Ready to Build Again? Bobbi Jene Smith and Keir GoGwilt’s With Care

Miranda Cuckson and Or Schraiber in “With Care” . Photo by Natalia Perez

The highly cinematic opening of With Care, a piece by choreographer and performer Bobbi Jene Smith and violinist and writer Keir GoGwilt which premiered at ODC Theater in early November, introduces the four performers (violinist and violist Miranda Cuckson, GoGwilt, dancer Or Schraiber and Smith) as characters whose stories are deeply intertwined: each dressed in black, they first appear in the formation of a square, standing still and firmly gazing at their partner directly across from them. Smoke wavers above the vertical figures, impressing the moment with the quality of film noir.

After GoGwilt, Schraiber and Smith exit the stage, Cuckson launches into a haunting violin solo, standing at a diagonal facing upstage left. Her slight, erect figure contrasts with the voluminous haze that slowly unwinds horizontally above the stage. The striking image recalls stories of musicians whose powerful sound tamed monstrous beasts — here a violinist ominously conversing with a large otherworldly meta-creature.

As Cuckson ends her solo, she gently lowers her bow and violin to her side with a deliberate slowness. Smith enters the scene, taking truncated steps forward and then stopping abruptly, resuming her walk, changing directions, her heels lifting quickly off the floor as if they were on burning sand. Here and there, quirky small sidesteps convey the feeling that her movement is slightly defective and contrast with Cuckson’s slow and solid walk. Seemingly uneventful, the sequence implies some kind of tear in the fabric of her character’s psyche. One small pull, and it might come undone.

The pull is made manifest during the duet that Smith performs with GoGwilt who plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne (from his Violin Partita №2 in D Minor) with his back to the audience. Smith starts motionless with her elbows raised to the side, upper arms parallel to the floor, palms facing back as if holding off a boulder from crushing her or others she might be protecting. Although the physical exertion is less apparent, the powerful gesture, which repeats later sideways, recalls her pushing an invisible wall in A Study of Effort, whose process was documented in Elvira Lind’s film Bobbi Jene. A Study on Effort started as a solo exploration of how the body reacts to and shows efforts before becoming a duet with GoGwilt. Here, Smith’s character seems to be trying to keep at bay something massive — Overwhelming regrets? Demons gnawing at her inner world? Possibilities that she fears might consume her? Later, she is sitting and pulling her knees toward her as she slides back, her hands becoming claws — giving the impression she is skinning herself. Smith boldly navigates a wide range of emotional and psychological states during the harrowing duet, continuously sacrificing safety to edge on the precipice of collapse.

After her seeming descent into emotional darkness, Smith sits still at GoGwilt’s feet. He then lowers his bow in front of her and raises it above and across her head –like waving a palm in front of someone who is daydreaming. Smith doesn’t react to his first few passes, nor to the successive ones that he repeats, increasingly urgent and anxiously close to her face. The contrast between the swiftness of the bow -whipping against stillness, as a desperate attempt to lift the dancer from her absent gaze- and Smith’s torpor is both frightening and engrossing. Even as Smith sits motionless, she exudes a contained power that ripples across the stage.

The work was conceived as a drama between two twinned characters, a caregiver and a wounded spirit. As the caregiver, Schraiber’s body is embracing, malleable and agile, until the unraveling of Smith’s character starts to affect him. In another cinematic moment, Schraiber runs on stage with a sandbag that he bursts open, sand dust exploding and raining over the stage. As he rolls in the sand, his body making marks on the floor, he conveys both playfulness and pain. Toward the end of the piece, his walk forward, cradling something dear (his love? His sanity? His self?) in front of his belly, is interrupted by quick, brutal shoves to Smith’s legs — a burst of unspoken violence.

