New Age of Anxiety
What we imagine is usually far more gruesome than what we experience—horror movie directors rely on this truism—but occasionally experience is horrible beyond our worst imaginings. The dance theater piece "Tense Dave" plays these two possibilities off one another and holds us—along with its protagonist, Dave —in a sustained state of tension like a tightened guitar string. The title alone was enough to pique my interest, but add that the piece plays out on a large, revolving lazy susan contraption, and you've really got me intrigued.
This latest work by the Australian contemporary dance company, Chunky Move, has just concluded its New York run at Dance Theater Workshop and will appear in Durham, NC (June 20-22) and Jacob's Pillow (June 30-July 3). "Tense Dave" is a collaboration between the company's artistic director, Gideon Obarzanek, choreographer, Lucy Guerin, and theater director, Michael Kantor, and obviously, it's about anxiety. What's unexpected—given the technical challenges of executing movement on a revolving platform, and the creative challenge of melding three artistic visions into one—is that it's so good. With five extraordinary performers: Kristy Ayre, Brian Carbee, Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas and Luke Smiles, the creators have made a masterful hour of sound, movement and emotion revolving around fear of what might happen if we engage with the people around us, and the price we pay if we don't. Obarzanek, Guerin and Kantor take us on a ride as expert in its execution as it is exhausting in its content, but what could have been a dance theater piece built around a fancy gimmick is a cogent and poignant rumination on modern angst.
The piece begins in the dark as a large wooden disk taking up most of the stage space slowly begins to turn clockwise with a reluctant squeaking groan. Standing panels divide the disk into five pie-like sections, and there's an ominous hum as each empty wedge rumbles by. A rough cut-out in each panel allows a single bare bulb to dangle, forlorn and undisturbed. Eventually, Dave appears out of the murk like a lone figure on a dreary carousel. We can just make out his taut, worried face, but it's clear he's very tense indeed. Twisting his shirt into a nervous knot, Dave is the hapless Everyman terrified of what he imagines behind the thin walls that shield him from his unseen neighbors. The circle trundles round revealing those neighbors one after another and we are made voyeurs peering into the gloom of desperate lives. There's a fetishist photographing his shoes with erotic intensity, a young woman attempting to lose herself in the convoluted plot of a Victorian novel while donning an 18th century dress, guzzling wine and playing the piano, a wan neurotic play-acting at suicide in her cramped iron bed, and a creepy psychotic repeatedly holding plastic bags over his head to disturbing effect. As glimpses of these five twisted lives pass by, our gaze is directed—much like in a film—precisely where the creators want it, and the pieces fall into a larger picture of intense loneliness and fear. This is a cinematic approach to theater and it's startlingly powerful.
Believe it or not, there's humor in all this dysfunction and despair. Dave stumbles into the lives of his neighbors only to be slapped, shot at, tackled and strangled in a Chaplinesque display of linked action that is very, very funny. And as the piece opens up—the panels are mobile and are manipulated by the performers throughout—the different characters are mined for their humor as much as for their neurosis. We see the romantic swept through breast-heaving plot twists of her novel as the performers do an exaggerated lip-synch to narration in plummy British tones. And there's a brilliant sequence when, to sounds of ringing steel and cheesy kung fu movie effects, the dancers are Crouching Tiger cum Matrix-like automatons who skewer, dismember, and decapitate each other with hilariously efficient brutality. It's dark humor, but funny nonetheless.
The thrust of the piece, however, is the darkness and desolation of alienation. Dave partners the neurotic woman—painfully vulnerable in a white nightgown—in a pas de deux with a wall between them. We see them tentatively sensing each other's presence as they touch the same spot on either side of the wall. The woman presses her face to its surface as though hoping to soak through and meet Dave's hand on the other side. And when she grasps the sides of the wall, crawling upwards as Dave lowers the panel down on to himself, we desperately want them to connect, if only for the briefest touch. Our own anxiety would lessen if these two sad people could get some relief, but it's futile and they never meet. Ultimately, Dave is left alone without even a protective wall.
In a final twist of the knife, the four characters return in flashy Vegas style to a peppy recording of Judy Garland exhorting us to "Get Happy." They move from kick lines to June Taylor floor formations aggressively pushing Dave to join in the fun. But Dave is damaged. The more he tries to sing alleluia, the more obvious it becomes he's traumatized even by the insistence to lighten up. The music fades and the dancers are all over him in a final sadistic fury. He's yanked from position to position until he stiffens into a primal scream; shoulders hunched, fists clenched and mouth stretched wide. They lay him on his side like a rejected board and leave him there frozen in agony as the revolve goes slowly round. When the circle stops the silence settles heavily until Dave takes a breath and relaxes into an exhausted slump. We release a collective sigh of relief as he gathers himself into a sitting fetal position and looks warily about, waiting for the next blow. And the inevitable blow comes; the revolve creaks into motion again —counter-clockwise this time. Dave stands and walks treadmill style, getting nowhere with grim resignation.