Project based performance group Acts of Matter, premiered their newest work entitled DISplay at Stomping Ground LA last Saturday night. The space was set with the intention of breaking down the traditional fourth wall, but seating folders chairs around three of the four sides, and bleachers on the remaining square configuration. This staging and direction by founder and artistic director Rebecca Lemme, with the help of understudy, rehearsal assistant and stage manager Natalie Allen, released the pressure one can feel walking into a daunting theater. There’s a certain candor the general public can feel they need to uphold, oftentimes walking into an unknown performance median such as dance, but Acts of Matter tried to ease that feeling the moment you stepped inside.
The program laid out some basic steps on how the evening would unfold. First, the audience members were told to put their program on a seat of choice, then enjoy the emcees’ Qué Bárbaro fun music and vibes. After finding a comfortable spot, and stopping for a drink at the bar, you could visit with folks arriving, visit the merch table, or just simply sit, relax, and admire the atmosphere. It felt like coming early to a house party that was just about to start, and I could feel this was Lemme’s intention all along. Already Acts of Matter was considering dance, outside of just the dancing, and how atmosphere could really add to the experience. This would be true throughout the evening. Qué Bárbaro, a postmodern lounge act by husband and wife team Rob Amjärv and Andrea Sobke, were the perfect combination and addition to DISplay. Andrea quoted an elevator pitch on where to find bathrooms, exit routes, and other safety precautions in the spooky, but warm familiar voice you would get from the beginning of a VHS tape or corporation guidebook. The rigging, by Kate Mason, and lighting plus technical direction, by Bryanna Brock, was extremely well crafted. The space held five different sized disco balls that could be lowered into the space by the dancers themselves on a pulley system from the side.
Movement artists Rebecca Lemme, Meg Madorin, Alexandra Rix, Keilan Stafford, and Danzel Thompson-Stout entered the space as singular performers lined up carrying a disco ball of choice, before attaching it to the rigging system. While there was choreographed group work set on the dancers, I felt the real spark of the piece did not ignite until the contact improvisation between Madorin and Rix. Using their bodies, and eventually the prop and manipulation of a chair, watching the two of them conform into one another was absolutely thrilling. These days, so much improvisation is done by dancers on a social media platform, that it can, depending, fall flat if you’re not in the right mindset. However, viewing live contact improvisation was like falling into love, getting your heart broken, falling for someone else, and repeating this cycle. It is informative, it is belonging, it is living at the present stage of thought and feeling. I only wanted more and more and more. In fact, I would have almost preferred no set choreography at all, and the continuation of contact improv as the base makeup of DISplay.
Eventually Madorin and Rix came to a resting spot, and five to six other audience members volunteered themselves to sit with the performers in a smaller circle on stage facing one another. Introducing musical chairs, the volunteers and performers alike would slowly walk around the chairs, while the audience members would shout words of interest. Andrea Sobke would pick a word, declare that word over the microphone, so the person standing without a chair could improv the word as they interpret it. For example, Lemme was stuck without a chair to sit in, and was given the word “jellyfish.” While Rob Amjärv played sound, Lemme began to squirm and flail her arms about in a playful manner. She even exited the boundaries of the circle and crawled on the floor towards other audience members gently “stinging them” with her fingers, and portraying an electric shock. Another audience member was given a “bobby pin stuck in your hair” and elaborately portrayed someone desperately trying to remove something from their scalp while remaining pin straight mimicking the bobby pin structure. Now, most dancers who receive an educated experience in composition learn this word to dance play as a 101 introduction. But, for some reason exposing this exercising in a dance performance fell into DISplay’s commitment of tearing down that fourth wall and inviting the audience in…so it worked. In fact, I commend Lemme and all the collaborators for successfully enjoying their own process and spreading that joy out into the world. So often, dance will attempt audience interaction with good intention, but it can feel forced or cache; however, Acts of Matter built the audience participation from the beginning. No surprises, no hidden agendas, just dance for dance sake. Just perform for performance sake. Just be here now, because we can. Have an opinion, or do not have an opinion, enjoy or do not enjoy, but the night was clearly built for viewers to make their own decisions.
After musical chairs, and with additional sound by Derrick Paris, the dancers moved into set choreographic configurations with the consistency of improvisation sprinkled in between. Each performer wore black and white layers of clothing, with the top layer removed towards the end of the performance to perhaps reveal or exude the idea that the performers are changed by the experience. And as the dance came to a close, the performers became a little less animated, and a little less extravagant, and seemed to take solace in the dwindling down…as they say, “all good things must come to an end.”
While the company mission aims to reveal and revel in humanity, I feel the revel to be more prevalent in DISplay. Acts of Matter had a successful run of engaging audience members in a new and winsome sort of way, that perhaps did not hit every mark choreographically, but certainly intrigued in the exercise of spontaneous interaction. It has been a while since I watched dance for dance sake, and DISplay brought this idea back to the stage with a performance not to be missed.
For more information about Acts of Matter, please visit their website.
For more information about Stomping Ground L.A., please visit their website.
Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Acts of Matter in Tech Rehearsal for DISplay by Rebecca Lemme – Photo by Maya Umemoto Gorman