Ho-Ju Wu in ex nihilo Photo Julia Irwin

Ho-Ju Wu in ex nihilo
Photo Julia Irwin

Theaterlab, New York, NY
August 22, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Sometimes new dance groups spring forth as if from nothing.

Of the contemporary dance companies I see, most either are already established, or can be labelled ‘emerging’, although the latter encompasses a broad range of performing experience. Every once in a while, however, I have the opportunity to view a group that’s just beginning to get its performing act together; Live Arts Collaborative (LAC), who I saw at Theaterlab (a cozy space in a rapidly redeveloping area of Manhattan) is one such.

LAC was co-founded by recent NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduates Alexa Valentine and Kerry Kim, and ex nihilo is the group’s first production. Since the Latin phrase ex nihilo means “from nothing,” the title is appropriate both as a description of LAC’s conception, as well as, in very broad terms, the theme of the piece itself.

The dance, choreographed by Kim, is non-narrative, though it’s not completely abstract either. The individual segments of the piece, standing alone, may not convey any particular meaning or story – and if it dies have a particular meaning, it may mean different things to different people. That being said, the broad scope of the piece is evident by the order of presentation of scenes, the progression of images on the rear stage wall that accompany the choreography and the musical selections by MOQN and Greg Haines.

Essentially, Kim and the creative team have as their subject, the creation of life itself. As with many first efforts, there are excesses that probably could be trimmed or deleted but there are intriguing moments from Kim and the piece’s visual media artists (MOQN and Julia Irwin). Overall the production shows promise both from its creators and its dancers.

ex nihilo begins at a very deliberate pace – perhaps a real time representation of the Cosmic Crawl that must have followed the Big Bang. The group’s five dance artists individually emerge from nothingness and very slowly and haltingly walk head down, as if being or seeing nothing. Their move downstage is accompanied by the sound of an eerie, other-worldly composition by MOQN called Void – which sounds much like one would expect a void to sound, if a void had a sound. It appears that the dancers represent the building blocks of life, empty vessels on a journey to become whatever it is that they will become, but it’s also clear that although these blocks have a basic similarity, they’re different from each other (evidenced by the simple but individualized costumes designed by Julia Dong), with the capacity to respond differently to information they may absorb along the way.

The rest of ex nihilo takes us on that journey. Some of it is too arcane to decipher and to diffuse to appreciate, but at other times, the choreography and the context permit an educated guess as to a particular segment’s significance. For example, following the opening, the dancers move their arms outward (sometimes in a group; sometimes individually), as if assuring a separation between them and other particles/individuals that comprise the future molecules of life; maybe as if praying to some unknown force, or anticipating the receipt of those gifts that would eventually make them human. Later, lined up and facing upstage, they discretely touch or grasp their skin and their backs, all while their lower torsos remain relatively rigid. These images are repeated, suggesting that the process of self-awareness and self-discovery is a continuing one. And as the dancers are lined up, visual exterior stimuli appear projected against the back stage wall, beginning as small squares of light that grow larger, then morphing into shadows of the dancers as they become corporeal entities.

At the heart ex nihilo are a series of individualized components. Eventually the individual entities become aware that they are part of a whole (a larger life form; a molecule rather than a collection of atoms; a society?), and some don’t like the idea. Matthew James is the first to struggle; to free himself from the evolving nuclear life form. He moves frenetically, almost manically, to try to escape, but the other dancers – his fellow particles – rein him in, then support him by keeping him from collapsing. This evolves into individual efforts to protect and comfort James, including a duet of sorts with Stanton Jacinto in which the latter befriends him and, literally, keeps him in proper position – even if that position is upside down.

As all this is happening, more images are projected against the back wall making the action appear like it is taking place within some atmosphere. Shadowy cloud or dune-like images (cosmic dust?) are succeeded by more startling projections as the piece progresses and life evolves. In a scene featuring a vividly-danced solo by Ho-Ju Wu, a round white dot appears projected against the rear wall. As she stands facing the light, the void, the dot grows larger until it dominates her, and then transitions into rapid-paced projections of different components of the universe. She seems to absorb the light, and the information and energy she obtains from it. As she subsequently moves around the stage, the projections change from shadows and outlines to blurry energy forces, almost as if she had jumped the boundary between being a molecular particle and, instead, became a nascent life form.

Logically, the piece should have ended at this climactic moment. But Kim takes it a step – actually, a duet – further, fast-forwarding the non-narrative visual to describe the beginning of a human relationship. No longer merely energy life forces, the couple who dance together at the end, Rohan Bhargava, the first male entity to emerge from the void when the piece began, and Elise Pacicco, the first woman, appear representative of the first humans; Adam and Eve prototypes. Bhargava and Pacicco lean on each other, repel each other, but willingly return to the comfort and the familiarity of the other’s presence.

At the outset, I described Live Arts Collaborative as a ‘group’ rather than ‘dance company’ because, as evidenced by ex nihilo, the intent is to involve artists not typically considered dancers. Now that it has presented its initial effort to create something out of nothing, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.