What is part dance, part theater, part video, part Cirque du Soleil, and part contemporary allegory? Maureen Breeze Dance Theater’s Birds on a Wire: A Performance About Human Disconnection in a Highly Connected World. Birds on a Wire presents a kaleidoscopic, shifting and self-aware view of our innate desire for connection, understanding, and community.
A video depicting a cloud of blackbirds in a leafless tree opens the show, which occurred on March 29 and 30 at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park. If the birds mean to communicate with one another, their cacophonous chirps and chatter over each other render the sounds useless. Watching it felt oddly akin to scrolling through Twitter.
The first work, “Heads Down,” features each company member’s gaze “locked in” to a cell phone. Truly their eyes never leave their screens, an incredible feat of balance and spatial awareness considering the physically demanding choreography and diagonal floor movements throughout.
“On Hold,” featuring dancer Audra Edwards, takes a humorous if fraught perspective on the automated call center and its infuriating and often ridiculous, nonsensical prompts such as, “Please say your mother’s favorite fruit when she was 10.” Edwards’ expert timing and expressive face added both comic relief and catharsis to the pain of being on indefinite hold.
Video interviews with people, some of them experiencing homelessness, on the 16th Street Mall and Civic Center Park in addition to T.S. Eliot poems, screen shots of questions and responses from Twitter like “What object have you kept for years?” and short theatrical moments occur between dances. These moments serve to add more nuance and complication to the conundrum of human connection. On one hand they speak to glimmers of hope, and on the other the impossibility of it.
The sound and music for “Con/Verse,” by Jonathan Holt Howard, reminded me of Christian Marclay’s Telephones video artwork at the Denver Art Museum which brilliantly splices film and television footage of phones ringing, being answered, and hung up. Howard’s soundscape conjures a frenetic officescape: ringtones, keyboard clicks, dialtones. Each dancer moves independently from the rest, on his or her own unique, disconnected trajectory. The dance and music work together to create an aura of anxiety, an atmosphere of FOMO, and a false pretense of escape.
“Loneliness” features three dancers sitting on a bench on the side of the stage, bouquets of red balloons bobbing above them, while Danielle Beeman performs a haunting solo. Beeman’s acrobatic performance captures the emotional distress we cause ourselves with our invented narratives of the “Instagram-worthy” constructed images we see from others. One uncanny movement has Beeman crawl-walking using her toes across the stage like a kind of humanoid crustacean.
“Portal” highlights the company’s artistic and physical range. A single prop, a door jamb with a series of pegs on one side, creates the mystical and magical tone reminiscent of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Each dancer makes her or his way to and through the door jamb using a variety of gymnastic actions. Their slow, deliberate movements combined with the eerie music seemingly halt both time and breath. The next work, “Migration,” set to the music of Philip Glass, continues the haunted feeling set up by “Portal” and has a definite Tim Burton quality to it.
“Vow,” performed by Kimberly Chmielewski and Joshua Dwyre, is like watching a relationship in fast forward: meet, fall in love, begin to fall out of sync, reach for one another unsuccessfully, and finally come together again. Sweet, poignant, and ultimately hopeful, the piece shows the ongoing work involved in maintaining a relationship set to covers of Nina Simone’s and the Beatles’ separate “Blackbird” songs by live performers Chad Johnson and Julia Wilson.
“Vein” takes a cue from Martha Graham and Senga Nengudi, using fabric to arresting, sculptural effect. Bound together by an X of red fabric, Sydney Armstrong, Skye Cornwall, Diana Drummond, and Audra Edwards move like a four-headed creature due to their seamless prop use and impeccable synchronicity and use of tension.
“Gathering Fragments” and “Anthem” showcase Breeze’s lyrical yet exacting movement, her varied use of structure and space, and the emotional depth of her choreography. Exuberant one moment and wryly dark the next, Breeze creates dynamic and accessible works that trust her audience’s intelligence. For example, “Anthem” ends with the dancers again locked into their phones, endlessly swiping and scrolling. It’s a wink toward and also an indictment of the first thing many people reach for at a show’s end, like the first cigarette of the day.
My only real critique of the show involves the movement of the audience between two stages in the dark, in an exhibition setting with mannequins, odd-shaped pedestals, I beams, and recording equipment peppered throughout. While Breeze allowed ample time for the audience to move from one stage to the other, a slight panic ensued trying to stay with the person I came with and to get an unobstructed view of the dancers. While I always appreciate the intimacy of a small space, I think I would have given that up for this show.
Birds on a Wire highlights the tightly controlled yet effortless cohesion of the company who also dances together for Hannah Kahn. Without being overly didactic or heavy handed, Breeze gorgeously speaks to the disjointed, hamster wheel-pace of what it means to be human in the 21st century.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from Regis University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently sits on the board of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and was previously involved with CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in DailyServing, Quaint Magazine, and Scintilla. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about family dynamics in addition to editing a newspaper/zine about happiness for Denver Theatre District’s Happy City project with U.K. artist Stuart Semple.