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Performing on University of North Carolina's Memorial Hall stage, Carolina Performing Arts welcomed Big Dance Theater to hold a bold conversation centered on literature and movement. Part of the CPA Series, UNC held a one-night-only performance of this multi-dimensional, conversation-starting production.
Pioneered by Annie-B Parson, Big Dance Theater explores how simplicity is interpreted through the lens of age and time. By intersecting uncomplimentary sound, text, and movement, audience members received a unique look into the ways our senses may be more receptive of differences than we think. Performers Paul Lazar, David Dorfman, Elizabeth DeMent, Meg Harper, Bebe Miller, Keith Sabado, Sheryl Sutton, Peggy Pettitt, and David Thomson engaged with audience members to evoke emotions of joy, sadness, content, and perplexity felt throughout the theater.
"Sound is just sound," dancer Lazar stated before the start of the duet. If we can remove our seemingly stuck opinion of the way we think sound and movement should go together, we may become more receptive to the beauty of the art being shown. To help the audience further understand this disorienting concept, the dancers began by playing a game of chance. A playful duet entitled Cage Shuffle: A Duet, got its name from the American composer and music theorist John Cage. Before the duet began, the dancers explained that they'd be moving hand in hand with chance. They'd first be setting their short, pre-choreographed movements to random one-minute stories written by Cage. Each of the 10 stories were randomly shuffled on Lazar's phone and spoken into his and Miller's headphones. Off to the side of the stage, Parson was seen rolling dice and speaking out the randomly rolled number into a microphone. Every number was tied to a location on the stage, or so it seemed. Once the dancers heard which story was playing and which number was called out, they went to their places, began speaking out the story, and proceeded with their movement pieces.
This process was repeated 10 times with a different story, location on stage, and movement piece. What we as an audience determine to be "good" or "bad" was challenged here. It was up to chance to determine if the movements paired well with the story being told. The dance movements were not expert or challenging, however there was no expectation of this, nor was that the point. The movements were mostly made with hand and feet gestures, with the occasional change of facial direction. It was hard to tell just how many different sets of one-minute choreography the two dancers showed us. I caught myself noticing the same movements, but then getting lost in what I predicted to come next. This experience allowed me to relax as an audience member and simply relish in the beauty that was the art. There were times when the audience was audibly in awe of how certain movements would pair up nicely with the story being told. One memorable moment was when a story about a butterfly was being told, and, by chance, the dancers were mimicking a slow flying motion with their hands. The odds of this happening were slim to none, but it was a pleasure to see.
The charming duet reflected why it's important to remove expectations from our perception of art. If we as an audience are too stuck on the story being told, or the movements being made, we may miss the beauty that is the simplicity being witnessed. During one of Cage's stories, the purpose of something that is seemingly "purposeless" was told. Woah, our heads were spinning.
This theme carried into the main company performance, The Road Awaits Us. First premiering in 2017, this piece utilizes theatre and visual text techniques to bring the audience into the setting of a birthday party, clearly indicated by the performer's brightly colored party hats. The rest of the costumes consisted of neutral browns, but there was no need for anything more. Although meant to be a joyful moment of celebration, there was an eerie undertone made possible through the direction of lighting and choice of sounds. The use of a single light to represent the "house's" doorbell was captivating. A mysterious visitor to the birthday party was not expected and added to the eerie undertones. Even by sitting up close, the stage seemed quite vast – a dark void. Due to this choice of lighting, the birthday party seemed to be surpassing levels of time.
The end of the piece encouraged audience participation as visual texts were projected for everyone to read out loud as the company was singing. It felt as though the performers were thanking us for attending their party and witnessing their key life moments. Slowly but surely, each dancer made their way to the back of the stage, where a bright, colorful birthday scene was set up, including balloons and garland. Instead of being an active member of the party, the audience was now witnessing it from far away, where it was untouchable and perhaps a distant memory.
In every sense of the term, this production was avant garde. When it comes to art, it's hard to receive a standing ovation for something that is seemingly confusing and perhaps "purposeless." Despite both pieces being quite avant garde, they were able to manage to keep the audience enthralled and entertained the entire time. Dancers Miller and Lazar were standouts as they held the audience captive through both the duet and main company performance. Every so often, the theater was filled with laughs and happy comments.
Big Dance Theater successfully told a story of interpersonal connection through time. In a single setting, they were able to convey the meaning of purpose in interpersonal connection, which does not age with literal evolving age.