Crafting Chaos; Davidson Brings us Closer to Collapse

By Shelly Gilbride

December 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Walking into the tech rehearsal of Side Show Physical Theatre’s new piece Collapse (suddenly falling down), I was struck by the magnitude of this interdisciplinary, multi-sensory exploration of what it means to collapse – emotionally, socially, ecologically, systematically. The Mondavi Center’s Studio Theatre had exploded into a high-tech mess of scientific and artistic chaos. Even with just the familiar tech rehearsal action—dancers claiming a bit of floor space to mark through movement, actors running lines, stage crew fixing lights—this would be a big, complicated tech. With a set of over 300 white boxes that are thrown, stacked and pushed throughout the piece, three moving platforms and a 10-foot-tall barren tree floating across the stage, the theatrical logistics were puzzling enough. But then there was the techno tech; the video artist manipulating geological projections on her laptop, a computer programmer writing interactive software code, a cluster of geologists and geophysicists in the back of the theatre wearing 3D glasses and intently focused on the data projections, and a computer scientist tinkering with the gleaming red targets of the motion-capture cameras. I could hear the exhaustion creeping into Della Davidson’s typically calm voice as she tried to coordinate a particularly complicated music/light/box/scan cue. Dance jargon bumped against techno-speak crashed with techie-talk. As I sat amongst this tornado of activity, I contemplated the mechanics and minutiae of creativity. I wondered whether in performance the technology would eclipse the dance (it did not), whether the 3-person naturalist stage play would clash against the expressionism of the movement (it did not), whether the scientific images would read to an unfamiliar audience (they did, in a beautiful sort of pointillist, neoimpressionist way). I felt the weight of Davidson’s responsibility for bringing all of these elements together and I marveled at the vision and determination to honor all of these creative impulses in the service of a singular idea; the nature of collapse.

Since Davidson conceived Side Show Physical Theatre as UC Davis’ resident professional performance company at the Mondavi Center over five years ago, her work has continued to grow in scale and complexity as she navigates her place in a university setting. Bay Area dance aficionados might remember the Della Davidson Dance Company that Davidson ran for fifteen years in San Francisco. Davidson still works with the emotionally charged movement that she has become known for, but she has layered complex technical and dramatic elements into her work. The breadth of collaboration in a piece like Collapse could only be explored in a setting like UC Davis where the company had access to the theatre space for 10 days of tech rehearsal, where the collaborative resources co-exist on campus and where intellectual and creative exploration and innovation are given the time and space to flourish. Collapse was commissioned by the Mondavi Center as a part of a yearlong initiative called “The Creativity Project,” a series of events exploring the nature of human creativity inspired by the work of Merce Cunningham. On the surface, Davidson’s dance aesthetic and her working style seem to have little connection to the formal intellectualism of Cunningham. Davidson’s work is emotional and narrative with lush, dreamlike imagery. Davidson’s pieces have a complex but unified vision as apposed to Cunningham’s intentionally disparate, disconnected collaborations. Where Cunningham dancers all work within the same dance technique and have the musculature and body frames required by that technique, Davidson’s work showcases the individuality and uniqueness of her dancers. Cunningham starts his movement explorations alone in a studio. Davidson starts by improvising and playing in collaboration with her dancers. However, if Merce Cunningham had not reconceptualized movement, reacting to the codification of the Graham aesthetic that had solidified in modern dance fifty years ago, a work like Collapse might never have happened. Cunningham’s embrace of technology and intellectualism opened the door to the type of scientific, technological and artistic collaboration that takes place in the piece. Rather than working with Cunningham-based source material, Davidson and her collaborators worked in the spirit of Cunningham. With the iconoclast’s living legacy as an impetus to create a work, Davidson approached writer Ed Gaible about collaborating on a dance/theatre piece. It was Gaible who had just read Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and suggested the idea of exploring collapses on stage. Invoking Cunningham’s push for collaborators to work autonomously, Davidson relinquished artistic control over the dramatic element to Gaible who, for the most part, directed his script for three actors independently of Davidson. From there, the collaborative elements seemed to fall together. Dawn Sumner and Louise Kellogg, two scientists from UC Davis’ geology department with an affinity for modern dance, contacted Davidson about the possibility of working together. Both work in the UC Davis Keck Center for Active Visualization in Earth Sciences where LIDAR scanning technology helps scientists view scientific data from multiple perspectives. The LIDAR technology creates 3D images of landscapes through millions of laser points. With the cooperation of other scientists, video artists and computer technicians, these 3D, moving images of natural collapses, like the landslide at Laguna Beach in 2005 and beach erosion at Waikiki beach were integrated into the artistic work. The images continually change perspectives, constantly shifting and rotating, giving the audience multiple viewpoints of natural collapses.

