Archived: November 1, 2011
At each corner of a darkened stage, a dancer holds a torch. As they stand there, they illuminate a couple dancing to an aria by Vivaldi. On the back wall is a huge white board, punctured with evenly spaced pins; they cast shadows like sundials.
This is the primordial opening of Wayne McGregor’s FAR, which had its U.S. premiere at Montclair State University last weekend. The work borrows its name from Flesh in the Age of Reason, a book by Roy Porter that engages with Enlightenment beliefs about the relationship between body, mind, and soul. In early modern Europe, the soul was thought to reside within the body, but as the 18th century progressed and scientists sliced open cadavers, the idea of a disembodied soul took shape. The opening pas de deux of FAR suggests this divide. The choreography for the two dancers (Daniela Neugebauer and Paolo Mangiola), who are dressed in scraps of flesh-colored cloth, is physical and sometimes contentious, but at the same time strangely distant: there are points in the piece where one will press a hand to the other’s body (a foot, a throat, a forehead), yet gaze away, face affectless.
McGregor, hardly one to shy away from intellectual debates in his work, has channeled these century-old theories into 21st-century dancing bodies. While creating FAR, he invited cognitive scientists—modern day recipients of Enlightenment philosophy—to his rehearsal studio, where they took notes on his creative process helped dancers to overcome physical limitations. Their influence on FAR is visible: at the end of the opening section of the piece, the smooth operatic voice disintegrates into static noise, and the pins are filled with cold, bluish light that flashes and fritzes like synapses firing.
Tracking the changes of this light board (designed by Lucy Carter and rAndom International) is often more interesting than the movements of the dancers. Sometimes, faint lines appear, connecting the points at random; sometimes light emanates from a single luminous pin. When the stage becomes bathed in a jaundiced orange, numbers appear like those on a digital clock, increasing inexorably with every beat of sound. Soon after, light whispers across across the board, bulbs switching on and shorting out as if inhabited by a ghostly presence; and then the numbers return and spiral downward from a million with terrifying speed.
The choreography, meanwhile, feels less transcendent. This is not to say the dancers move robotically; far from it. At several points in the piece, they convey human relationships with gritty realism—often violent and sexual. At other points, dancers seem to wrestle with their own, individual demons: two curl up like unbreachable stones, balanced on the balls of their feet; one man freezes with his leg bent behind him, ankle circling contemplatively. There is a wonderful part of the final pas de deux where Alexander Whitley crooks his elbow so that his lower arm juts out horizontally from his body and Catarina Carvalho rotates slowly in the space he has created for her.
Yet when Carvalho collapsed to her back and the white screen rose up (a soul transcending the physical world in death?) I realized that I felt that the soul of the piece had resided in the board the whole time. There’s something about McGregor’s choreography that, despite the very human interactions he delineates, feels a bit studied. It’s the difference between reading theories about human behavior and absorbing the poetry human beings write. In this piece, I (like those 18th-century philosophers) can try to rationalize the gulf between academic interest and my lack of a physical, visceral reaction. Perhaps this is McGregor’s point, what he wants us to see. Yet I remain a skeptic.