Control Group Production’s Setting Fires: dances made to be viewed in the dark was an evening of performance art that teased comfort zones and experimented with the senses. Performed at The Dairy Arts Center April 13-15, the piece was an unapologetic commentary on the current social and political climate, packing more into an hour-long performance than one could possible hold onto—but maybe that was the point.
Setting Fires curated an aesthetic from the very beginning of the audience’s experience. Ushers separated guests into pairs, giving each set a program and a battery-operated tealight candle before leading us into a dark holding area. The usher closed the door behind us and we waited, only a neon exit sign and the candle illuminating the small space. After a few moments, the door to the theater opened and a performer in a black hooded garment, face covered, showed us to our seats. The performance had begun.
As the seats filled two by two, the stage was a flurry of activity. One dancer was painting a foreboding warning onto a large white tarp. Another furiously wrote on transparent sheets atop an overhead projector, the intelligible words projected onto the back wall of the space. It took a few moments before I even noticed my surroundings: we were in a black box theater with audience members on three sides, a live musician in the upstage left corner, and a giant shower head with golden tinsel streaming down in the upstage right.
The performer at the tarp painted over her words several times with a different phrase in a different color, then donned a jumpsuit and rolled into the tarp, obscuring the words further. The dancer at the projector scribbled furiously over the previously written words. The music climbed.
Suddenly, the projector light shut off, the music silenced, and the tarp flew up against the back wall of the space. Illuminated for a moment, we saw “MUST WARN OTHERS” before a hooded figure yanked the tarp from view, making us wonder if we’d ever seen it at all. The small candles remained lit (though performers would soon gather them from us), awkward in the hands of uncertain spectators.
As the show progressed, the manipulation of light remained a clear theme. The second piece began with performers holding a candle in each palm, eventually clicking on flashlights tucked into the ankles of their pants. The following piece began in total darkness, Artistic Director Patrick Mueller’s voice floating around the room.
“Silence, stillness, darkness. We think of these things as absence,” Mueller began. We could tell he was moving, but not what he was doing or exactly where he was. “Darkness isn’t emptiness, it’s full. But we don’t know what it’s full of so we fear it.”
The performance picked up speed like a tumbleweed, often moving so quickly it was difficult to process one moment before we were immersed into the next. And all throughout, it seemed Mueller was testing the audience’s boundaries.
At three separate moments, a small number of audience members were selected to enter a room adjacent to the performance space. During the second instance, a camera in the room connected to a TV in the performance space, displayed their interactions. Three performers were blindfolded, seated across from four audience members at a table. Tins of cookies and jugs of milk sat in front of them.
Meanwhile, the other three dancers remained in the space, fog floating around them. As if it were laughing gas, the dancers, playful and giggling, jumped into one another and swung each other around. On the TV, the blindfolded performers began reciting a speech at once philosophical, matter-of-fact, and foreboding. Their voices were amplified into the space, rivaling the live music. Once again the tension climbed, and we felt conflicted as to what we should pay attention to.
Finally, everything dropped into silence, stillness, and darkness. This time we did not fear it; we welcomed it. The fire was extinguished.
Ali Weeks: Ali is a professional dancer, Pilates instructor, and writer. She grew up in the Chicago area, studying dance and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduation, Ali spent four years in San Francisco pursuing her dance career, teaching Pilates, and exploring her passion for writing. She moved to Denver in February 2016, where she continues to dance and teach Pilates. In addition to her contributions to Presenting Denver, Ali writes for SF-based Pilates studio OnPointe Training and Denver-based nonprofit Threads Worldwide.