“When the thought comes at last
that people fall apart, that the things we do
will not do. Ends. Then, we come to scenes
like this. This scene of you.”

—Leon Stokesbury, “To Laura Phelan: 1880-1906”

“[T]he worst is not so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.'”

—Shakespeare, King Lear

Durham, NC – It was a rainy Tuesday morning in November, 2008. I’d crawled out of bed a little after 6:00 AM to grab a quick shower and breakfast before heading off to my job at the time, as a one-person high-school drama department in a dwindling former mill town in northern North Carolina. The bathroom was steamy with hot water. I’d stepped in the tub and was reaching for the shampoo, when something strange happened.

My right arm. It wasn’t working anymore. It wouldn’t lift and carry my hand toward the bottle in the corner, just above my head.

It didn’t hurt, as I recall. It was just no longer functional. 

Was I having a stroke? Fighting a growing sense of panic, I soon learned that my lower arm was able to move and lift things, more or less normally; only the upper part remained more or less inert. With some effort and exploration, I found that I was able to use different sets of muscles to flesh out an unexpected sort-of modern dance with my lower arm leading the way: a series of strange, corkscrew parabolas that arced upward, indirectly, until I could reach the shampoo. Similar improvisations got me washed, dried, clothed, fed, and off to the doctor. 

The cause, she found, was fraying tendons around my rotator cuff. After months of lugging a heavy briefcase – whose g-forces only increased when I swung it back and forth – the soft tissues in my upper arm had had it, and were taking a part of my body fundamentally offline. It literally no longer worked; it could no longer do what I was asking of it. 

So, there was a shock of recognition when the poignant final sequence of could be worse, choreographer Anna Barker‘s discursive, sometimes scattershot new work which premiered in Durham last weekend, reminded me of those bewildering moments of improvisation in the face of a sudden physical disability. 

2 women in black, colorful cloth at their feet

Photo Credit: Erin Bell/Bull City Photography
Choreographer Anna Barker and Leah Wilks, in real.live.people’s could be worse.

It’s far more likely, though, that the dance insiders among the capacity crowd at Walltown Children’s Theatre were experiencing some shocks of their own, well before that, as Barker and her artistic partner Leah Wilks roasted a number of beloved – or barely tolerated, in some quarters – long-time conventions in popular, ballet, and modern dance.

But for the vocally appreciative audience, the addled rewind through the art form’s catalog of aesthetic absurdities was repeatedly leavened with some of the tougher home truths learned during the years of the pandemic lockdown, when group creations, rehearsals, and performances ground to a halt. There was a haunting familiarity as well to schismatic moments of dissociation and isolation in which two people were alone, together, on stage. 

The work marked a welcome return for real.live.people, the company Barker created with Wilks ten years ago, after an extended absence from live performance. The lockdown era had already begun while the choreographer was on hiatus to create her feature-length film, Level Up, which premiered in 2021. In all, six years had passed since real.live.people’s last live work. According to Barker, could be worse slowly came into being during the last three of them.

Still, the entire time could hardly be considered a gestational period. During 2020 and 2021, the coronavirus was killing over 800,000 Americans, and the live arts had descended into all but total eclipse. Creators in that period had no notion when, how – or even if – public performance might ever return. 

In pre-production interviews, Barker and Wilks described feeling disconnected from their dance practice during the period, deliberately avoiding what Barker termed the “very hollow” live-streaming efforts of that time. After an early burst of pre-pandemic work, much of the rest was created in an environment where no one knew what future it had, or if it had any future at all.

Still, in that long intermission, there was plenty of time to ruminate on practices and focuses that had been entrenched in dance in the Before Times, and their sources in the culture.  

There was plenty to criticize about them. 

It was unsurprising, then, that Barker and Wilks weren’t waiting backstage for audiences to show up for Friday and Saturday’s shows. They were already on the floor as we entered. The show was already on, as they danced among the discards: the shed skins of dance costumes from shows of yore – a multi-colored marsh of gendered ideations in starched tulle, tutus, chiffon, spandex, sequins, and polyester, haphazardly heaped in a less than magic circle around the pair. There was subliminal dissonance in their own garb, whose white mock turtlenecks over thigh-high skirts misdirected us from the adhesive bandages on Barker’s legs.

