Orbiting in the Outer Reaches

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Carley McCready in the cosmic static. Rehearsal photo courtesy of Rabble and Twine.

 

I was thrilled to received a press release from DIDA, Durham Independent Dance Artists, giving information on a new work NOT about self-identity, group identity or activism–but about something really big, way too big: The Mesoplanets orbiting far, far away. This one-night-only event occurred May 6, at the Living Arts Collective, and while it did not fulfill its potential, The Mesoplanets was a strong and consistently engaging debut into the arena of full-length staged works by Rabble & Twine.

Rabble and Twine co-founders, Luke Selden and Anna Seagrave, recently of Providence, RI, met in graduate school at Mills College (Oakland, CA), where they began merging their arts. Selden makes music and video; Seagrave makes dances. For this journey into the fascinations of space, in particular of those little planets that get no respect, Selden and Seagrave brought together another half-dozen dancers and four “noise makers,” including Allen Anderson with whom Selden had studied music at UNC as an undergrad, and Ellis Anderson of No One Mind–together their synth-duo is called sfm. There was also the one-named violinist Morgan, in a mask, and recorded speech by Helene Rosenbluth.

There was video background with wry voice-overs by Selden; one short side of the stage was banked by sound gear and musicians and a tiny “wing” for the dancers. The audience occupied the other two sides of the rectangle, and those on the long side, facing the video, would have had a much more complete experience of the work than I did from the short side, from which one couldn’t really watch the video while watching the dancers, choreographed by Anna Seagrave. The work’s three acts–The Known, The New World, and The Void–comprised nine dances, and one purely musical segment. The Mesoplanets is a very ambitious work, serious and sweetly humorous, and while it could use a little tightening, overall it was captivating. There was remarkably little dross and some standout moments among the several strong movement sections, and the music was intriguing, even mesmerizing, throughout–though especially compelling in Act II. Although I couldn’t give the video the attention it deserved, I could tell that its rhythms and rather magisterial pacing were key to the overall work’s coherence and sense of long journeying into the far unknown.

As a group, Seagrave’s dances investigated the characteristics of various mesoplanets, and of the people who dream of them. There was a great deal of emphasis on orbits and orbiting, which was strikingly effective in a kind of cat’s cradle dance for the ensemble and two long ropes. This piece went well beyond clever, into elegance and beauty, as it caught and spun the dancers in intersecting elliptical orbits–like the planets, always in motion but never free to leave their delineated paths. Anna Seagrave, Carley McCready and Aijia Nicole Bryant stood out among the dancers for their verve and elasticity. It was particularly nice to see McCready and Seagrave together, for the contrasts. McCready is small, lithe and sports a brown bob; Seagrave is taller, blonde and due to give birth in July. It was fascinating to see how differently the same movement sequences express from the varying bodily states.

The varying abilities of the dancers, however, were not always a benefit, and dragged down some of the larger dances, and there was a real problem with the recorded voice-overs. The sounded like they’d been recorded on a phone, by people without voice training; the volume was inadequate throughout, and sometimes the voice was covered completely by the music. If the spoken content is meant to be an equal partner with the music, visuals and dance, it needs some technical assistance.

According to Seagrave, Saturday’s performance was her last before her baby is due. But look for Seagrave and Selden/Rabble & Twine, perhaps in DIDA’s next season. They are welcome additions to Durham’s dance scene, and it will be very interesting to see what changes in Seagrave’s work with motherhood. In the meantime, we get to find that out about Renay Aumiller, now returned from her maternity leave (twins!). She will be presenting her new work, boneglow, at the Living Arts Collective June 2-4 as the DIDA season continues. Three shows only in that small space, don’t wait. Tickets on her website.

 

aijia denver

Denver Carlstrom and Aijia Nicole Bryant during rehearsal for the glow-stick storm segment. Rehearsal photo courtesy of Rabble and Twine.

 

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Aides-mémoire: MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater

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Jon (Michael Brocki) with his mother-in-law Marjorie (Marcia Edmunson), who is losing her memory in Jordan Harrison’s MARJORIE PRIME, directed at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater by Jeff Storer. Through May 13, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Aides-mémoire, how they gain in importance as one ages. Lists proliferate; photo albums; calendar reminders; pill boxes; one’s own name taped to the mirror–and still memory goes its own strange ways, coyly hiding behind gauzy curtains; seeming to vanish, but occasionally surfacing all a-glow from lightless pools in the brain’s lacunae. Dying from the moment we are born, we repress that knowledge until we begin to forget, and the dying becomes the living as we hunt for consolation among memories, our own and those of others.

As epigraph for her new novel, The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble quotes D.H. Lawrence, from his poem, The Ship of Death, and takes her title from it.

“Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.”

So it is for Marjorie, in the thoughtful 2015 play by Jordan Harrison now at Manbites, directed with his usual empathetic acumen by Jeff Storer, who is also quite willing to prod the monsters under the bed with a sharp stick, just to see what they might do. Marjorie Prime explores the future of forgetting and remembering: artificial intelligence housed in artificial bodies, to keep us company and remind us of who we are.

Marjorie, delicately portrayed by the luminous Marcia Edmundson, is old. Her husband’s dead; she’s losing her memory and bodily control to dementia, but still wit and temper flash. Around her assisted-living living room in Sonya Leigh Drum’s spare but emotive set are placed shelf-boxes containing various aides-mémoire (a scrawl of writing–People I want to remember–taped to a tin box, and so forth). These are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell memory boxes, but they also seem like Stations of the Cross for an ordinary mortal, places to pause on the painful journey. The between-the-worlds quality of Drum’s set is augmented wonderfully by excellent lighting, projections and sound by Andrew Parks and Joseph Amodei.

But Marjorie is not alone. She has Walter Prime, her husband as he appeared in his prime, thanks to computer engineering and some Frankensteinian physical conjuring that is doubtless on the actual horizon. The Primes, as these artificial intelligences are called, can learn and process information, even to the point of drawing inferences and displaying compassion. And they’re there to help, like highly evolved Roombas. Derrick Ivey gives Walter both machine qualities and living warmth in an astounding performance in which he somehow effaces the human while displaying a range of human qualities. There’s a moment when Walter’s given a piece of terrible information and his response is so life-like that it chilled me to the core. Will science soon reproduce at will the heart’s intelligence, so hard-won through millennia of genetic selection and the body’s short experiential life?

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Derrick Ivey as Walter, the artificial intelligence in a simulacrum of Marjorie’s late husband’s body in his prime, in MARJORIE PRIME at Manbites Dog. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Marjorie also has her daughter, Tess, played with exhausting verisimilitude by Lenore Field. Tess bustles around, plumping and straightening, griping about the staff, alternating between anger and gentleness, obsessed with everyone’s memories. As her husband Jon, Michael Brocki lowers all his shields and gives the most wonderful performance I’ve seen by him. Jon’s a loving son-in-law and patient husband who does his best to assuage everyone’s grief. Eventually he too must turn for consolation to his own AI companion. For while losing our own memories is bad enough, living to be unremembered by others is far worse.

The play hints at an even more frightening prospect. Human flesh will die and human souls pass into the unknown–but these fully-trained artificial intelligences in unliving bodies will not; and, as W.B. Yeats wrote, they will not “know that what disturbs our blood/Is but its longing for the tomb.”

O brave new world, that has such people in’t.

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Jon (Michael Brocki) lost in his memories of his late wife Tess (Lenore Field) in MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

I’ve rarely been so unsettled by a play. Recommended for all thinking adults. Through May 13 in bustling downtown Durham. Tickets here.

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