It begins with storytelling, a dark fairytale to set the tone—one from the Brothers Grimm about a defiant little girl who doesn’t know her place– so God kills her. This tale is told in whispers and grunts first by Dani Brown in a deconstructed zombie glitching style, then later in its original German by Susan Sachsse with the zeal of a cabaret host. It doesn’t just set the macabre tone for the scenes that unfold, it’s also the heart of this deconstructed dance/theater show—a confrontational query spun to the audience about free will and freedom itself—and how the rules of such a birthright seem to differ depending on the color of your skin or the gender you were assigned at birth.
Following her award-winning work Minor Matter, Ligia Lewis (director, choreographer) performed with her ensemble in Water Will (in Melody) at the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art this past week with this stunning, ground-breaking presentation that explores complex issues and themes around colonization, race and gender.
The show combines dance, storytelling, narrative, a complex soundscape (S. McKenna) and even a postmodern take on mime to electrify its audience. The modern costuming (Sowrong Studio) of latex-like materials and plastic mixed with the often abstract layers of music and sound create a futuristic and cinematic nightmare vibe with a heavy Blade Runner aesthetic, which is supported by the stark lighting (Ariel Efraim Ashbel). In one intense scene, with repetitive loops, blank expressions and robotized motions that create horrifying tableaus of helplessness and victimization, a scenario of bondage, masturbation and rape arises. The performers traverse time to imply the generational trauma that is being revived by misogynistic and racist policies bent on dehumanizing women of color and women in general in a hierarchical manner. Those motions create a hair-raising sensation among the audience, a dawning realization of being implicit in the violence and objectification of bodies as our gaze stands in for those who have brutalized and objectified throughout history and who continue to do so. The confrontation it implies is that just by existing in this society we cannot escape the role we play in the propagation of such injustices.
Lewis’ work is full of tableau-like imagery as in one heartbreaking moment, we gaze upon a lifeless body washed up on the shore. The movement quality of Lewis and her dancers is intentionally awkward and grotesque at times, as if they were bodies possessed and not their own, broken zombies traversing a hopeless landscape looking for their people and their world. The movement subtly calls upon black dance culture at times, revealing the echo of our colonialist attitudes (and our relentless gaze) that remain in our collective consciousness with remnants of minstrel and cakewalks. The character that seems to be fully embodied is Titilayo Adebayo’s, the dancer who occasionally deconstructs mime in a desperate manner to communicate wordlessly the most obscure of messages to us. Although her messages are inscrutable, her emotions and motions are clear and earnest, both pleading and demanding, and her movements become a sort of sign language we as the audience are not fluent in—painfully pointing out a communication gulf that cannot be traversed.
Words and text do pop up in the show, the most notable among them being the phrase “Whitey must die,” which is projected on the back wall in one scene and which Lewis methodically repeats for a few beats. In an after-talk post performance, Lewis spoke eloquently about the themes of the show, including that particular line, which she says is indicative of the need for white supremacy to end in order for society to move forward.
Using projections, reflecting surfaces, mists and echoes, a dream/nightmare level of abstraction permeates the entire non-linear performance, although it is not without a grotesque humor in moments of mime and word play as well as a brief cheerful jaunt through an Enya song. Water is a constant theme, from dripping noises to waves, to the mist that performers ultimately meet under, finding the first solace and connection as women. As the four performers stare off into the distance, they somehow find each other, physical contact is made, and they pile up together in a heap, finding common ground through contact and perhaps the only glimmer of hope that sisterhood and community can lend us—togetherness.
Water Will (in Melody) played January 30-February 1. See future MCA events here.