Reborn in Stillness

Like Lazarus Did

Presented by White Bird Dance March 6-8, 2014

To a frustrating degree, the Stephen Petronio Company is purely mesmerizing with Like Lazarus Did. Why that frustrates me is because I am having a difficult time repeating my impressions for you. My intellect grapples with the physical response of stillness, heart opened, spellbound for one hour. The intellect wants some especially technical thing to impress it and communicate. But that’s not what makes this show special. There is virtuosity here, but that is not why I’m here.

Could it be that because it has been months since viewing a dance performance, I have lost my discerning eye? Possibly. Could it be that simply the dancers and the music mutually soothed me? Possibly. Could it be that the immediate response garnished from the first breath brought a smile to my face? Getting warmer. I was taken with that first lyric, sung by the Portland Youth Choir.

“I want to die like Lazarus did”, repeated many times and that got me thinking. Yes, because I died as an observer—an observer of dance concerts—my objectivity was fresh, while subjectively relating to that wish to die and be reborn, not in a different reincarnation, but in this one now. We all go through transformations.

That first moment was touching, the way the gang of teenagers emerged on some hydraulic platform in the orchestra pit of the Newmark Theater–I didn’t even realize they had an orchestra pit there, let alone one hydraulically powered. House left, a man lays on the stage apparently dead. Then the chorus repeats, “I want to die like Lazarus did.”

The repetitive lyrics gently sung by the Youth Choir, over calming drones, set the mind and heart at tune. Mostly repeating phrases copied from American slave songs are strung together by electronically composed ethers from Son Lux. Rhythmically, things escalate gradually in to more industrial beats and effects, dropping out the choir for long stretches to focus on movement.

In continuity with the music of Son Lux, all movement is simple and touching. Simplicity can be more difficult to convey than complexity. While the music did not pour heavy syrupy choruses of “field music” over the dance, it managed to target the heart, contemporizing the struggles of the day from a very different era.

Perhaps you could object to Manhattan artists apprehending the suffering of slaves, at no cost, to put forward something largely performed by and for white people, repeating the profit cycle in some strange echo. It is a fair objection that I am willing to communicate but personally it does not seem worth subscribing to when the material is transformed in to something universally appealing. Moreover, every city has a program to get tickets in the hands of the underserved. In Portland, it’s called Arts for All. I recommend looking in to it.

A perfectly simple performance, there are two costume changes and zero set changes. Not even lighting stands apart from the dance. Men outnumbering women—an unusual constant—there are no clear gender discrepancies in uniform or attitude. Gender is largely set aside, creating neutral space. For practicality, women are the ones dragged, carried, and caught by male dancers nonetheless. It is only natural in the choreography.

All three uniforms by H. Petal and Tara Subkoff are elegant, highlighting the shape of the dancer. While skin is an important part of each costume, I found nothing provocative about it. The first costume was pure white, the second more like a loincloth, and the third more like “The Jetsons”, in a strange way.

The set, developed by visual artist Janine Antoni, is mostly characterized by an overhanging sculpture, essentially a grid of limbs and skeletal parts propped up behind the dance. Petronio calls this the “consciousness of the piece.” It comes back to my first observation: still and spellbound. Antoni wants you to consider the hanging rapture as a reflection of yourself, curious how the movement is “lodged” in to your body.

As I said at the top of this review, not a single aspect compelled me to sit at the edge of my mind, rather, it was everything. Was there a story being told through this piece or was it more at a study on a theme? We are after all hearing a collection of slave songs designed to ruminate the subject of reincarnation and “out of body” exhilaration. That theme does compel the observer but perhaps some audience members appeared unaffected by the end. I would insist to them that trying to become the observed might be the trick here.

If it was a story, there could not be a more obscure protagonist or conflict. The conflict I experienced through this was more internal, concerned with life wholly. The hero of the story, evidenced by my friend’s comments congruent to my own, was not a hero but rather a personal crush left to each to find. Yes, it is okay to fall in love with a dancer during each performance, its part of the subjectivity that every piece of art stirs up. These are people giving themselves to you. The important thing is letting them go after they have finished.

As for me, my crush falls on Jaqlin Medlock because with her, I was not watching a dancer; I was watching the dance unfold through her. If it is possible to suspend the ego as a performer—or perhaps not possible but essential—I think she does that. As it turns out, she is an impressive interdisciplinary artist and entrepreneur too. One friend said Barrington Hinds presented that same grace with a masculine touch. Davlois Fearon offers an irresistible energy and athleticism that we all could love.

But no matter whom you focused on, it seemed the story played out the same for each of them. For instance, as stated above, the costumes are uniforms. Each dancer contains the whole story, though some have more prominence than others.

If you are breathing, you know the Earth we inherit and relive every day–this pressure cooker of insanity–has many gifted and sensitive people churning the suffering out as their creative source. Call it post-modernism if you’d like. If you’re like me in this world, you have had that tragic sense of the moment passing at a rate unusually fast; our lives might pass on before we have the chance to live now. Slaves could not be blamed for experiencing zero joy in a lifetime because their oppressors stole each day from them. But if we are not oppressed today, do we have more joy, are we living completely? Or is an invisible master oppressing us—that master can be our self or something outside us. What matters is to keep moving with that inner stillness, allowing all that moves in to move out like the turning of the Earth itself. Perhaps then we can be reborn right now, like Lazarus did.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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