The politics of enchantment | Byron Woods | Indy Week
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Playing with art

The politics of enchantment 

"In the moment we live in, fear, doubt and all kinds of emotions in the negative affective range are being put to use politically. We need to challenge that by saying, 'There is another way of being in the world. There is Hope. Joy. Wonder--and play.'"

The words are Annissa Clarke's. She and Elizabeth Nelson are the co-creators of Elements: An Enchantment , a fusion of installation art, audience participation and theater presented tonight through Saturday at UNC's Swain Hall.

The company promises an unconventional experience--an "immersive performance/installation/happening" where the audience is invited "to play inside this enchanted environment, where the elements of the everyday find new life."

What's the big idea? "Co-opting Disneyland for our own devious purposes," Clarke chuckles during our conversation last week. "Radicalizing the theme-park or the funhouse aesthetic."

"Hopefully there'll be a sort of 'Alice' quality to it," says Clarke. If past accomplishments are any indication, she's likely to achieve it. A respondent to her thesis show termed the work "the closest sober experience to an acid trip."

There's no opening curtain as such; people are welcome to arrive anytime between 8 and 10 p.m. During the work, audience members may journey down a series of paths, through created environments based on the themes of earth, air, fire, water and metal. They can participate in events and activities engaging all of the body's senses--taste included: "There are edible pieces to this performance," Clarke says, grinning. A beaded waterfall and a cave are two of the locales people will encounter while meandering down the work's different paths.

But why are serious artists like Nelson and Clarke--both last seen in Wordshed's coal-mining performance-documentary Out of the Dark--devoting so much time to enchantment and play?

"The most active forces in our culture right now are all about not thinking, not slowing down, not stopping to look and feel and know," Clarke says. "We forget there are other modes of being, other ways to engage--I'd say we are lead to forget.

"Though Elizabeth and I have done a lot of overtly political work, and we're very conscious of art as activism, this show is less overtly political," Clarke notes. "Still, a different kind of encounter with the world can be potentially transformative--and that can definitely be political. And we do want to subvert some of the fear, some of the negativity that really draws a particular political vision."

"It's easy to inflate what art is and can do," Clarke admits. "But there's something real about taking that time, that engagement--for a group to partake in something, not just passively receive it," Clarke says. "For me, right now, it feels like the most active potential for changing the world."

Clarke and Nelson invite you to come and play, this weekend in Swain Hall.

Not all artistic arguments work out this well. But Raleigh's Bickett Gallery hosted two staged--and pronounced--differences in opinion last weekend in a late night showcase that bodes well for the upcoming year in dance. Throughout 2005, dancer/choreographer Renay Aumiller and associates curated a series of bi-monthly showcases featuring a new generation of young dance artists at the Bickett, a heartening trend that gallery founder Molly Miller confirmed will continue: Next new modern dance night at the Bickett is March 4--and if the work is anything like the caliber of this performance, you'll want to be there.

The headliner was love-joy diver, a duet by Megan Mazarick and Les Rivera which premiered last year at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Regional dance insiders might recognize Mazarick's name as a UNC-G dance graduate at ADF in recent summers; currently she's working on her masters at Temple. Rivera, her partner, is a long-time dancer with hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris.

(Harris comes to town himself this weekend when his company, Puremovement, presents Facing Mekka at Duke's Reynolds Theater, Jan. 21.)

In this multi-movement piece, the couple quickly moves from a hip-hop recital of industrial-grade pop, lock and mechanical isolation and compactor moves to disclose the interior rooms of a relationship. In one humorous section, the pair escalates a growing conflict between them by striking increasingly aggressive hip hop poses to individual notes of a song they hum together: "Hey Jude."

Submerged agendas are further examined in a sequence where both begin by "correcting" each other's positions on stage--interventions that mutate into increasingly graphic and insistent sexual manipulations.

One section, in which Rivera's character displays his best moves to an indifferent, alienated Mazarick, got laughs but made its point well before a demonstration of the hip-hop equivalent of dying of thirst in the desert.

Mazarick's responding sequence was a more ambiguous look at multi-cultural art and bi-racial relationships. After a heckler on tape says her break dance "looks more like broke dance," Mazarick freezes, trembling, at midstage when the voice says--and repeats--"Now you have to serve him." As the uncomfortable stillness continues, the voice says, "Now this is more like it."

In the opening work, a duet with Aumiller called Wasted Time , Ashlee Ramsey continued her recent experiments in choreographed sense deprivation. While Aumiller moved slowly at midstage with her eyes closed, extending arms, legs and torso in different directions, Ramsey carefully defined the space around her. As the pair shifted roles several times, their blind and sighted movements became more rapid, more adventurous.

Given what had come before, their first hard collision caught the audience audibly off-guard. The moment ultimately proved the first in a series of fascinating and escalating conflicts, as dancers took what appeared to be contact improvisation into a realm more resembling martial arts. Ramsey and Aumiller used palms, knees, elbows and feet to forcefully meet and push away what they came in contact with. The pair repeatedly scissored one another with raised arms and the upper parts of their torsos, before a denouement in which Ramsey's character held Aumiller's non-responsive body on the floor in a near-quote of the Pieta. Clearly, some arguments don't end until someone gets hurt.

We can't see Agnes of God with the same eyes--or, on at least one level, the same innocence--that audiences viewed it with in 1982. This in itself is ironic: While a play about a cloistered--and pathological--sexuality in a convent played on Broadway, systemic sexual abuse was actually taking place in a number of Catholic churches across the United States. We just didn't find out about it until much later.

In a world repulsed by the damning evidence of corruption and cover up in the Church, how is this production--or the version opening at Raleigh Ensemble Players three weeks from now--to avoid the feel of a twice-told tale?

In this production, it doesn't. I'm not convinced that any version can. The sordid familiarity which accompanies this work is now the burden--though not the fault--of its actors and director.

Doesn't the audience--and the world itself--currently occupy Dr. Livingstone's position in the play? Under Jordan Smith's direction, Rachel Klem's psychiatrist is a spiritual amputee: a woman whose missing beliefs constitute a cold, near-monolithic absence--but one regularly punctuated by ghostly twinges from something no longer there. Lenore Field ably brings to life a mother superior equally desperate for something to believe. Though Melissa Lozoff's Agnes is enigmatic, more than once we question its depth.

In the end, that feeling of something missing haunts this work, to its core. Is that something in the play, the production--or in us all at this point? I really cannot say.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

  • Playing with art

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