When Form Reflects the Disappearing Sound : A Response to Sara Shelton Mann’s ECHO / riding the rapids

Jesse Zaritt in ECHO/riding the rapids. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Life cannot be neatly arranged like a box of cables tamely wrapped on top of a technicians’ cart. In Sara Shelton Mann’s ECHO/riding the rapids, after an explosive entrance, heels decisively stomping on the floor, performer Jesse Zaritt trashes the tidy cart that awaits downstage right, the cables spilling on the Marley floor — guts from a road kill. The resounding metaphor is a piece which appears messy and puzzling in the way life often asserts itself but is also, as captured in the final scene in which the stage becomes littered with a residue of props spilled and broken, radically poetic. (As I watch the show a second time on its final night, the cart was gone — I had seen two performers stumble over spilled rubber material on opening night and I imagine it was removed for safety)

An accompanying text for the show asks: “What is an echo that resounds from the walls? Is it an invitation to inhabit a spatial interim, the terrain between viewer, performer, composer, and space?” What is that spatial interim made of? If by definition an echo is a sound caused by a noise being reflected off a surface then how might that translate in dance? Could we talk about a kinetic echo as a motion — breath, tremor, spasm, shake, quiver, twitch- that is caused by a movement being reflected off a body? Contact improvisation, which is one of the movement vocabularies that Shelton Mann draws from, is a case in point for kinetic echoes.

In ECHO, performers’ bodies become the resounding boards of external audio and kinetic stimuli. At the beginning of the piece, Anya Cloud stands eyes closed downstage right, slowly revolving around herself. Her body seems to be listening and absorbing the sounds and energetic charges of the space — the voices of audience members coming into the space, the noise of the fan that Jesse Hewit is activating on the other side of the stage, the music played by composer/performer Pamela Z from behind her sound table onstage. Cloud’s body’s responses to those stimuli are then minimal — tiny tremors that are almost imperceptible. Later in the piece, Pamela Z walks center stage and expels a high pitch note that resounds throughout the space before launching into other notes. Her voice is soon joined by the recorded sounds that she activates by articulating her hands where tiny recorders are attached to her fingers. Noticing Cloud, whose eyes are still closed, she shushes the audience before directing her sounds at the dancer, whose movements’ amplitude grows in crescendo. First small and contained, then large and free, they respond to Pamela Z’s audio stimuli which shadow Cloud throughout the stage.

In the workshop led by Shelton Mann at ODC Theater on Saturday afternoon, participants were asked to apply a soft touch on a partner, who in turn was tasked to let their breath mold the space where they were touched. The breath worked as a movement initiator, the movement an organic resonance of the external touch. The practice called for acute listening and utter openness. At some point, Shelton Mann had exploded against “dancers who just move legs and arms,” in a contrived and forced manner, disconnected from how the energy moves within them or from the environment they are evolving in. The performance is a testimony that each of the four dancers (Cloud, Abby Crain, Hewit and Zaritt) has integrated that practice. Zaritt in particular demonstrates the mesmerizing ability to let energy travel inside his body and make that journey visible to the audience. His movements are unexpected and range wide in scale, at times large and explosive, at other times soft and melting, but always clear and unbounded. He has danced in Israel for a year and is undoubtedly familiar with gaga, the technique created by Tel-Aviv based choreographer Ohad Naharin.

There’s a fluidity in which the space is filled. Shelton Mann moves in and out of the piece. At times she is the choreographer/collaborator giving instructions (to Zaritt: “Would you stop that please? It looks like it hurts!”). Other times, she is sitting in the audience, a microphone in her hand, ready to answer a question from Zaritt. Similarly, on opening night, photographer Robbie Sweeny walks on stage, taking close ups of the performers. I don’t experience his presence as an obstruction or a gimmick; he is rather completely integrated within the piece. The work is porous and in that sense it welcomes you in.

The piece also manipulates planes and plays with scales. As the audience enters, Zarritt is drawing on the white pages of a small notebook. Later in the piece, he feverishly scribbles on the black Marley with white chalk, the blank space of the notebook page now a vast floor canvas. As the audience makes its way to their seats, the tech lights are hanging low, dividing upper and lower spaces equally. A hint at lower and upper realms, the realm of the living and the realm of the spirits? In the workshop, Shelton Mann had referred to the ancestors being present in the practice; in the piece, she asked Zaritt whether or not he knew “any of these aliens,” pointing to the audience. Zaritt looked quite otherworldly as he shook his head no.

