Interior Design Nov 6, 2009

by Mike P

Diana Szeinblum comes to Seattle with Alaska, a dance theater work that is as heavy as it is light, as aggressive as it is quiet, as mysterious as it is ordinary. It is a lot of contradictory things. It's perhaps an illumination of the fragmented spaces that are in everyone's minds, silent one moment and thunderous, another. It's a beautiful work that's a lot like walking into someone's lonely room unseen and seeing thoughts that you probably weren't supposed to read, watching moments unfold that you probably have no business knowing. A feeling of dread, despair, loss, and recapture that is at once somber, frightening, and fascinating.

I won't talk too much about what has been said about Szeinblum and her work with the great Pina Bausch, but I will say that this connection is certainly present and that Szeinblum is making compelling work that is inspiring to watch. The performance very much feels like an invitation into each individual dancer's personal space, their introspective viewpoint made flesh with their body. It's like we're all tiny visitors burrowing under their skin, admiring the wallpaper but   noticing where it's starting to crack. The dancers are spectators as much as they are participants or vessels of information. (Also, I love an onstage coffeemaker.) I will say, though, that I was expecting fiercely violent movement, that dreamy, cathartic, visceral and emotional punch in the face; a brutality of movement, assault to the senses.

Maybe I'm just a theatrical sadist - maybe I just like 'ugly' movement, sloppy sequences, a little roughness and rawness in my performances. Maybe I just hope that happens every time I go to the theater... Alaska, for me, contained these spurts of energy, though not so much brutal or fierce. I saw grotesqueness in provocative shapes, but with an almost tentative energy, a heightened restraint; a strange and bizarre tension, that exists perhaps in fractured memory or situational detachment, a palpable introspection and self-consciousness that reminded me of the waiting room at the doctor's office or the time and space to allow your eyes to adjust to a darkened room. It was a pleasant surprise which reminds me, as radical of a theater-goer I think I am - that I, too, can be bogged down by pre-conceived notions and ideas. Much of the movement in the piece is about isolation, almost to a literal sense. Limbs, bellies, feet, elbows, knees, locking and interlocking, breaking apart, observed, manipulated, shaped grotesquely; bodies long suffocating memories, only now spilling out trauma and sorrow in measured strokes (words) experiencing the memories once more in physical form.

Looking at what things could have happened, how it all fell apart. There was a stifled desperation that was bubbling under the surface. It felt buoyant, close to breaking through, but with each passing repetition pushing it deeper within yet further from my reach. The live music was effective - especially the viola. I played violin for 15 some years, and the viola was always an unusual instrument for me to hear - it always sounds 'wrong' for some reason. But it can soar to the screeching heights of the violin and plummet to the gutteral moans of the cello. A great choice for this work. I was surprised at when the audience laughed during the show. Twice. I didn't think either moment was funny. I wonder if that happens at all the performances, or if this was an isolated incident. I don't want to spoil it, but please do not ask a stupid question...

The dancers performed the work with skill and precision, but I wished the execution was more out of control. In general, the Body is a performer's #1 tool, and Memory is #2. But for me, memories are muddled, confusing, messy, out of control; attributes that are diametrically in opposition to everything we're taught as performers. On the flip side, this inhibition can be a good thing - because what's really exhilarating is the anticipation of the moment where it snaps, when memory and emotion come flooding out. And then what do you do?