Aug 5, 2011

The Erotics of Doubt


I should have expected it, but I was still impressed -- dancers sure know how to make a salad. I come into their tiny cramped kitchen, and there’s a veritable garden of avocado, arugula, tomato, apple slices, thin sweet dressing & heaps of greenery. This is our version of an after-party at the Berkshire Fringe; there are some clowns there from San Francisco, Jessica Farris of the one-woman show Missing with her incidental cousin, and the dancers from The Erotics of Doubt, all crammed into a mod dorm-room living room & kitchen. With my little bowl of salad, I’m standing in a one-person hallway with three other people, and in gesticulating about how much I love their work I knock a plate of food into the chest of a dancer standing behind me. Later, on the couch, all was forgiven and everyone was talking to each other. I wasn’t taking mental notes, just enjoying myself… as a result, I don’t remember a thing. This was on the night before the dancers left the Fringe festival.
A few hours ago, at the show: “Did you know that bats, termites, and seahorses are the only animals with truly lifelong monogamous relationships?” Two dancers stand on a stark stage, facing the audience. The dancer on the left side, Sarah Konner, iterates this fact calmly. Austin Selden is on the right side of the stage with soft blue eyes that never flinch once. The audience laughs, comfortable.

Cut back to around midnight – now we’re outside on a dark porch, a warm raggedy gathering, moods simmering in warm wine, talking about the amazing moral resilience of bats, termites, and seahorses. I'm standing next to a couple of dancers, conglomerated around the tiny frizzy-haired apex that is Sarah Konner. She says abruptly, with a smile, "It's not true. Completely made up." The fact is, the fact is made up; but it adds a wonderful zing of bestiality to a show about sex more than anything else.

In The Erotics of Doubt, Konner & Selden are out to outline the precious absurdity of human relationships. They are frequent collaborators, though not an actual company, working in this show with a group of other dancers (Catherine Coury, Aidan Feldman, Edith Freyer, Wen Chun Liu, John Pizza, Adam "Fuzzy" Konner, Jordan Risdon, David Schmidt, and Nadia Tykulsker).
They play on tension like an exquisite harp, creating an atmosphere of surrealistic free-associative freedom and potent exploding sexual frustration. There are harsh jagged spasms of movement interspersed with moments of meltingly sweet intimacy. There are high kicks and pointed toes in the mayhem; the ghost of ballet technique sifting through crazy jazz. One particularly wonderful effect, one moment that gives me an adrenaline rush of fear, is when the dancers are patterned out on the floor, flopping & jerking & arching in formation, and they continue these motions for at least ten seconds after stage blackout. The audience is insulated by the environment of heavy breathing and murky commotion, sightless, with no possible defenses. The sound of movement seems to be all around them. There's a touch of Artaud's Theater of Cruelty about it -- a sensibility that comes into play in the final piece (more about that later). The Erotics of Doubt often presses the misplaced sense of security of an audience, whether through disorienting light play or abrupt extreme intimacy.

The images -- character tableaus -- generated in show are often unexpected and always revealing. In Ashamed to Be Balding, a solo piece, Selden emerges as a pathetic, adorable character holding a small box and asking the audience if his tie is on straight. This man is seen crouched on the toilet, eating slips of paper gleefully, leaping around & flinging sheet-music around; but the most sublimely silly moment is when he approaches a tall, thin lamp with burning intense eyes, and begins to... seduce it. He grinds and thrusts towards it, grinning crazily, holding it by the neck and stomping like a fevered savage. The whole piece is a romp through his demons and fantasy worlds, in the sanctuary of his own bathroom. At one still point, he steps into the toilet bowl, turns to look at the lamp, and says, "My socks keep getting wetter! Every time!"... and it's weirdly tragic! The absurdity of it is endearing. His verbal delivery and facial expressions are amazingly, exactly identical every night (I saw the show four times). He has sweat dripping in beads from the nose, his breath is ragged, and he loves it.

John & David have a two-character duet of romping physical intimacy that cements the show together. They appear periodically, between pieces, alone onstage together. They explore each other’s physical limits by wrestling, dancing, tumbling over one another, pulling toes, tearing off clothes. They spar and have lovers’ repartee. In the final performance, they were tangled on the ground and John tried to put his mouth over David’s head. They were both red-faced, the audience was laughing. On some nights, it was more shock and gravitas – some nights were more purely exuberant and delightful. The freedom of improvisation makes it one of the more light-hearted pieces in the show.

Chateau de Silling is a decadent deadly battering ram to the senses, a hothouse of Sodom sex & death, power, rape, manipulation, the final full piece in the show (choreographed by Austin Selden, starring Sarah Konner). It begins as a dancer in red satin strides in majestically, the very picture of power, her fingers stretched out toward the ground being sucked by a gaggle of cowed victims crawling after her. Giovanni Martinelli's "Giovinezza" roars out over the crowd and glints in her eyes as she strides slowly forward with her slurping minions following behind. The red satin dictator elects one of her minions with an application of red lipstick to chase the others around the space, grabbing them and planting gnawing kisses on their necks. As the piece progresses, one pair of dancers ends up in the corner; one knock-kneed & lying the ground, the other straddling her and slowly but surely insinuating rape. There is a tall male dancer with rubber limbs slithering and jerking along the back wall, simpering at his own reflection in a hand-mirror. The red satin dictator luxuriates in sheet after sheet of her cascading black hair in the spotlight. It is an absolutely eerie presentation of scattered episodes of perversity, decadence, sadistic love. 

After this plays out for a while, Sarah Konner enters in a bunched-up white dress, tight lace around her torso, holding a bare-bulbed lamp aloft – the Good Witch. The denizens of the dark scatter from the light like roaches, listening her as she hypnotizes the audience with a slow, politely and perfectly enunciated monologue. She strokes the rape victim up from the floor, pulls her into a jilted waltz, stops suddenly and says, “But my dear little cabbage, mon petit chou, you’ll soon lie ravaged in the morning dew” … and then begins to DANCE, like an epileptic ballerina, whirling all around the terrified scrabbling roaches, voracious for sweat, wiping her hands panting on the pulp of her own lips. She falls on the floor in a series of seizures, her bubbling white ruffle skirt bursting on the floor. It was her last line that made me realize that they were really re-creating the Marquis de Sade’s Sodom: “The Duke is coming… all over your back.”

Curiously, they don’t then all fall on each other in an orgy. There’s so much fear and power-manipulation along with sexual excitement that each dancer fairly explodes when a soppy easy-listening swing fills the space… and there is more ensuing chaos, flailing bodies hurling themselves over & over onto the floor, but each is alone. They are moving to the sound of the music, the thuds, the scraping and heavy breathing. The Good Witch stops in the middle by the light and looks around, gasping & admiring the chaos she has created. They follow her in heaving clusters on the floor, out the door, led by the white light.
The closing image of the show is John & David, holding each other closely and swaying in center-stage to the aftermath schmaltzy droppings of the previous piece's soundtrack. Somehow, after this intricate architecture of human relationships has fallen away and we are left with one closing image of a simple, sincere embrace… it’s heartbreakingly perfect.

I'll admit something -- this show makes me feel hugely lonely. It's true that The Erotics of Doubt is about sex more than anything... which might explain why it's at once so entrancing and so hard to reconcile with. But it nags at my subconscious. I'm not sure if I have still fully processed it. Before the dancers left, I couldn't really do more than thank them for their performance. I was even lonelier in silence. Maybe this feeling of loneliness is just the old loneliness of an audience member, trapped in dark anonymity in the face of something so wonderfully alive; physically longing for a state of bare honesty mixed with what seems to be total physical freedom.

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