Lemon Sponge Cake Ballet creates a four-dimensional matryoshka doll with the May 23rd world premiere of Juliet, performing inside a floating cube inside a gym inside the Boulder Jewish Community Center. The freighted mash up of cubes, gyms and Jewish centers pull and push against one another with tension that mimics that of the three dancers: Natalie Maxwell, Scarlett Wynne and Robert Sher-Machherndl. Performed in the round (or rather the square), the floating cube designed by Tres Birds Workshop Founder Mike Moore, evokes a prism, a screen, a pen, ice, a chamber, and a physical fourth wall. As the lights change color throughout the performance, the white strips of fabric that mark the cube’s edges shift like the desert sky at sunset, washes of pink commingling with yellow, blue, green, and purple. Shadows bounce along the gym walls like Plato’s Cave. And all the while, the backdrop of the JCC lingers.
Described by Sher-Machherndl as a piece about social media, Juliet takes a more abstract approach to the great, unregulated experiment we’ve found ourselves in over the past decade and a half. You won’t find any movements related to scrolling or swiping. You won’t see anything that looks like someone bent over a smartphone. Rather, Juliet takes as its primary fodder the push/pull at the core of social media: our strong desire for connection along with our deep distrust of others/The Other. The performers often form triangular shapes with their bodies inside the cube. As anyone who has studied Drama knows, a triangle instantly creates tension and conflict. Maxwell, Wynne and Sher-Machherndl stare each other down throughout the performance, even as they inch closer together. When they do come together for duets, the third dancer often does a completely separate solo. As an audience member, you must constantly shift your attention from the duet to the solo, comparing and contrasting and trying to find the connection.
The movement shifts from languid to poetic to athletic to alien. Sher-Machherndl brilliantly combines the organic—at times animalistic—with the mechanical to create a scene at once spellbinding yet uncomfortable. It’s a slippery kind of discomfort, odd yet familiar, not unlike the feeling of social media vs. “the real world.” The slender bodies of the dancers ping-pong around the cube but never breach its sides. Compared to Sher-Machherndl’s towering figure, Maxwell and Wynne look like sprites, especially when he lifts them. At one point, he lifts Maxwell and carries her sideways, her body parallel to the floor, and she startlingly takes on a broom-like presence as he whisks her to and fro. Their attention to the detailed, articulated movements makes their arms and hands seem like separate creatures: eels one second and robots the next.
In the middle of the performance the dancers speak, taking turns repeating the same phrases again and again as they change the emphasis from one word to another to alter the meaning. Why shouldn’t I believe in something more beautiful, quantitative data is collected via analytics, tomorrow will be better. Their echo chamber mimics reposts and retweets in the digital realm. The next spoken section features the dancers saying lines from a poem Sher-Machherndl wrote for his wife. I can feel you, I can see you, I can hear you, I can smell you, I can breathe you. The self-affirming/assured nature of the declarations shifts over the course of the speech to child-like, dubious, desperate.
The movement continues to communicate a sense of desperation as the dancers grab and rub their heads and necks as they race around the edge of the cube, stopping only to mimic the action of splashing water on their faces frantically. It’s as if the dancers are chasing each other and their proverbial tails. They rush at one another and then as quickly away in fear. From the outside looking in, it’s acutely painful to watch because it so accurately describes the way we are now as a society. The performance ends with the dancers all looking to the sky as if in search of a higher power or maybe just 5G.
This ambiguity allows the audience room to grapple intellectually, to form associations and reach conclusions without being didactic. It’s this sense of space and trust in the audience that shines throughout this work. Without wagging fingers or dumbing down the complexity of social media, Lemon Sponge Cake managed to replicate the feeling of the digital experience in the analog. That’s no small feat, no small feat at all.
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.