Created by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, gaga is the practice that Smith and Schraiber, both veterans from Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company, draw from. In the class that Smith had led before the performance, she had described gaga as a process of layering: she encouraged participants to let movements journey through their body, “allowing the bones to swim inside the flesh,” playing with a broad range of scales and states. “Feel that the inside of you is getting mixed up,” she had urged. Toward the end of the class, participants were asked to revisit earlier movement experiences and mix and layer them. What transpired in the way Smith taught and moved is the fluidity that gaga allows between sensory states and the porousness of the body to inner ignition signals as well as to external stimuli. “Make your body like a magnet,” she proposed. As Smith prompted the class to “gather things into the body,” hers became a voracious entity, making visible the accumulation of experiences that she was drawing from or calling into being.

Similarly, With Care evolved organically from -and along the way, absorbed- existing material. The piece grew from A Study on Effort, more precisely from its last section which concerns the effort of taking care. While healing from an injury, GoGwilt created a list of questions that included all the ‘efforts’ contained in the piece. “The questions about care really got to me and it made sense because it was the last part of the piece. It just kind of developed from there, ” Smith recalled in an interview a few days before the premiere of With Care. “What is care? How do we experience it? How do we give it? We started off with some basic prompts such as moving from carefree to careless, and how carefree can be something childlike and joyous and then careless can be something completely destructive for yourself and for others. What it that line? And when do we cross it? We worked with that also and then some narratives would pop up.”

The conversation between movement and sound that happens as GoGwilt plays Bach’s Chaconne also stemmed from an existing solo,Wonderful, co-created by Smith and choreographer Maxine Doyle. “The whole story of the Chaconne started to spread its roots. We would play the Chaconne and then someone else reacted to it. So that really set the tone and a lot of material consolidated around those elements,” Smith remembered.

With Care also contains visual elements that are a recurring image in Smith’s work. GoGwilt carries a cumbersome load of wooden sticks on stage–the task is arduous, as the awkward weight looks significant, and some pieces threaten to fall. The violinist succeeds in carefully lowering them to the floor and proceeds to arrange the wood pieces by bringing two heads against each other, creating small, precarious dwellings. Captured on the documentary Bobbi Jene and also a part of Smith’s previous work Harrowing, the arranging of these temporary sculptures provides a poetic metaphor for the ongoing work of construction that relationships demand and the precariousness of what holds us together. The sculpture garden remained in one corner of the stage, unfinished, when, later in the piece, one of the structures collapsed, its dull sound brutally shattering the silence and echoing in the space.

Later in the piece, Schraiber walks on stage with two long sticks, taller than him –the supersize echo of the small wooden pieces- and attempts to balance them against each other, with no success. He finally puts them down. A visual symbol of the unraveling of the relationship between his character and Smith’s, it is echoed in the words that Smith speaks in her monologue at the end of the piece. She evokes the wish of “a house on the mountain,” and that she feels “ready to build again.” She gives spatial directions –to herself? To a builder?- “Up, up.” The lights go dark.

Cuckson and GoGwilt are not mere virtuoso musicians playing a score, they are characters who both expand and complicate the narrative unfolding between Smith and Schraiber. At times they echo, amplify or disrupt the dancers’ movements, at other times they provide the framework for the emotional content of the piece to unfold. At one point, GoGwilt rests his head on Cuckson’s right shoulder and raises his bow to play the instrument that she is holding between her left shoulder and her chin. Played blindly, the sound is visceral, raw and pure. “They are equally characters as much as Or and I are,” Smith explained. “Without each other we don’t exist. It is so different for them than playing for a concert. They are playing because that’s what their character does. It’s not just about getting the notes right, it’s about what drives them to play that kind of music. So it’s coming more from the ground up than from the note down.”

If the two violins provide the audio throughline for the piece, they also allow room for other ‘instruments’ and sounds to add layer to the unfolding drama: silence, voice, breath, wood clonking the floor, a sandbag being burst open, the bow of a violin whipping through the air. Beyond the narrative elements of With Care, the piece is a poignant exploration of the dialogue between music and dance, one that accentuates the porousness of both forms. “There’s a lot of listening between us,” GoGwilt stated when we talked before the premiere. “The sound is another opportunity to make rhythm in space. Sound and movement are not separate things, they both fill the room.” Smith added: “With this piece, we have learned more about the visual sound of things. Not only what we can consider sound but what the impact of the physicality -which also has a certain amount of energy and tempo- is.”