The Actors Fund Theater, Brooklyn, NY
December 5, 2015
What happens during sleep is not an unusual subject for art in general, or for the performing arts in particular. In or about 1799, for example, Francisco Goya created a famous etching titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, in which he displays the thoughts (in the form of frightening beasts) invading his mind while he sleeps and has a nightmare. And, of course, both Bellini and Balanchine made a sleepwalker a subject of their versions of La Sonnambula.
In her latest dance, Somnipath, Kristen Klein, Artistic Director and Choreographer of Inclined Dance Project (“IDP”) explores sleep in a manner more akin to Goya. That is, she’s not using sleepwalking as an unusual plot device. Rather, she’s attempting to visualize the physical components of sleep irregularities – ‘normal’ or otherwise – sleepwalking among them. These visualized demons are physical (some with emotional overtones), but they’re monsters just the same.
And she succeeds. Although it is not without flaws, Somnipath, the company’s first evening-length piece, is by far IDP’s most challenging, and most accomplished dance to date.
The dance is divided into three parts: ‘The Day’, ‘The Night’, and ‘The Wake Up’. Each part features Klein’s somewhat idiosyncratic choreographic formula of quirky movement combined with angularity, all cradled within an overall sense of lyricism and structural balance. And even though at times it’s too much of a good thing, one of Klein’s goals, and that of her company of six women, is to keep their audience engaged and entertained. She succeeds in this respect as well.
‘The Day’ is an introduction to the main event – but it stands on its own as part reflection, part serio-comic send-up, of working for a living in an urban environment. As the piece begins, the stage is relatively dark, and the background sound resembles amplified agitated heartbeats. Three dancers emerge from the wings, dance in sync with the sounds and largely with each other, and are soon joined by three others. They’re each dressed in business black: black ‘dress’ pants, black shirts, and black suit-like jackets, and move as if they were an army of worker ants being herded into various means of public transport, or funneled into morning office uniformity.
Eventually the ambient light brightens, and a hesitant melody gradually infiltrates the pulsing sound (the music for the piece consists of excerpts from many different sources, both compositional and mechanical). There are more solos in this segment, including superlative work by Chei Mukai, Amy Campbell, a duet with Mukai and Morgana Phlaum in which the latter deadpan mimics having a work-induced headache, and, early on, a particularly blistering visual description of being buffeted and whipsawed at work by Leighann Curd. Throughout this section, the dancers wear eye makeup that in the dark look like eyeglasses, but in the light like masks hiding their ‘real’ personas.
There’s a lot of choreography in this segment, but even though there’s a structure that has a surface predictability, Klein moves things along at a fiendish pace and there’s more than sufficient choreographic variety to maintain visual interest. And Klein’s skill in weaving dancers on and off stage in varying numerical combinations is particularly apparent here – the staging never gets tiresome.
As the end of the ‘The Day’ approaches, the music and the accompanying movement quality begin to slow, and one by one the dancers shed their ‘business’ clothes for bedroom attire, stretch, and after a brief period of silence and darkness, ‘The Night’ begins.
This section is the piece’s reason for being, and it’s strikingly different from the sections that bracket it. The sounds are largely feint, somewhat ‘electrical’ sounds of functioning inactive bodies – human machines in sleep mode. And it’s almost pitch dark. The movement is slowed, and much of the time is intentionally ponderous – reflecting the greater ‘weight’ when movement is mentally rather than muscularly generated.
What is particularly remarkable in Part 2 is the way Klein illuminates the dark stage. As one or more dancers emerge from the wings to perform a particular segmental event, another dancer carries a light source (an unwired ‘lantern’) to illuminate the ‘sleeping’ dancer(s). Using a carried light source isn’t particularly innovative, but these portable light sources are aimed such that they focus on parts of the dancers’ bodies or faces, and at the same time cast shadows on an upstage white sheet-like scrim, providing a variety of perspectives and shadow images. Later in the section, the lantern is (at times) replaced by head lamps which can be adjusted in intensity, or changed in color, to differing effect. And once in a while the lantern is placed such that the light is directed into the audience – an effective way to bring the audience in.
The sensation provided by this focused light and shadow is both eerie and yet fully appropriate, not just for the visual effect, but for illustrating the way a sleeping person might ‘see’ him or herself while still asleep. Not so coincidentally, it also enables an audience to catch an up close and personal view of things that go bump in the night.
Choreographically, Part 2 is somewhat more problematic – not because the choreography is uninteresting, but because I couldn’t always ‘get’ what Klein and her dancers were attempting to communicate. This lack of clarity doesn’t make the images meaningless – it just makes their meaning more perplexing. It may well be that the best way to appreciate this segment is not to try to create a literal impression of the actions on stage, but instead to focus on the overall gestalt of ‘things that happen when people sleep’. Indeed, trying to figure things out, I discovered, gets in the way of seeing ‘The Night’ as an impressive sequence of nonspecific choreographed sleep events.
Regardless, however, Part 2 goes on too long. I appreciate that Klein is attempting to illustrate a laundry list of ‘types’ of sleep events – including sommniloquy (represented by a sleeping character mouthing a scream), sleep walking, dyssomnia (difficulty falling or remaining asleep), parasomnia (sleep disorders, including sleep paralysis). I saw examples of dancers walking with their eyes shut, and with their eyes wide shut. But although there was never a sense of images being repetitious, there was too much of it.
At one point, I heard a ticking clock, saw some stretching by the dancer who happened to be on stage at that time, and expected that Part 2 would end at that point. It didn’t, but it should have: it was followed by another five or ten minutes of sleep dysfunction representation. When Part 2 did end, the dancers, individually, awoke, stretched, put on their ‘business’ clothes (leaving out the black shirts for some reason), and proceeded to the next work day.
These observations don’t detract from the piece’s overall impact. Somnipath is an interesting and unusual work, one that shows Klein and the IDP dancers off very well (Christina Chelette and Jennifer Radcliffe completed the highly competent cast), and one that, notwithstanding its subject, doesn’t put its audience to sleep. This was the most ambitious piece that I’ve seen IDP present, and may provide Klein and her dancers with a ‘path’ to more significant exposure.