Zombified from a nasty bout of insomnia last night and smelling a bit more like dramatically burned popcorn than I’d have liked, I went to see Blake Beckham’s “One Another” at the Mary Gray Munroe Theater at Emory University. It was a strong piece with well developed choreography. I regret that a scheduling conflict kept me from going last night when I’d have been more alert and able to enjoy the piece more because I feel like there was a richness of depth to the piece into which I could only hang my feet but into which I would have loved to have had the chance to dive.
The theater was set up with three rows of seating with high terracing arranged on either side of the stage, which had a very light gray dance floor covering. White walls were set up to partition the entrance to the stage so that the stage was fully boxed in. A thick stripe of elongated mirrors was arranged above the heads of the people in the top tiers on both sides, angled slightly downward so that they reflected the stage. Similar mirrors were arranged at a little above head-height on the other two white walls seating on both sides, with lights mounted behind them casting a glow onto the wall above and below.
The overall effect was at the same time intimate and alienating: the stark whiteness of the walls felt slightly harsh, pushing my eyes toward the mirrors which in turn pushed them down to the floor where the dancers were already lying head to toe as we walked in. Before we were fully seated, the dancers began moving, as though they were taking part in something more like a performance installation than a dance concert. Once we were fully seated, the dancers began to spread out around the floor, at first by themselves and then, one by one, becoming aware that the others were there.
The choreography then took us through many aspects of pairing — finding each other, competition, leaving, finding others, jealousy, intimacy, support, and others — and even touched a couple of times on the strength, weakness, self direction, and loneliness of independence and isolation. Beckham showed in 2012’s “Threshold” that she can do exceptional work exploring the form of interpersonal relationships and we saw something similarly thoughtful, thorough, and relatable here. Unlike “Threshold”, where she used the rotation of a large, cardboard staircase to define different ‘rooms’ to serve as segues between different scenes, each scene in “One Another” blended into each other with a certain fluidity.
At times this fluidity was disorienting: as segments flowed into each other, it was never really clear if the character that was established in a leading segment should be seen as persisting into the next. A listing of segments with one-word, descriptive titles would be enough to take care of this and give the audience a mental hook by which to follow the work. However, this would also detract from a certain truth about relationships being expressed in this disorientation: it is never really clear that we have progressed to a different stage of a relationship until we are already well into the new stage. Would it be worth giving this up for a bit of extra clarity? I’m not sure that I’d want to.
As all of this played out, I found that the seating arrangement had its own role in how I encountered the piece. As I stated above, there were two banks of seating on either side of the stage. Despite this, Beckham did not try to always keep the choreography completely non-directional. Instead, at any point in time, I found myself in either an intimate relationship with the work when it was close to and directed toward the side on which I was sitting or, conversely, I found myself with a sense of perspective drawn from the distance between me and the performance when it was directed more toward the other side. It was very effective and gave me both time to think about the work that was being presented to me but also a chance to be drawn into it without ever making me feel like I was missing something either way.
While the choreography, the performance, and the general staging were all excellent, the sound and the lighting left a little to be desired. The musical accompaniment, an original score by Blake Williams, was the kind of purely atmospheric music that would play accompaniment to self-hypnosis tapes — especially the kind that is designed to cover up some kind of irritating sound, like a binaural beat, that is supposed to be good for you — only this less inspired or well developed. I could generally figure out what he was getting at with the music but it never quite got there. The lighting design by Dylan Phillips, similarly, was well intentioned but not quite right. Some foot-lighting that was present throughout was good but almost everything else was generally too bright for the space, especially with the white walls and light-gray floor. Specials using a set of motorized LED head lights were particularly harsh and the coolness of the whites from them left the dancers looking anemic too often for me to believe that it was supposed to look that way. I also found my eyes stinging for a good bit of the hour as the people on either side of me stifled coughs or sniffles as something seemed to be burning. I was concerned by the end that one of the footlights might be singing something and might cause a fire.
Even with all of that, this was a strong staging of an excellent work of art. I also really appreciate the professionalism that the Lucky Penny brings to all of their works, not just in the stage production but also in the treatment of the audience. They’re good about asking people to be considerate of others and not use their phones during performances and they’re very good at starting on time or explaining why if they aren’t. It amazes me how few local productions seem to respect their audiences enough to do these simple things. I wish that this hadn’t been the last performance of the work so that I could recommend that everyone go and see it if they haven’t already. I know that I’d love to see it again, if I could.
Hopefully Beckham will revisit the work in a few years. It is a shame that so few local artists are willing to stand by their past works long enough to restage, and maybe even update them, as time goes by. That said, I recognized some parts of it as being at least very similar to a work that she put together in 2015 to accompany an installation by Dana Haugaard called “Now, More Than Ever.” Indeed, the mirrors and some of the sound-scape — especially the bits with the deep bass reverberations — seem to recollect that installation, as well, and Haugaard was actually involved in the scenic design. Perhaps Beckham was already revisiting an older piece after all. If so, the year and a half that it spent percolating in her mind seems to have led to a well formed, fully realized and polished work and I’m very glad that I got to see the end result.