by Olivia Wood for The Dance Journal | photo credit Lindsay Browning
On Friday, May 18, Katherine Kiefer Stark, artistic director of The Naked Stark presented a new, full-length work, Visible Structures, at the Mascher Space in Philadelphia.
The work was comprised of three parts, and it was not until the very end of the piece that I understood just how deliberate this choice is. Visible Structures draws attention to the various ways in which our society is organized. The choice to present the work in three segments makes sense compositionally as so much of life is organized in threes. We typically eat three meals a day and organize our schedules in terms of morning, noon, and night. Stark takes this familiar construct and presents it anew, requiring audience participation in order to introduce her commentary on authority, which develops throughout the piece.
The first section, Episode I: Encounters and Choices, allowed the audience to explore the performance space by participating in activities and interacting with the “players.” As a reward for each task completed, audience members received a token. We followed recorded instructions announced over a loudspeaker, like characters in a video game. The mood was whimsical and fun, which made the transition into the second part all the more jarring.
Eventually, we followed another set of recorded instructions and exited the performance space so that the dancers could prepare for the second part, Episode II: The One, The Other One, and The Many. The piece began in darkness, which was broken by the light emanating from strings of lights sewn to the hems of three performers’ pants. For a few moments, only feet were visible. They appeared to be floating as the dancers kicked and stepped, accompanied by calm, instrumental music, while performing similar phrases and following similar spatial patterns. Then, there appeared two crossing channels of light on the floor and the rest of the performers, wearing shirts with blue flowers on the back, began to slide between them, slipping gracefully in their stockinged feet.
Their movement differed from their counterparts (who wore shirts with red lines). The blue team was sliding, gliding, and spiraling with a light movement quality whereas the red team moved very linearly while maintaining an erect posture. As the dance progressed, it became clear that the blue team could only move in the light. Any deviation into the darkness would provoke the aggression of the red team. Symbolically, this interaction represents the societal pressures to “stay in our lanes,” and do what is expected or suffer punishment. After falling into the darkness, the red team knocked one of the blue dancers to the ground, effectively killing her. A battle ensued as one of the blue dancers fought to avenge her friend.
Based on the disparity of effort qualities and based on the overall composition of the piece, The One, The Other, and The Many drew attention to the themes of authority and the abuse of power within the structures of our society. It begs the question: When does the structure become too stifling and how can we make a change?
This theme continued into the third and final episode: Episode III: Power Suite. Once again, audience participation was required. We were instructed to have a relay race against other teams to select clothing from a pile that would make our team’s dancer appear powerful. Then, we were instructed to sit in designated areas and to cheer when our dancer was winning. Then, the competition began most aggressively, with the dancers obeying the sound of a whistle, climbing frantically on top of one another, trying desperately to reach the top. This piece clearly explores the power dynamic in our society – the one on top is a heavy weight on the shoulders of the downtrodden and we, the spectators, were cheering as if watching a jousting match. When the show ended, by the hanging of a whistle on a hook on the ceiling (a symbol of authority and unattainable power), the audience remained for a few moments in the space after the dancers had already taken their final bows, uncertain and awaiting permission from the recorded voice to leave the space.
In that moment, I realized the extent of Stark’s exploration of our society’s authority complex. The entire performance reflects and reveals the external, “visible structures,” and the invisible structures that are ingrained within each of us, compelling us to follow the status quo.
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