The Body As A Divining Tool

Katie Faulkner’s “Divining”. Photo by Stephen Texeira

The first part of Katie Faulkner’s Divining zooms in on groupings of dancers moving slowly in a sculptural way. Engaged in ceremonial acts, they are captured in an intimate and focused light that recalls the Italian technique of chiaroscuro. Used in visual arts, chiaroscuro offers stark contrasts between light (chiaro) and dark (scuro), thereby providing fascinating compositional aspects that accentuate the 3-dimensional aspects of a 2-dimensional figure. At the onset of the piece, Tara McArthur and Suzette Sagisi face each other, upstage right, the former holding the latter as she slowly bends backwards, stretching the moment. The stage goes dark and when it lights up again, a duet or a trio takes up another part of the stage. Chinchin Hsu circles her finger in the open palm of Alex Carrington, as if mapping the future. Those formations pop up on different parts of the stage like windows into a private moment of contemplation. If the stage were the world, then those tableaux would point to the universality of rituals, practiced in varied forms across time and cultures.

Residing at the threshold of balance, the dancers delineate a choreography of searching and disorientation. In one solo, Hsu keeps her arms straight forward, palms clutched and fingers intertwined, drawing a figure that reminds of the Y-shaped rods that water witchers have been using to locate groundwater for centuries. Faulkner’s family used such a practitioner on their land in North Carolina years ago and it is that memory, recalled when Faulkner was sifting through family photographs, that planted the seeds of this piece. “Divining and dowsing are very similar. Both feel like apt metaphors for choreographing. The practice of tuning your body as an instrument to facilitate discovery feels meaningful to me,” the Bay Area choreographer had shared in a conversation last year. In her solo, Hsu let her arms guide her, her body stumbling or falling behind: forward, sideways or back, her arms transform into antennae, taking her to unexpected places across the stage. The body becomes the divining tool, “a conduit for felt or intuited knowledge” Faulkner writes in the program notes.

At another moment, the four dancers join and attempt to build a dwelling by swiftly bringing their arms up, fingertips touching, forming a triangle, before letting them drop back alongside their body. Never in unison and playing with a-rhythmic patterns, they convey the feeling that the structure being built is precarious and won’t hold. The pace quickens and for a moment it’s like watching the small wooden hammers under a piano lid, lifting up before resuming their place — several parts of one whole body of sound.

At times the body becomes animal. Sagisi and Hsu crawl the stage with their torso and belly facing the ceiling, their legs and arms propelling them across space, in a crab or spider-like prowl. Later, McArthur ends a solo kneeling over the floor, which she furiously attempts to dig in as if it was giving earth. The image of her, beast-like and desperately slurping the invisible and absent nectar of the soil -like trying to drink from a source gone dry- is harrowing. With environmental reports alerting the swift and increasing depletion of natural resources in mind, it’s hard not to imagine the scene as a possible window into a soon-to-be bleak future.

From the very beginning, composer Ben Juodvalkis’ soundscape alternates breaths and humming, transporting the viewer into a visceral vortex that echoes the inside of the body. With its warmth and sharpness, designer Allen Willner’s lighting supports that intimacy, and carves the practices danced on stage as quiet rituals, held in small groups. The body twitches, pulses, convulses but the intimate light casts a soft, gentle veneer on it, somehow restraining those dramatic impulses. Toward the end of the piece, that sustained lull violently ends when the lights suddenly blast a bright, yellow shade and the music boasts a jarring, almost farce-like tune, transforming the atmosphere of the piece and the agency of dancers: from seeming to have some control over their environment, they suddenly appear as puppets, their shadows cast big on the background. Looking small and lost, they seem to be played upon by a larger entity.

Soon after, Sagisi goes from small giggles to hysteric laughter, then to searing weeping, as she walks diagonally forward to downstage left. At times she puts her palm up, signifying that she has had enough and can’t take it anymore. But the wave that overwhelms her doesn’t stop and the viewer is left between joy and sorrow, between hope and doom, nudged to confront her own body to search for signs and responses to the questions that the piece brings forth.