Throughout the piece, there is a line of white tape stuck diagonally on the black Marley, close to Pamela Z’ sound table. At one point, Hewit comes in holding two long sticks, expertly balancing them at his fingertips, playing with their orientation and the space between them. Similar in size with the tape on the floor, they seem like the live and activated echoes of the tape, which Zaritt removes at the end at the request of Shelton Mann, who feels it creates a “wall” between her and the audience.

Spoken in the microphone or present in the sound score, text appears sporadically throughout the piece. It contains personal questions with no formulated answers (“Can I tell you about my mother?”), a monologue by Zaritt in Hebrew, a poetic enumeration of birds’ gatherings (“a gaggle of geese / an ostentation of peacocks / a parliament of owls…” ) anda monologue by Shelton Mann about power issues (“You think this is a game. But somewhere along the line there are knives in the back pocket and someone gets hurt. We think this is a performance but this is how we are. We think these things inside. Somebody wants to have power over.”) The text could be echoes of past conversations. Largely unrelated, they create a poetic patchwork when drown together. Pamela Z’s score acts as a powerful and effective container of those resonances. From the guttural to the buccal, from the murmur to the high pitch, her music is alternatively playful, ecstatic and haunting.

ECHO also makes space for the resonances of other performances and cultural references to weave into the work. There is some subdued resonance of the myth of Echo in the subtext of the piece (What’s your name/listening through walls/the voice of stone). In the myth, the mountain nymph was silenced by the wrath of Zeus’ wife and condemned to only voice out the last words spoken to her, her body eventually turning to stone. The work seems to shake the contemporary Echo out of her silence and powerlessness: a seemingly sleeping Cloud is awakened by Pamela Z’s voice and reclaims the full potential of her moving body. And Shelton Mann, who brings up power issues in her monologue, shows that she is in charge in her introductory dialogue with Zaritt: “Would you like a job?” she asks him, before turning to the audience and asking: “Would you like to see him dance?” She hires the dancers and calls the show.

When Zaritt performs sweeping circles with his torso on a chair, his feet abruptly leaving the floor, the white fabric of the two unbuttoned shirts he is wearing flapping like a flag in the wind, Naharin’s Minus 16 pops into my head. In the work, 20 dancers perform on chairs arranged in a semi circle and at one point also feverishly throw their torso around, their shirt’s loose white fabric expanding their gestures. As Zaritt’s torso and legs hover parallel to the floor, solely held above by the seat of the chair, his head hanging down, his position reminds of Jean-Paul Marat as captured by painter Jean-Louis David in his The Death of Marat-the painting of the murdered French revolutionary leader, whose head hangs within a pool of white cloth.

And when Cloud walks back on stage after changing into a red shirt, heels lifted, balancing a little mound of white feathers in each hand and proceeds to walk diagonally to upstage right, Shelton Mann’s Eye of Horus, performed at Jessie Square in 2014, comes to mind. At one point in the piece, Shelton Mann had walked in a diagonal, spreading breadcrumbs on the ground, attracting a flock of pigeons that followed diligently behind her in a straight line. Their walk, like Cloud’s, was a little uneven.

Cloud can’t help feathers escape her open palms and, with a gentle rock from side to side, drift across the stage floor. While things (feathers, bodies, baking soda) take flight, they also inevitably return to the floor. Other things are destroyed — Zaritt violently hits the heads of the flower bouquets he holds in each hand against the floor, petals dispersing like broken glass. Life’s/art’s finality is inevitable, suggests Shelton Mann at the end of the piece: “I make this (she gestures to the stage) to be loved, but art disappears, just like I will.” Yet what persist are the echoes and residues of things said and done. In the piece, there are some visually stunning attempts to buffer sounds and soften impacts, with colorful wool blankets and foam coils stacked tightly against the brick back wall, in between the red iron beams. But no matter how much you buffer walls, some things –artistic gestures, moments of communion, shared intimacy- continue to echo far beyond their initial emitter.