Inspired by the word ether meaning “the fifth element; ‘the space between’ that connects all things,” ethereum dance co. aims to elevate “the human experience through intentional, exploratory performance art.” It comes as no surprise that the company would choose to explore the genesis and evolution of humanity. Set in and around Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farm’s Green Farm Barn, a restored 1918 dairy barn and silo, creatio takes a provocative look at the biblical story of creation and concepts of evolution. This one-night only, interactive arts crawl on Friday, April 19, 2019 featured a dizzying array of visual art, live music and performance inside and out. Clearly, ethereum has a firm understanding of most of its performative elements. It excels at physically demanding and emotionally engaging movement. It masterfully navigates the emotional roller coaster that is being human without being overly didactic and deftly balances ambiguity with clarity.
While I appreciated the effort to include visual artists and even have some of them creating en plein air before and during the performance, I did not understand the need for them. Their presence and their work seemed both superfluous and unrelated to the theme of the performance, except in the act of making itself. I work in the visual arts and have a profound reverence for artists, so I say this with complete respect for the time, energy and talent of the visual artists. With such a strong performance and in such a visually stimulating environment as Chatfield Farms, the visual art seemed like a crutch, as if ethereum didn’t trust that their audience could be content or entertained enough.
Before the performance officially began, dancers could be spotted in the crook of a tree, rolling around on the grass, sprinting across a field. Dressed all in white, they took on a ghostly presence both indifferent to those milling about and completely absorbed in their own movements, creating a voyeuristic experience for the audience members who noticed them.
The evening’s guide, Leah Barber, herded the audience through each experience. Like the dancers, she dressed in all white with bare feet. As the sun set and the air turned from crisp to chilled, I couldn’t help but increasingly marvel at the performers’ resilience to the temperature and the gravel underfoot.
Ethereum transformed the inside of the barn into a web-like structure by binding yards of stretchy, white fabric around and between the structure’s pillars. The dancers, entered the structure singly at various points and times, the grass and dirt stains from pre-performance escapades evidenced on their costumes. This first piece set the stage for ethereum’s outstanding physical, gymnastic strength with movements similar to both yoga and breakdancing. Often the dancers had their own individual movement phrases but they came together in pairs for a time. Killian Ramey and Anna Potter created an especially arresting moment as they leaned their shoulders into one another and moved around the space like conjoined twin crabs.
During the piece Barber rearranged audience members into small groups, changing their body positioning and even placing their hands on one another. People in these groups seemed more distracted by their new placements among strangers than involved with the performance. As the groupings multiplied, those audience members not included had to rearrange themselves in order to see around the groups. I wasn’t sure what the point of these groupings was: An exercise in discomfort? A way to force people to engage with strangers? An experiment with social mores and personal space? In the program, ethereum has this disclosure: “There is a 100% chance performers will breach the audience/performer barrier.” While I appreciate the interactivity, I think ethereum could have approached this element in a different way. At Control Group Production’s Aggregate Immateriality, for example, performers asked in advance if it was okay to touch an audience member. Later on, Kathryn Kalamas gave me a side hug that went on for what felt like five minutes but could have been as short as thirty seconds. At first, the hug was jarring and I jumped a bit. Then it was odd and uncomfortable. Finally as I began to adjust to her warm presence, she left. While the meditator in me enjoyed the intrigue of the experience, I could see how someone struggling with the after effects of trauma could have had a negative experience. My guest to the performance, for example, vehemently disliked this aspect of the performance and confessed it made him “violently angry” to have so many strangers touch him throughout the night. Having an opt-in and opt-out at event check-in could have been an easy route to avoid triggering anyone, while still including interactivity.
The next work featured Artistic Director Andrea Jayne Martin in a cul-de-sac along one of the garden paths outside the barn. She began the work in a fetal position on the ground before twitching with a witchy possession. Upon standing, she interacted with the audience by sometimes flirtatiously flipping up her skirt, other times taking hold of hands. She scooped up the dirt and let it sift through her hands. She sometimes threw herself to the ground and a cloud of dust enveloped her. Toggling between sexual and pained movements, the work challenged the viewer’s empathy. I caught myself wincing with every fall, silently begging for it stop due to Martin’s fearless commitment to the performance; and yet I was mesmerized. The unpredictability of the next movement kept me rapt while I yearned to close my eyes.
I had a similar experience as Potter and Kendall Ruhnow grappled with each other on the gravel path. At one point Ruhnow has Potter in a headlock, at another she drags her across the ground. Simultaneously gripping and harrowing, the piece tosses around one’s emotions like a cat playing with a mouse. Potter escapes the struggle by crawling under a white sheet, the shape of which reminded me of Janine Antoni’s Saddle.
Ramey’s aerial performance captivated the audience. Strung between two trees and harnessed just inches above the ground, she spun, twisted and twirled with balletic grace and acrobatic strength. Had she leaned her head forward, her nose could have touched the ground. Her expert precision and spatial awareness made the piece memorable.
Next, Ruhnow performed a piece referencing both alcoholism and the Eucharist. She moved with the languid, off-kilter movements of a drunkard one moment and the rigid self control of a nun the next. The audience was invited to take a bit of dried bread from her basket and dip it in her “wine.” One performer threw her bread into the gardens and another audience member shouted “amen”. Otherwise, everyone else repeated the first person’s actions: take, dip, eat.
Potter again took center stage, so to speak, as she wrestled with the white sheet. At times she looked like a tortured ghost, at others an insect struggling to break free of its chrysalis. She vacillated between frantic, erratic movements and others as slow and smooth as honey. Her struggle stuck in my throat, the size of a boulder, as I tried to swallow back everything it stirred up inside me. When she finally freed herself, I could feel a collective sense of relief amongst the audience. She then runs back and forth pulling audience members with her to a gauntlet of mirrors where she positions their faces to look at themselves. I wanted to look anywhere but my own reflection, a hard truth to face. She continues until each audience member has gone through the mirrored hallway followed by the performers, Martin last.
As if by some magic, the marigold-colored waning gibbous moon shone through the bare trees to the right of the silo, heightening the haunted feeling of the night. Franca Telesio, an octogenarian well-known in the Denver dance scene, awakened as if from a meditative trance and began reading what I took to be a Buddhist text. By this time, the audience had spread out along the paths and I wondered who could actually hear Telesio’s words. Afterwards, the performers take Morning Glory seed packets from the planters on either side of Telesio, kissing and stroking them as they wind through the audience. The audience is then invited to take a packet and partake in the act of creation. The quiet, enigmatic end mimicked the slow, meandering preface and allowed the audience to sit with their experiences before heading back to reality.
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.