Brittany Duggan: Contemporary dance is not regulated by the construct of a proscenium stage; it is, however, usually presented this way, a norm that Heidi Strauss refreshingly broke in her newest work “this time”, presented at Factory Theatre’s Studio Theatre. Audience members had a choice of slipping into the first half of the seating upon entering the space, or bravely making the short journey across the stage to seating on the other side.
This atypical theatrical configuration was immediately energizing, while also partially revealing; half of the audience, if not reading their programs, had nowhere else to look but across the space into the unguided gaze of the audience members opposite. I found this double perspective acted as another layer to Strauss’s examination of relationships – between both two people and groups of people – as the audience sat, much like sports spectators, divided. And then, at the top of the hour, dancers Brendan Wyatt and Justine A. Chambers appeared as casually as they were dressed, in runners and comfortable clothing, flirting between playful explorations and serious, tension-filled bursts of confrontation as they raced from wall to wall, testing one another’s personal space, revealing knowing smiles every so often to indicate their awareness of their actions. I immediately related to their games, and wondered what kinds of connections appeared for you, Susan, in this dance?
Susan Kendal: I was also struck by the theatre’s set up. It evoked a casual, contemporary space with two horizontal video screens, curved in a way that reminded me of a half-pipe in a skateboard park, mounted in front of “stands” of spectators. I had a sense of sitting at a sporting event, perhaps a tennis match, with the action contained below the audience. The costumes were realistically everyday clothes – sneakers, t-shirts and pants that I believed these two would actually wear, rather than the contrived “regular” clothing that seems de rigeur in many contemporary dance works these days. Two regular people walked into the room and began to describe their relationship to us, their language incidentally being movement. The choreography described the push-pull, testing, waiting, giving, taking, hiding, sharing of a long-term relationship. And because I happen to be in a long-term relationship, I couldn’t help but see references to the struggles and joys that I experience in this construct, like a vellum transfer over or under the work. I was unsettled by the familiarity of patterned behavior that roiled and played out in front of us, the relentless movement — reaching, twisting, shifting — and the dancers quickly soaked from the effort.
Chambers and Wyatt are both intelligent, experienced interpreters and their faces sincerely betrayed deep inner worlds, both personal and shared. I often saw Wyatt as the witness and Chambers looking to be seen, testing limits. I was reminded of moths, tasting the air around one another with simultaneous care and abandon. The lighting by Rebecca Picherack was very specific, containing the dancers within geometric shapes or slicing through the space, separating or highlighting them. The program notes mention that “this time” was influenced by Ken Gass’ play “LIGHT (a little tragedy)”, which featured beams of light. How aware were you of the lighting, Brittany?
BD: Distinct images, like the creation of boundaries, unfolded for me due to the direct beams of overhead light. I found the lighting an almost tangible part of the set, whereas, the video projections on either side of the space acted to support the scene with varying perspectives.
The video design by Jeremy Mimnagh (a collective member since 2007 of Strauss’s company, adelheid) ranged intermittently from cityscapes to abstract flashes of light, further contextualizing the relationship. I recall one section in which the projected image almost resembled blurred spectators through glass windows, like you would see at an aquarium; a double image when viewed below the audience seating on the other side of the stage, and which made me think of the varying temporal realities we experience in our own relationships. The dancers’ movement at this time was slow and highly receptive; they seemed almost aware of being observed while the images on the screen raced by, highlighting the subjectivity of experienced time.
Mimnagh also created the sound design for “this time” with composer John Mark Sherlock. Susan, what was your impression of the score? I ask because, other than being minimal, I didn’t notice it as much as all of the other elements.
SK: I was consciously aware of the sound score on and off; it seemed to float and play alongside the dancers and functioned as an integral element in supporting the dance. At times quite melodious, at others a bit more atmospheric, it seemed to reflect or suggest the shifting moods of the dancers and the dance. The sound often seemed to float through an open window, like a tune in a passing car or the conversation in a balcony below, which made the dance seem contained, as if it were playing out in a furniture-less living room with bleachers for us spectators.
Among these sounds, images and playing in and between the lights, Strauss wove a relentless physical story for Wyatt and Chambers. I was exhausted by how endlessly their patterns seemed to repeat and morph while their awareness of one another was acute and constant. One memorable and breath-taking moment happened right under our noses: Chambers threw herself at Wyatt and he very nearly missed her. I remember Wyatt simply grabbing her ankle as she flew past him and easing her to the ground. I think it was an accident, but they were so profoundly present and trusting of one another that it served as a metaphor for the convoluted relationship being described in the dance.
BD: I too found the relationship between these two dancers to be remarkably genuine and in tune. Strauss’s pedestrian and organic movement allowed Wyatt and Chambers to move beyond any contrived heterosexual choreographic clichés into a realm more akin to physical theatre, in which the frustrations and apprehensions, as well as the joys and comforts of their relationship, were physically expressed. Beyond this emotional translation was the detailed beauty of their connection, in the way Wyatt might rub Chambers’ hand with his thumb while they lay for a moment, or how Chambers would appear to be almost holding her breath as she watched Wyatt move on his own. Ultimately, “this time” was a very rich and satisfying work, further increased by this conversation with you, Susan. Thank you.
SK: Interesting, “pedestrian” doesn’t leap to mind immediately for me when I think of the choreography for “this time”, but when I think about it, there were many subtle moments of connection that evoked the regular thoughtful/thoughtless interactions between two people who know each other very well. This came through, along with the incessant, generous dancing full of directed limbs swinging and shifting, testing balance, strength and limits. Strauss wove a delicate yet brutal physical description of the ordinary/extraordinary between two people. I walked away feeling very alive and energized; I had just seen two people seriously dance! Chambers and Wyatt really left it all on the floor and printed all over the space. Indeed, the experience was all the more rich for discussing it with you too, Brittany. Cheers.