Ariel Dance Theatre's Gyre Project ends on a visually thrilling but confusing note
Reviewed by Jonelle Seitz, Fri., Aug. 28, 2009
Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center
Through Aug. 29
If you can't sleep, it might be because you're concerned about the North Pacific Gyre, where ocean currents have pulled millions of tons of nonbiodegradable garbage into a plastic-soup vortex at least the size of Texas. Or it might be because you are trying to keep your mind out of another vortex, one of your own swirling, omnipresent psychological refuse. Or it might be because you just saw Ariel Dance Theatre's multimedia production of Flush, the final installment of its three-year Gyre Project, and you're still grinning about its cleverer aspects but pondering the logic and bemoaning the lack of dance as a real organism of the work, produced by a company that is, after all, a dance theatre.
Flush occurs in the context of reality TV, with four competitors (Andrea Ariel, Jude Hickey, Adriene Mishler, and Steve Ochoa) suspended somewhere over the Pacific to try to best one another in the areas of physical endurance, mental control, and psychological digging. Video by Kirby Malone, Gail Scott White, Nick Keene, and Colin Lowry, projected on three sides, is smart and thrilling, as is the script by Sonnet Blanton (who also co-directed with Ariel), and together they succinctly tackle the reality-TV model and its psyche of the absurd. "Don't you want to have a bigger, better, longer, happier life?" asks a purple, lipsticked alien. The show's premise is that the solution for the burgeoning ocean trash, or perhaps that's synecdoche for the collective unwanted of humankind, is to sacrifice someone with near-perfect DNA – the competition winner – so all the junk will, somehow, be flushed away.
But the contestants, after spending some time immersed in the trash itself, eventually lose interest in the competition. Instead, they are mollified by relationships among one another and an opiate that may or may not be metaphorical. Call me a stickler for logic, but I don't understand why these characters, who once competed for a chance at supreme martyrdom, suddenly don't care if anyone wins. Perhaps this ending mirrors what most of us do every day when faced with overwhelming disasters: panic, slap on a bumper sticker, donate 20 bucks, and are relieved when concerns more micro nudge us to turn the other cheek. But the characters' motivations here are elusive, and though the piece is self-aware of the risk – "What if we did a little dance?," "We need a thematic bow to tie it up, so we can all go out for a drink," the characters suggest – the audience on opening night seemed confused about when to applaud the end.
On top of this conceptual drop-off, or perhaps partly because of it, the dance aspect of the production, choreographed by Ariel, doesn't seem as integrated as the other elements. Sadly, the coolly dynamic score by Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski suggests choreographic opportunities that are unused. The exception is the "Toilet of Truth" section, when each character's meditative movement is an integral part of the wrenching, inward expression of trying to produce psychological shit that tops the others. Otherwise, the bulk of the dancing seems layered on top, mostly occurring when the characters pair off – a development that already seems cliché. Dance, which is really, really difficult to make not cliché yet formally and emotionally logical, generally only makes this kind of thing more vulnerable.
Vulnerability is a virtue, however, in the acting, especially from Mishler and Hickey, whose monologue in the "Toilet of Truth" is tormented and crystalline. Somehow, the idea that some of the best stuff happens in the toilet seems important to an interpretation of this work, but I'm having a hard time tying a thematic bow on that one just yet.