I’m taking an Experimental/Hybrid Forms class at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, and after three classes, I’ve learned one thing about nontraditional writing: you have to surrender to it because once you do, it will take you on a wild – subliminal even – ride that you won’t want to get off of because there are so many twists and turns that you won’t have an iota of a clue about what’s coming next. I think surrender is a key part of performance art, too. CAVE / dances made to be viewed in the dark, a collaboration between Control Group Productions and Lauren Beale and Brooke McNamara, blends dance, theatre, music and film for one of the wildest rides you could have in Denver’s art scene. With performances back-to-back (7:30 and 9:00 pm) each night on April 8th and 9th at Pranamor Yoga Arts, CAVE leaves you feeling like Emily Dickinson after reading poetry: as if the top of your head were taken off.
Pranamor sits off the alley west of Santa Fe Dr between 8th and 9th. You enter a yellow gate in the wooden fence to find a patio of sorts with weathered wood planks, a mish mash of metal furniture and gravel. Upon entering the building, you pass through a small, not exactly tidy kitchen and enter the first performance space, white folding chairs encircling the yoga-studio-turned-stage filled with seemingly random domestic objects: two rolling racks each carrying a red kite/piñata-like thing and a white vinyl romper, a full bottle of Jose Cuervo, a bowl filled with jumbo marshmallows and spotted with rainbow-colored feathers, two grocery-store cakes (one carrot, one German chocolate), Cholula, Celestial Seasonings, a grapefruit, a toy car (perhaps from the 1980s by the shape of it), two penants labeled B and L, a can of tuna, a carving knife… Three figures in black jumpsuits move around the space. Patrick Mueller dances mostly in his own world to the headphone-less-Walkman blasting as much noise as it can muster in his Dickies while Beale and McNamara, each in sweats, sometimes roil and other times cuddle the various objects, caught somewhere in each of their movements between child-like play, near paganistic ritual and everyday domesticity.
The props exit after all the attendees finish trickling in and the dancers, free of clutter, can really move. It’s here when the tight constraints of the space do not allow Mueller to follow through with his frenetic yet languid movements that I wish he had a full stage to glide across. Despite audience members tucking in their feet and sitting as far back as possible, they still at times, had to shrink back to allow a movement to be completed. While I can appreciate the tension this created with the audience, I don’t want to be distracted in such a moment. The drummer, Todd Blisborough, crosses the stage. The dancers fall and catch themselves simultaneously, orbiting each other around the stage in a crescendo of motion until they quiet into yogic poses. Mueller stands facing the drums and appears to wrap and pull and tie something almost sacramental in his hands until he puts it into his mouth, repeating the motion three times.
But then the lights – all of them – go off. While it may it have been odd to see a woman hug a cake or an empty bowl to her breast just a moment ago, it’s much weirder to sit in a room with fifty strangers in complete and utter darkness. My eyes strain to see the shapes I know are around me. I find my other senses peak: ears picking up every breath and creak of the audience, a rumbling from across the room that my feet confirm is someone pounding the floor to the right of me, and the perfume of the woman next to me threatens to swallow me whole. Finally, Mueller’s voice, deep, quiet, reassuring, comes from the corner with a little joke about our eyes adjusting and a science lesson about the cones in the back of our eyes. He describes the sideways-style vision the dark forces, one cone gathers information peripherally rather than head. Patrick then moves into an anecdote about he and his toddler son reading stories in the dark, and finally, he sings a lullaby that some of the audience sings along with, too.
Next, a light flashes in Mueller’s corner, and we see him wearing a modern-day headlamp that he shines upon Beale and McNamara, at times spotlighting and others strobing the two women, locked in a passionate struggle. As Mueller flickers the light with his hands and head turns, it’s easy to think about Plato’s cave and the shadows from the real world behind and beyond our grasp dancing in front of us on the wall we take for reality. A golden light radiates from near the drum set, and we watch Beale and McNamara in a mirrored duet that feels biological, cellular, amoebic as the two women’s bodies expand and contract.
The lights fall again, but this time the smell and sounds of popcorn interrupt the darkness. An iPhone flashlight passed through a jar of water casts an ethereal white glow, and Beale and McNamara’s gold leotards once hidden under the jumpsuits, lay on the ground like molted skins, shimmering. They first wipe their armpits and hands to the delight of the audience before striking a series of stiff, borderline-satirical Barbarella-ish poses before heading down the stairs.
Mueller then announces to the audience to choose the path of effort or trust without any explanation as to which path is which. You find, however, that all roads (whether the stairs or the pulley-system “elevator”) lead to the basement where you find Beale and McNamara singing a breathy version of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Their movements both embody and parody those of popular culture.
A green light then cuts across the space and shows Mueller in a shoulder stand. He moves with such slow, steady deliberation that you almost forget to breathe as you watch him. His crossed-legged squatting jumps mesmerize. Later, Beale and McNamara stick an electronic candle in each of his hands and feet, and the lights go down once more. The orangey embers are all you see, and it’s as if you are the first person to discover fire, to watch it dance, so great is your fascination. It feels like magic, pure and mysterious as the night sky.
Next, Beale and McNamara stand behind a table consulting books and speaking with what can only be described as frenzied compulsion as they create some sort of concoction – part recipe, part spell, part ritual. To themselves they each: smash one raw egg on their foreheads, throw flour on the yolk still sliding down their faces, blow up balloons only to let the air smack themselves in the face. One even cuts off several pieces of her own hair to add to the mix before adding a ruthlessly chopped grapefruit, Cheerios, marshmallows, feathers, Cholula, white vinyl rompers, a single shoe, basically everything in the opening dance including topping it all off with the grocery-store cakes (one carrot, one German chocolate). They hand the audience bowls of popcorn and ask everyone of take some and pass it down before briefly moving to the other end of the space where the 1977 film The Powers of Ten projects on them.
Again, their movements take on the form of the obsessive/of ritual while Burt Bacharach’s instrumental “Say a Little Prayer for You” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” play. Mueller’s form takes shape as an eerie presence in the corner due to his black, masked face. The women then prepare themselves as if for a slumber party using a candle Mueller slides across the floor. They lay on their sides, resting their heads on their hands as Mueller begins another solo. Due to the lighting, a second shadow of Mueller projects on the wall behind him, a constant, ominous presence.
Beale and McNamara then take turns lighting matches and holding them up to one another’s faces as they describe what they most want in their last moments – to be loved and to let go of love. As the matches get dangerously close, you half expect them to light each other on fire. They then grab the kite/piñata-like objects from the first dance, which are now revealed to be children’s crawl tubes. Armed with their bowl concoctions, they wiggle and worm their way through the tubes only to emerge naked before planting their heads in the cake-topped bowls and achieving the most beautifully weird headstands one could imagine before the lights go down, but not all the way because Mueller closes the show by singing a heartbreaking song about death that will crush your heart in about ten million ways before caressing it in its sorrow.
For me, the best part of experiencing art is the element of surprise that’s simultaneously unexpected yet inevitable. CAVE is like nothing else in Denver’s dance scene. The pendulum of possibility swings wildly from one instant to the next. You almost can’t trust the dancers not to do something completely and utterly crazy (like cutting off all their hair or setting each other on fire.) Anything and everything goes. It has its own distinct dream logic that is so powerful, you might never want to wake up.
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.