Performers in Our Midst
In 1,000 Forest Gorillas in Kansas, primates inspire the art of living
"You know how to measure without trying them on, right? Belly button to spine." Ellen Bartel demonstrates for Heloise Gold, holding up a pair of pants still clipped to the plastic hanger and pressing the waistband around one side of her torso. The dancer-choreographers are at Savers, the thrift store, shopping for costumes for their duet in 1,000 Forest Gorillas in Kansas, Gold's new collaboration with Natalie George. The work is inspired in part by a gorilla that came to Gold in a dream – it lounged in her studio. When Gold told Bartel about the dream, Bartel said, "You know I have a gorilla head," referring to a costume piece in her personal collection.
In their duet, Gold and Bartel will morph between human and gorilla, wallowing in the small percentage of DNA that differentiates humans from the critically endangered mountain gorilla, also known as the forest gorilla, of Africa. There is just the one gorilla head between the two dancers and no budget for a costumer, and Gold is worried: "I'm having trouble visualizing Ellen and I. I want our bodies to show, but ..." – she lifts a knee and floats an arm over her head – "casual." Bartel holds up a pair of khaki trousers. Gold raises her eyebrows: "I have a thing about khaki." Bartel considers, gets it: "Somehow khaki means that you're trainable." They decide on dress pants in blacks and grays (the kind that anyone with an office job already owns). "Slaaaacks!" They poke fun at the word, calling to each other over the dressing room wall. "We're buying slaaacks!" Gold tests a pair, reclining apelike on the fitting-room bench with one foot in the air, and sighs. "I wish we had Natalie here."
Gold and George – whose backgrounds include dance, performance art, production, and, for George, lighting design – began developing 1,000 Forest Gorillas during a four-day artist residency last December at Pilot Balloon Church-House in Lawrence, Kansas (the program was founded by Matt Hislope and Josh Meyer of Rubber Repertory). It's difficult to say what the performance will be – or, more interestingly, what it will do – but here is a partial list of its ingredients: Gold and George's mutual fascination with the number 1,000, clinched by the street address of Pilot Balloon Church: 1000 New York St.; George's tech-box perspective of the body's interplay with light; a cast of 10 skilled performers; two adult-sized tricycles; and a kitchen, like the one on the back wall of the creative space at Pilot Balloon. Snow, which fell in Kansas. And lots of fascination with the gorillas, the world's population of which is less than 1,000.
Back in rehearsal at her studio, Gold announces, "We're going to look at the gorilla video and play a bit with gorilla movement." Gold, George, Bartel, Elaine Dove, and Jason Phelps gather around Gold's iPad as she cues up "Gorillas and Wildlife of Uganda HD," a video documenting a tourist visit to a group of gorillas (uploaded to YouTube by Fred Heiman). "They spend their days quietly, either in a leisurely search for food or relaxing in a social setting," says the narrator, a woman with a New Jersey accent, as the silverback, the dominant male, sits Buddha-like, ripping thistly plants from the ground and picking off undesirable parts before gnashing them. A female with a baby clinging to her back hair lumbers through the crowd of tourists, who yield. Gold stops the video. "The idea is not to move like gorillas but be inspired by gorillas. This is your gorilla – your very own gorilla, whatever that is."
The performers give it a try. George's gorilla places her long arms and legs carefully, like a runner at the starting line, and slowly makes her way, on all fours, into a reclining pose on one hip, her belly oriented toward the sky. Gold's gorilla is headlong and playful; at just five feet tall and mirthful, she can't help but come across as spritely, like the Tinker Bell of gorillas. It's too much for Bartel, who breaks into laughter. The group clambers upstage, where they will lounge around the kitchen appliances before exiting. "So this is the part that I'm super weirded out about," George interrupts. "I don't want to look like the dumb evolutionary chart as we stand up." Everyone agrees, and they devise a workaround.
"Let's watch the video," says Gold, who has been recording the rehearsal on her iPad. As the performers observe themselves – humans captured in the wild of gorilla-ness, in the wild of the studio – they chuckle and analyze. Bartel rubs her eyes: "My question is, how long will we be doing this?" There isn't an answer just yet, but Gold implores the cast to watch more videos of the gorillas: "They've got it together more than we do." Bartel muses, "They know how to enjoy life."
1,000 Forest Gorillas in Kansas runs March 26-29, Thu.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 2pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit 1000gorillas.brownpapertickets.com.