While all of the science and technology makes for interesting academic dialogue, I would be remiss to foreground the technology at the expense of the human performance of Collapse. Davidson is first and foremost a choreographer and movement is the soul of the piece. Dancers fall and catch themselves, throw and catch each other, flail and crumple throughout the work. Davidson’s dancers embrace the quirky and unexpected in movement, and while they each bring their own unique movement style to the piece, they work seamlessly together. Each dancer physicalizes her or his own relationship to the idea of collapse; Kerry Mehling dancing with the melancholy of loss, Victoria Terrell-Carazo dancing out determination and survival. Longtime Davidson dancer Jane Schnorrenberg evokes an inquisitiveness and whimsy as she plays with falling feathers. Christine Chen seems to be having the most fun as she launches and throws herself onto mats, exploring the force of a body hitting the ground and the inevitable rebound. Kegan Marling executes the most diverse actions as he builds, destroys and rebuilds structures out of boxes, tumbles down scaffolding and plays with weight and locomotion.

Mehling, a long, fluid dancer whose movement teems with emotional intensity has a series of falling duets with Terrell-Carazo, a powerful, athletic dancer who has brilliant moments of unexpected vulnerability for a girl who can jump so high and looks like she won’t take crap from anybody. These two push and tug at each other, Mehling flailing like a ragdoll while Terrell-Carazo lugs her across the stage. Their duet, like much of the movement in the piece, reoccurs at various times with slight variations. Like the LIDAR scans that offer the audience multiple perspectives on the same image, these recurring dances reveal something new each time they are executed; sometimes the movement feels like a struggle, other times like an embrace.

The series of duets, solos, and group movement phrases are interwoven with a loose, episodic play. The play follows the last two inhabitants of Easter Island, stuck in a Beckett-like argument over cutting down the island’s last tree. The island, represented by grass-covered platforms, splits into pieces as if carved by an earthquake. As the play progresses, the platforms float and rotate across the stage, echoing the movement of the LIDAR scans, giving the audience a 360 degree perspective on the islanders’ predicament. When an anthropologist arrives on the island to study the islanders, the narrative deepens to explore the limitations of language, globalization, genocide and survival. As nothing is stable or predictable in this work, fissures and eruptions in the narrative of the play happen as the actors step off the island and out of their islander characters to join in the dance.

Though the spoken text communicates the most obvious explorations of societal collapse, the moments where the dance and the play blend together in the abstract provide the most poignant moments in the piece. In the biggest group movement, two huge towers of boxes fall directly toward the audience while newspaper debris is strewn across the stage. A haunting reference to 9/11, this moment is a complete rupture in the narrative as all of the performers fill the stage with an unnerving amount of movement and sound. The music blares sounds of planes through an unrelenting beat as an actor assaults the audience with a monotone drone into a microphone. Performers run across the stage kicking up the debris, throwing and pushing boxes out of their way. Some fall to the ground, others break into frenetic movement phrases while flashing lights on the side of the stage blind them. This group piece still haunts me. I’m left with a jumble of stage images like Mehling on her knees desperately trying to fill a box with salvage from the debris while dodging a falling mat that keeps crashing onto the stage and Schnorrenberg flailing about on her back like a dying bug. It’s memory debris in my head, the aftermath of a performance earthquake.

Collapses are sudden, scary and confusing. They also provide moments of opportunity and regeneration. Collapse (suddenly falling down) encapsulates the fragility of the systems that we create to make sense of the messiness of life as well as human resilience and adaptability. At moments, the work seems disjointed, but given its subject matter and its inspiration, that’s ok. After the dust settles on this production, Davidson hopes to continue nourishing this system of ideas, revisiting and remounting the piece in the future so that it does not collapse into the abyss of dance/theatre history.

Shelly Gilbride received her PhD in Performance Studies from UC Davis in 2009. She is the founder of PDA: Public Dance Acts and is a dancer with the Linda Bair Dance Company and A Mused Collective.