As oleaginous ultra-lounge music oozed from the speakers, they micro-minced in subtle, hip-based gyrations, a seeming throwback to the stylings of TV variety show choreographers from the 1970s and ’80s.  

The grins on their faces were nearly carnivorous. The absurd two-hand heart emojis they made slowly roamed across their torsos and hips, before they turned into viewfinders when placed around their eyes, and crowns – well, that or antlers – when their hands splayed open atop their heads. Throughout all, they never took their eyes off of us as we took our seats.

So no, we shouldn’t have felt exactly welcome, at home, or loved here – even with the emojis. That’s because we were being confronted with a detailed facsimile of choreographic entertainment from yesteryear and being scrutinized as we consumed it. It, and we, were both being interrogated – reason enough to take none of it at face value.

From that point, whenever Barker and Wilks turned cards – or costumes – over, disclosures shortly followed.

When the heaps of dance garb were redistributed (all but swamping Wilks in the process), an unlikely corps de ballet was revealed underneath: eight children’s Bozo punching bags, with one leaking, listing seriously to port. After she flung it upstage with a determined grimace, Barker continued with her semi-solo, with flying arms and roundhouse legs repeatedly sending her “partners” sprawling in all directions (almost upending her as well), as an instrumental, easy-listening version of Sinatra’s “My Way” played in counterpoint.

Repeatedly, Barker and Wilks segued between formulated, winsome or balletic figures and the sharp, fierce and surprising architecture of modern movement research. Then, as often as not, Barker dropped the curtain and exposed the nonaesthetic, needful – and fallible – physical superstructures required to make them. Throughout, the choreographer never let us lose sight of momentary expressions of sometimes more than aerodynamic grace – or the ungainly human bodies that could only occasionally achieve them. 

Case in point: after Barker butt-scooted across stage to form a blithe bookend pose with Wilks in a section set to the theme from Midnight Cowboy, a bandage behind her right knee, compromised by sweat, kept flapping in the air as she enacted synchronized leg lifts with her partner: a pitch-perfect exemplar, intentional or not, of the schism in trying to make art in a living human form.

But if making art is hard in the human form, the struggle to keep making it is even more daunting. We see this in the final sequences of could be worse

Barker and Wilks have just run a gauntlet set to Ravel’s Bolero, one in which a toneless AI voice has listed the dozens of jobs that both have had to do over the years to continue making dance, since neither professional dancemaker can make a living solely by their art. When the words “petsitter” and “landscaper” are placed alongside “teacher of children” and “end of life companion,” a Sartrean flattening-out occurs, as we glimpse how all these positions, along with that of “artist,” may be comparatively valued, devalued – or valueless – in our culture.

The pursuit of all of these, and the list of commodities and prices voiced afterward, has the dancers literally running in circles by the end. The metaphor could hardly be more pointed; persisting as an artist can be an act of endurance art in itself.

A sweating, spent Wilks stopped for air, her left knee bent as she lifted that leg to a right angle at the hip. Slowly, the dancer bent her head and torso forward, and her head came down, momentarily, to rest on the leg: a moment of respite, and the ongoing lack thereof, in the same gesture.

Wilks then straightened up, took a break to the back curtain, and returned to the work at center stage again. Standing sideways before us, both arms windmilling. 

Then something happened. The upstage, right arm, couldn’t make a full circle. Wilks’ character noticed, and urged it again. 

The problem persisted. There was a weakness in her right arm and hand. 

Showing no emotion, Wilks changed and made the gesture gentler. The weakness was no longer visible. The arm and hand complied; what was a sweeping transit was now a graceful release and letting go.

There’s no fixed, no permanent answer to the question, “What can my body still do?” 

I caught a glimpse of this, that morning in 2008. Recently, I’ve had several increasingly specific reminders as well.

There’s a sharpness to the jokes Barker draws on in her work. I can only guess some of the reasons this is so, but one I’m fairly certain of.

A body that may no longer function begs a reckoning: 

What’s been done? Did it achieve? What was it for? 

It is a serious thing when a life’s work – or an art form – is weighed in those scales and found wanting.

Both appear to be the case, in sections of could be worse.