‘Stages’ is a four-part performance installation curated by Friidom as a showcase of the different emotional stages one goes through after getting a diagnosis of cancer; and sometimes its inevitable outcome. Friidom (pronounced freedom) is Darrel ‘Friidom’ Dunn, the emcee and curator of this particular group of performers on this particular night at the Odyssey Theatre on Sepulveda Blvd. Note ‘curator,’ not choreographer, as Friidom proclaimed he was not responsible for any of the movement that his compatriots displayed during the evening, but only the overall idea of the showcase. Friidom also did not want to call the evening a performance but instead wanted the audience to remain open and be present to the sharing of emotions from his group.
The piece opened in a very casual manner with Friidom moving throughout the space checking on the set which consisted of four boxes upstage facing the audience and four chairs center stage facing each other. As this was happening a voice over by Friidom was reciting different bits of philosophy gently urging the audiences’ thoughts towards our own limited lifespans and shared humanity. Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy of ‘To be or not to be…’ was soon followed by ‘Controlling others is power, controlling one’s self is ultimate power,’ and then ‘It isn’t aware of its greatness, therefore it is truly great.’ All food for thought. Friidom was then accompanied by two of his compatriot dancers, Tai Ryan and Enom ‘Wulf’ Clayton who acted as intermediaries for the piece and introduced us to the different soloists for each section. At one point Ryan comes downstage to show an audience member what looks like an X-ray photograph. Ryan and Clayton both have intricate movement sequences ably done and then retire upstage to stand on two of the boxes framing Friidom in the center. This was a very powerful image reminiscent of the imperturbable gaze of the Colossi of Memnon or two celestial guardians watching over their human charge. Friidom tells us that this showcase is in response to his very personal experience of recently losing his mother to cancer of the gall bladder and the effect that has had on his entire family. This all transpired during the ‘Diagnosis’ section of the piece.
The rest of the cast enters, and the dancers sit on the boxes facing the audience while the musicians sit in the chairs facing each other creating a more intimate square space on stage center. This is illuminated by a down-center light focusing our attention. The ‘Treatment’ section is a solo by the eminently bendable Madaline ‘Mad Linez’ Riley whose double-jointed shoulders allow for a visually disarming quality of movement perfectly describing the difficult discomfort of treatment. This was a compelling solo reflecting the pain and angst both physical and emotional of cancer treatment.
The next section was ‘Remission’ performed by Alyse Rockett. It begins very slowly with tentative movements which grow to more pronounced full-body contortions complete with frustrating silent screams. The unknowable future and uncertain condition of the treatment was beautifully rendered by Rockett in this section. It should also be noted that the choice of music throughout the entire piece was exquisite. The beautiful strings in the accompaniment perfectly served the depth of emotion being conveyed in each section.
In the next section, ‘Unchained,’ Zion ‘NoiZ’ Elamin begins by kneeling with both arms chained up to his sides as if connected to two pillars or posts. This image alone stands as a brutally stark testament to slavery as well as present and contemporary injustice. It is an extremely powerful solo enacted so compellingly by Elamin that the visuals are a gut punch to the senses and make one weep for humanity. He also has a moment of silent scream which makes the blood run cold. The open vulnerability of these performers is remarkable, and all are united in their emotional attachment to the work. Having the other soloists and musicians sit in a close square all watching each other added to the intimacy of the evening.
At this point, the musicians stand and take their places stage left with their instruments while Friidom invited the audience to get up from their seats and join the musicians onstage for a freeform improvised movement circle should the spirit move one. And it did. There were more than a few who took the opportunity to just go with the music and share what they were feeling in that moment with the rest of us. It was brave and cathartic at the same time. In this way the performers became an audience for the public and there was an absolutely shared experience onstage as every person was part of the circle. Friidom definitely got his point across when he asked us to be present and join in the shared experience of the showcase. And by the way, that is what theater is for, is it not?
To learn more about Darrel “Friidom” Dunn, please click HERE.
To learn more about the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, please visit their website.
Written by Brian Fretté for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: STÄGES at the Odyssey Theatre – Photo by Darrel “Friidom” Dunn and Destini Moore