Exploring the Immersion of Paige Phillips’ The air is describing us

by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal

As the lights fade in at Mascher Space, what appears to be six large inflated plastic bags connected via a series of tubes on the floor can be seen spread about the floor. Dancers can be seen, seemingly enveloped by the inflated plastic around them, lying in stillness as the ambient soundscore fades in. Slowly they begin to move, allowing each and every surface of their body to come in contact with the installation which surrounds them. This is the beginning of Paige Phillips’ The air is describing us-lining our bodies-squeezing us gently-inside and out, which premiered this past Friday night.

The program consisted of two separate pieces; It’s just easier this way, created in collaboration with Josh Hines and Kelly Hurlburt, and The air is describing us, which blends Phillips’ movement with the aforementioned installation by Evan Dawson and sound by Liam Ze’ev O’Connor.

It’s just easier this way opens the program with a duet between Hines and Hurlburt. The work is entirely acapella save for the percussion of bodies against the floor and each other as well as the breath of the two performers as they move with each other. The work is at points playful, romantic, sexual, uncomfortable, and comedic, and seeks to portray the relationship between the two dancers in a way that breaks with conventional romance. The two move with a sort of magnetism which yanks and pulls their various parts towards and away from both each other and the floor. The work is dynamic, expressive, and funny, asking the audience to consider the interplay between partners in a relationship outside of the glamorized ideal portrayed in so much media and art. It succeeds in providing the audience an immersive voyeuristic delight, granting a window into the lives of two individuals who feel profoundly real, as if they’re merely living their life on the stage.

Following It’s just easier this way was a brief intermission during which the installation portion of The air is describing us is assembled. The air is describing us takes the audience on a physical journey alongside the performers. Moving forward from the atmospheric opening, the movement shifts drastically as the dancers begin to move in a less organic and more rigid and structured fashion. They seem to challenge the audience, drawing them into the work through their sheer intensity before spiraling outward into the following segments, each of which carries different energy without feeling out of place in the work as a whole. The contrast between the tranquil and otherworldly quality of the opening section and the intensity of the sections which follow it introduces a momentum to the work which carries both the dancers and the audience through the presented repertoire. No section was quite like the others, yet the momentum of the choreography, the way in which the performers cascaded from one section of the other, allowed these disparate parts to flow into one another in a way that seemed natural.

In a way, these separate but connected parts meld together to form a larger portrait. From the relative comfort of the opening within the inflated installation, to the cold mechanical world away from that tranquil setting, then falling into the duets and trios present in the work, in which the dancers seemed to bounce off and around each other in an impersonal way signifying their detachment and isolation within the world created by the choreography. This all culminates in a shocking conclusion which completes the titular motif surrounding “air” itself. The dancers’ heads are plunged into buckets of water in a violent display as excess fluid covers the stage. As the lights fade the dancers are left scattered and gasping for breath as if to stop themselves from drowning.

The work is impressive in that it truly immerses the audience, even after the installation has been moved aside. The atmosphere created by the movement and choreography sucks the audience into another world. From the comfort of the opening, they are thrust into a hostile world alongside the dancers, forced to survive in an attempt to attain that comfort again. The journey is constant and enthralling, all the way up until the conclusion which leaves both the audience and the performers gasping for breath.

Both It’s just easier this way and The air is describing us provide the audience with immersive windows into experiences they would otherwise be unable to attain. Whether it’s peeking into the private life of a couple or a journey alongside the dancers as they explore the air both around and within themselves, Phillips and her dancers provide an experience that enraptures and delights.

About Winfield Maben

Winfield Maben is a Philadelphia based writer and dancer and an aspiring member of the greater Philadelphia area dance community. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2018 with a BA in Dance & English and has previously conducted several features for the Lehigh Valley Dance Exchange. He has worked with several established choreographers including Tiffany Mills, Sharon Vazanna, and Trinette Singleton and has performed in a variety of unique locations including Triskelion Arts (Brooklyn, NY), ArtisTree (Pomfret, VT), and the Brooklyn Bridge. Winfield aims to explore the art of dance through the multidisciplinary approach that was emphasized in his education, not only examining the physicality of a given work but also the intentionality and cultural impact of the work as a whole.

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