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Illustration by Galkin Grigory.

There’s Plenty To See In “The Observatory”

Emily Hansel

On August 19th-20th, Brooklyn-based experimental theater company, THE MILLION UNDERSCORES, brought their outer space themed work, “The Observatory,” to ODC Theater. Created and performed by Hannah Gross, Timothy Scott, Erin Mullin and Nicolás Noreña, the piece is an eerie and playful constellation of ideas efficiently portrayed over the length of an hour.

The audience entered into an activated theater filled with three dancers in jumpsuits buzzing around the stage like energized particles. Mysterious props filled the stage’s perimeter: projectors, microphones, a desk, cables, dangling spheres, plastic, and other indistinguishable objects that would be elevated into otherworldly imagery as the piece progressed. The unique skylights in the ceiling of ODC Theater were open and the pre-sunset sky was visible.

The trio’s sporadic but intentional movement came to a close, giving way to near stillness, as the three humans appeared to attempt sleep while standing upright. My mind wandered, and as the performers’ closed eyes and head bobs continued for minutes on end, I felt I was given permission for my daydreaming and continued to enjoy it guilt-free. (Later, a character wearing a cloud for a head convinced me day dreaming was more than ok in this space.) Eventually, a fourth performer entered the stage wearing a headset and clearly bearing some technical authority, as they immediately pushed a button to close the skylights, bringing the theater into complete darkness.

THE MILLION UNDERSCORES. Photo by Hannah Gross & Nicolás Noreña.

Throughout the piece innumerable different light sources cast shadows and projections on various surfaces, while the soundscape was transmitted from sources offstage, onstage, behind the audience, and even above us. The effects produced suspense but never discomfort.

A striking image crystallized when a person floated in slow motion beneath an enormous sheet of plastic billowing in the wind from a large fan. Later, one performer took their time pouring a series of liquid dyes into a glass on an old-school overhead projector; the ritual magnified on the cyc. This patient procedure was mysteriously comforting — I could’ve watched it for hours. Much like the piece as a whole, this saga of the dye was both predictable and unpredictable at the same time, soothing yet full of surprises, simultaneously simple and full of complexity. I was baffled by how every element of the production appeared to be straightforward and clear, yet inexplicably I found it impossible to track all the action.

The evening was marked by dramatic costume changes: a shapeshifting, faceless, pillow-person; silly, tin foil costumes; sequins and a staff; wigs and wrestling singlets; not to be outdone by two silver circles with naked human butts and legs enacting an alien mating ritual.

Scattered among the work’s more abstract musings were sound bites from old newscasts about space exploration, often referencing foreign competition in the pioneer of space.

I want to call the craft behind “The Observatory” magic or science fiction, but really it was an expert manipulation of sound, light, objects, and bodies in space.

One of the show’s final images was produced by an orbiting camera pointing down from above at the performers who rolled and somersaulted on the black floor. Projected on the cyc, the image was fixed and the jumpsuited humans were astronauts floating in gravity-free darkness. Finally, the ceiling’s skylights were reopened to reveal a now dark, post-sunset sky. The work lights and house lights came up to reveal the three movers in their original costumes with eyes closed. Their movements were elusive yet intentional, and I wondered if they were dreaming or manifesting the whole thing. “The Observatory” left me grinning as I applauded and contently curious as I left the theater and headed out into the night.

Emily Hansel is a San Francisco-based dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, arts administrator, and dancer advocate.

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Dance dispatches from the most active center for contemporary dance on the West Coast.