You can tell it’s an election year because of the dualities in the air. “I’m for doing this, but that guy is for doing that.”
It’s obvious why political discourse is so full of these statements of polar opposition. Opposites are simple. Even babies get “either/or.” This is why there are nearly as many “opposites” books in the toddler section of the bookstore as there are those listing colors or letters of the alphabet. Something is either in or out, black or white. It’s either day or night. It can’t be day and night at the same time.
Frequently, artists use the rhetorical simplicity of opposites to make it easier to see form. In the case of dance, it’s movement. Vertigo Dance’s Mana, choreographed by Noa Wertheim with stage and costume design by Rakefet Levy, employs a spare, white stage with a single architectural element—the generalized side of a house—and dark, tunic-like costumes to clarify the dancers’ movements against the pale backdrop.
The movement itself is far from simple. The solos, the partner sequences and the delightfully morphological ensemble dances all are multifaceted, sometimes contradictorily so. Oppositions of light and dark, slow and fast, and up and down come into play in the choreography, and the staging keeps the movement crisply visible. However, the dancing explores liminal spaces between opposites—both physical and ontological—and ultimately speaks to the unknowability of being.
Athletic and restless, Wertheim’s movement is always at least two things at once. Opposites exist simultaneously. Unison movement by the entire company looks like both a military unit training and a celebration ritual. Partners find an ambiguity between embracing and pushing the other away.
These uncertainties gradually feed back upon the certainties of the staging. At first glance of the house structure, a viewer assumes that the dancers are either inside or outside the house. But that presumption is eroded over the course of the performance. The housefront moves toward and away from the audience. A central cut-out panel separates from it, receding to make a doorway or coming out at you to become an impediment in the very middle of the stage. They’re always both inside and outside of the house. Or neither of those things.
Frequently achieving a twilight gloaming, the lighting changes angle and intensity throughout the performance, never fully day or night, neither ever conveying a specific time of day. Philosophical dualities can’t be used here. Everything’s mutable, multiple in Mana, which translates from the Aramaic as “vessel of light.”
The evening-length piece, performed at the Durham Performing Arts Center Friday and Saturday nights, has a scenic structure the same as other full-evening performances at ADF this summer. But there’s a crucial difference from Stephen Petronio’s Underland and Monica Bill Barnes’ flowed-together trio of Luster, mostly fanfare, and Everything Is Getting Better All the Time. Instead of choreographing each scene to an anthology of prerecorded songs, as Petronio did with Nick Cave’s music and Barnes did with a soundtrack of Tina Turner, Nina Simone and Otis Redding, Wertheim worked with composer Ran Bagno (who’s also the company’s musical director) to build the music around the choreography.
If the dance comes first, then the scene can move at the pace it needs to, and it can end when it needs to—rather than when Cave or Simone ended their songs on their recordings. Petronio and Barnes subverted their movement and phrasing to the music (beautifully and hilariously, respectively) to pick up on the mass appeal of those recordings that the audience would be familiar with, as well as to summon the tone and image of those specific performers. However, Wertheim retains control over all components of the movement this way, retaining only the episodic structure of a collection of songs for the linear, narrative benefit.
Her control is most evident in the ensemble dances. Up to nine dancers are onstage, most often in no recognizable configuration. Some scattered faction begins to do one kind of laterally oriented movement, while the others begin vertically oriented phrases.
The groups remain in their respective unisons, paced the same so that they’re coherent. Then, after a minute, one dancer changes over from the vertical group to the lateral group. Here and there they switch factions mid-phrase. They’re each part of a group but also an individual, capable of paying attention to others and moving between groups.
This is the central problem of being, isn’t it? Are you unique or socially normed? Do you have a core identity, or are you situationally defined? Just as this question builds and hovers, a woman wearing a black ballerina costume steps around the side of the house with a huge black helium-filled balloon attached to her back by a cord.
Her dreamlike, slightly robotic movements attract one male dancer as the others clear the stage. He approaches hesitantly. She dances around, fallibly, staggering here, falling down there, like a dreamer who doesn’t know how to dream.
This duet is the central episode in Mana, and the male dancer’s handling of the incompetent dreamer posits the central idea. He’s helpful but cautious. He wants to be helpful but he’s also a little afraid. She, meanwhile, is unpredictable and beautiful, struggling beneath the placid balloon. With our unknowable beings, we feel our way from moment to moment through a life.
When the two-faction ensemble dancing returns before the stage finally darkens to pitch, it’s more confident and sure. If the true opposites are me and you, and there’s an infinity between us, then we, proximate unknowables all, can at least console each other as we go. Presence always counts for something.