New York Live Arts, New York, NY;April 30, 2015
It’s unusual, even for me, to begin a review with a snippet of conversation from a theater restroom. But there I was following the world premiere performance of Patricia Noworol Dance Theater’s Replacement Place, and I overheard this guy talking. Loudly. To himself. I looked over to him, and when he realized he was being observed, he shrugged and said “Don’t mind me; I’m just going a little crazy.” To which I responded, “Yea, I do it too. We all need to go a little insane once in a while to keep our sanity.”
I realized immediately that that would be an apt summary of my response to Noworol’s new piece. For me, the ‘event’ (reflecting the company’s name, it’s part dance; part theater) was a mild form of calculated insanity.
Replacement Place appears to be a crazy quilt of stage images. And it is. In a way, they are crazy the way sketches on the old Carol Burnett television show were inherently wacky but comprehensible, but with a difference. For Replacement Place, these sketches have been flushed down a rabbit hole and emerged incomprehensible, but somehow just as funny, poking fun at life above the rabbit hole, and at itself as well. Much of it makes no sense – until some of it does – but there are moments that somehow burrow into the memory. And despite the craziness, the end result is strangely entertaining.
The concept, direction, and choreography for Replacement Place was created by Norowol, in conjunction with the performers, which possibly explains why the piece looks at times like it was put together by committee. And there’s no cohesive style – unless the absence of a cohesive style is itself a type of style.
It includes four performers, whose roles may or may not be a reflection of themselves – because they’re so good at presenting the somewhat looney characters they’re portraying. Nick Bruder plays, well, Nick, as if he was a vagrant dancing for dollars in between gigs at the Metropolitan Opera (which, given his background as stated in the program notes, may have a kernel of truth); Aaron Jones, aka AJ “The Animal” Jonez, a dancer/rapper/Incredible Hulk who knows he can dance rings around anyone else because he’s such a buff bodybuilder – a Mike Tyson who can dance and hide a sense of humor that has to be there, buried within his muscled body; Chris Lancaster portrays…Chris, a musician, whose role is somewhat of a lapsed nerd, more restrained and introverted than the others except when he plays his personalized cello, and who may have provided the template for the performance; and Troy Ogilvie, the piece’s moving force, a counterculture sprit, perhaps a millennial who in a prior life was a flower child, who comes across as part tornado and part…Carol Burnett.
Although the action appears disoriented, Replacement Place moves forward with some measure of purposefulness. The piece opens to a dimly lighted stage, with Ogilvie walking from the stage left wings to center stage and then standing there for a few seconds with legs firmly planted and feet spread about a yard apart. She then returns to the wings. And then returns to the same stage position, but with her back to the audience. She then turns her head around and stares at the audience – as if seeing them for the first time, or in a different, strange way – possibly telegraphing that things are about to be the reverse of what they were before, and/or what they’re accustomed to seeing. Lancaster, who sits downstage right, begins making sounds on his cello by rubbing his hand across the lower part of it while holding it somewhat like a guitar, and Ogilvie begins to move to the sounds with her torso and arms in what looks like an uncontrolled manner, and then proceeds to circle the stage running, jumping, twisting, contorting, falling, and, as the lights come up, striking a ballet pose.
As the sounds from the cello base increase in depth, Ogilvie continues circling the stage, but eventually exits. A bearded man (Bruder) emerges upstage right, and eventually begins jumping and jiving to the sounds created as Lancaster bangs (like a drum) the cello and, seemingly concurrently, rubs his hand across the cello’s wood bottom, increasing the density and tempo of the friction-generated sound by the increased pressure of his hand – like a sadistic masseuse. Ogilvie returns, and she and Bruder (although they’re independent stage entities) move to the increasing rhythm of the musical background – Ogilvie primarily circling the stage, and Bruder primarily jumping in place. After what seems like an extended period of increasingly rapid movement as Lancaster switches from massaging the cello’s wood to massacring its strings (by this time, to my recollection, Ogilvie has left the stage, and Jones has entered), Bruder complains, vocally, to Carpenter about the tempo being too fast, tells him to stop playing (“Enough, Chris”), and collapses in a pile upstage from Lancaster, out of breath and apparently in a pool of sweat, with his back to the audience. After breathing heavily for a few moments, putting shoes on (high-heeled black boots), and exchanging words with Lancaster, Bruder suddenly starts to sing. By my rough notes, the lyric’s included:
“You’re just like an angel; your skin makes me cry.
You float like a feather in a beautiful world [or whirl].
You’re so f—–g special.
I wish I was special……”
As Kurt Vonnegut might have said, so it goes.
Then Ogilvie returns and interrupts, the mood changes, and eventually the dancers, move in tandem as if they were back-up singers in a rock band, and Ogilvie becomes an MC of sorts, presenting relatively unimpressive (intentionally) mini-‘acts’ and – somewhat like a female Ed Sullivan – thanking everyone for his contribution with the kind of flat acknowledgment that shows that the appreciation is by rote and meaningless.
The performance lasts for roughly an hour, with segments that seem disconnected, like those referenced, continuing throughout. At some point, at this performance, Brent Arnold replaced Carpenter on the cello, while Carpenter pranced, er, danced, on stage.
The segments I enjoyed most included Carpenter, trying to get out of some sort of doctor’s white jacket or strange hospital gown – it looks like he’s trying to escape a straitjacket; Bruder’s brooding body and his unexpectedly mellifluous voice; Jones strutting his stuff and displaying his purportedly unique style of flex dancing, which he calls “Animal Animation,” and which involves popping and locking his muscles such that the ensuing movement looks somewhat like animated/mechanical propulsion based on the consecutive popping and locking of Jones’s musculature (‘pop/lock’); and Ogilvie doing most anything she did on stage – including a duet with Jones in which she matches Jones pop/lock for pop/lock, end eventually climbs his body as if it were some muscled mountain.
The key to Replacement Place, if there is one, is perhaps found in Feelings, a poem (of sorts) by Lancaster that fills a page of the program, and in which he essentially describes ‘feelings’ that his mind has generated, including:
….You’ve been collecting feelings like Facebook friends [a fabulous simile],
Like, you don’t even know who some of these feelings are.
Or where you met them….”
These feelings ultimately gather together…
…crowding together soo (sic) tightly, they’ve created a weight you can physically feel……
….Buckling under their own weight, the mass of feelings has generated its own field of gravity which
is now smashing them all together….
…Now you’ll never never know who they are, where they originally came from, or what they
Sort of like what is presented on stage. In addition to being the piece’s composer (except for a segment titled “Ancient Demons,” composed by Jones, Lancaster is also credited with creating the piece’s text. While this writing is not the text, perhaps it’s some form of inspiration. It fits.
Regardless, Replacement Parts is not everyone’s cup of tea, coffee, or psychotropic stressor. But if you’re open to it, it allows you to go quietly and safely just a little crazy while watching a piece that goes just a little crazy. Ok, a lot crazy. And at this performance, most of the audience appeared to be in on it. One young woman leaned over to me after the performance, smiled, and said “I hope you had a happy mother’s day.”
So it goes.