the audience, their backs morph into a living insect-like armor of sorts as you watch their muscles ripple under the shapes and colors of paint. At one point, you’ll swear you’re witnessing Gregor Samsa’s transformation from man into cockroach as their convex backs sway, buck and pulse, the painted shapes seeming to rearrange themselves before your very eyes. When finally the dancers stand and face the audience, you’ll remember to breathe again. Throughout the rest of Syzygy’s performance that musically travels from India to Nashville to Detroit, you’ll feel yoked to the dancers as if their fate is your own.
After a brief intermission, you’ll funnel back into the theatre, this time through the back entrance where you’ll travel behind Ana Baer-Carillo’s projection of what you might think is merely bokeh until you’re on the other side of the screen. The video shows layered images of Kim Olson, wrapped in in bulbous lights, dancing. She doesn’t fight against the tangle of the lights but instead lets them become a part of her movements. The bright blue background, deep shadows, and peek of black lace eloquently contrast the buttery yellow lights and creamy tones of Olson’s skin and costume. You may be so distracted by the mesmerizing projection you may not notice three dancers sitting opposite from the projection each in her own cloth room with images of water projected on the “walls,” those same bulbous lights from the video forming a barrier at their feet. You’ll be as intrigued with the movements and positioning of the audience members in their amoebic clusters throughout the theatre as you are with the dancers, especially after the dancers break free of their cloth boxes and move through and among the crowd. Suddenly, a dancer will swoosh by, linger near, leap over, or dodge you. You become a prop, an obstacle in their performance.
The spoken word plays a key component in Sweet Edge’s performance, and the dancer’s at-times breathless, guttural or playful calls both jar and ground you. Jar you out of isolation and ground you in each dancer’s narrative. One dancer’s repeated “Remember,” “Rebuild,” “Remap,” for example, coupled with split-screen projections of water call to mind 2013’s devastating flood and its lingering effects. You may find the best, most complex moments happen when two dancers push and pull against one another resulting in situations simultaneously futile, desperate, heart breaking and comedic. You’ll watch as two dancers crash into one another over and over again, their “Sorrys” both genuine and false, until the words and their insistent, repetitive collisions seem first insane and then hilarious. Later in the performance, you’ll watch two dancers entwine and twist around their partners, clinging to them with the raw want of a child as they say over and over again, “Please, please, please.” You’ll feel that same desire ball up like a fist in your throat as you think, “That’s me.”
Finally, the lights will come on and you’ll be back in your own body. You’ll leave the theatre, like Orpheus, stunned and mystified, already missing the performances’ magical envelopment. You’ll wonder how you’d never before seen the human body in motion, with all its strength, flexibility, power and vulnerability as you had tonight.
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 in or is forthcoming from Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog, Daily Serving and KYSO Flash.