Review: /wē/ is an Artful Self-Examination That Forces You To Let Go of All Control

By Teresa Lee

Photographs by Alice Chacon Photography

The artful vision of Anya Clarke and Mitsuko Verdery starts before the show begins. As the audience filed into the theater, the sounds of strangers’ reunions threatened to spill into the sanctuary of the unexpectedly large performance space at the 14th Street Y. An audience member to my right screamed “Joey! Joey!” over and over with a level of confidence typically reserved for one’s own living room. But /wē/ did not wait for Joey. The grating ambient noises, performed live on stage by performance duo slowdanger, were already invading the air, warning the audience the show would wait for no one. Two dancers walked out from stage left and began to take their clothes off. As the dancers moved in unison, the grating music grew steadily. I couldn’t help feel we were entering an anti-womb, a sort of safe space that betrays you. Or perhaps more accurately, a discord within that creates a sense of unease you cannot escape from.

As these two dancers continued, the audience started to quiet down. /wē/ did not need permission to begin, perhaps poignantly underlining the ineffectiveness of trying to control one’s own identity or deepest desires. They are within you before you even name them, and they grow until they can’t be ignored. The simplicity in the routine with which the two dancers disrobed and brushed their teeth pointed to the habits we fall into in attempt to control ourselves. If we are unable to comfort our minds, we can at least comfort our bodies. The two dancers separate, and one gets in the tub, completely naked. Finally, the couple behind me decides to stop catching each other up on their day. Finally, they pay attention to the performance, though it had already begun.

Next, a soloist emerges, and with wild and eccentric motions, she takes over the space. At first, it’s madness. We’re thrust into a wild and energetic dance that feels like thoughts growing in your head. All the while, that same music, like a womb that won’t take you back. It’s a sound that mimics comfort but produces only anxiety. As the stage fills up with dancers in a neutral and almost clinical garb, their motions blend together and we are enveloped by their passionate movement.

The choreography is cerebral, like the parts of your brain you can’t keep quiet. Like the self, it’s constantly evolving, shifting, adapting. Clarke’s choreography is set in the visual and contextual design of Verdery’s dreamscape, and as the dancers move through their hypnotic formations, shapes start to form on the back wall. These shapes are pixelated at first, but they grow clearer as the music swells and brings us into the dream Verdery has designed alongside computational artists Jess Medenbach and Char Stiles. These are the memories that drive the subconscious, and they eventually become forms of dancers on the wall, moving in harmony with the breathing 3-D forms before them.

The choreography moves between lucid and fluid to downright jarring in a most effective way. Like moving between the major and minor chords, the dancers fill the space with dark and light. The motif of pulling is repeated, as legs are outstretched and mouths are opened wide, there’s a sense we’re scratching an itch in our subconscious that we yearn to see. There’s an ethereal violence in the way the dancers move, underlined by the consistent music that fills the air. Every so often, two dancers would splinter off, creating an ephemeral moment that interrupts the unity. Eventually, all the dancers unite in harmonious movement, and it’s as if the thoughts make way for breath, for life, and for resolve. Ironically, when we finally are graced with harmony, the naked dancer in the tub is left alone and lifeless. If life is the fighting of the self, then death is the most harmonious state it seems.

One thing that /wē/ does very well is explore every whim it conjures. It does not favor heaven or hell, but presents a textured reality that transcends dark and light. It captures the complex existence of exploring a self you thought you knew. In the discovery of self, there is no rest until death, and in the same way, the pacing of the show does not give us any room to pause. We don’t choose when we get to be who we are, we have already started. The steady score of slowdanger is that pulse that keeps beating. There is no rest, but there is a catharsis in finally paying attention. Like the couple behind me finally noticing, we may not hear our thoughts right away, but they continue to grow until we can no longer ignore them.

/wē/ forces us to look at the fighting within. It’s a powerful performance that addresses both external and internal prejudice. Verdery and Clarke’s collaboration is married together in a performance that is both thought provoking and extremely moving. It’s like blending memories, dreams, and subconscious thoughts, all while lending itself to a cross self-examination.