The Decatur Cemetery is an odd place. Kroger and McDonald’s are both occasionally visible from various vantage points in the cemetery, but they might as well be on the surface of Mars for how far they feel. Like every busy suburban strip in the Atlanta area, the one just outside the cemetery gate seems to whisper the poisonous suggestion, “Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will.” But the cemetery itself is hushed, mossy, ethereal, old, still. There’s nothing but memory.
On three evenings, Friday through Sunday, March 2-4, 2012, Beacon Dance of Decatur performed its site-specific work Fire at the evocative Decatur Cemetery. The piece is part of a much longer work, The Elemental Project, which consists of four parts, each part examining one of the four elements. Water Study took place in October at the stream in the Baker Woodlands on Emory campus; Earth was performed in November on the Beltline not far from Piedmont Park; and the final installment, Air, will be performed at the arts facility B-Complex in southwest Atlanta in early May. According to Beacon’s artistic director, D. Patton White, the elements serve metaphorically for the various stages of life, with water as the origin of life, earth as the process of living, fire as death, and air as what happens after death.
The ritualistic nature of the performance Fire was evident from the opening moments. As audience members filed into the little garden space, performers in white swept the stone walkway with brooms. The activity, the location, and the costumed dancers in white all suggested an old mourning ritual, perhaps people and actions of another time somehow made visible. Decatur Cemetery’s Section 16, Part 1, is subdivided into grassy plots by stone walkways. Performers stood perfectly still in evenly spaced arrangements that corresponded to the place’s geometry. Composer Jon Ciliberto provided an atmospheric soundscape augmented by environmental sounds such as birds, wind chimes, distant traffic (the musician played an electronic keyboard in an off-stage area underneath a tree). Opening movements were slow, gestural, slowly awakening, meditative. Movements gradually became broader and more agitated, even disordered.
Midway through the performance, in one of the piece’s strongest moments, a dancer appeared on a distant hill in the cemetery, lugging an old suitcase, yelling for the others to wait, to take her along. The suitcase was opened to show an old-fashioned lacy pink dress which the performer carefully unfolded and lovingly laid out. It became clear—though it was unspoken—this loved object would have to be left behind. (It just isn’t that sort of journey, dear).
Despite the title Fire with its suggestion of heat, immediacy, wiping out, and termination, the piece exuded a sense of coolness, stillness, overlapping, persistence, and verdancy, especially when dancers rolled on the ground in their white clothing getting it all grassy, wet, and muddy. It all took place at a lovely and evocative time of day: 6PM. The performance began in full light, but ended in near darkness.
Dancers often coalesced in groups or pairs, but they remained isolated: barriers, such as those between the stone pathS to the grassy patch, seemed almost unbridgeable. Performers reached to each other across these barriers and occasionally breached them, but the feeling was consistently one of unbridgeable gaps in time, between metaphysical states of being. Actual contact and interaction were rare, and when it happened it was somewhat brief and troubled. On Ciliberto’s soundtrack, a female speaker described memories of early visits to a cemetery with her family. The plainly spoken memory was replayed and manipulated, the vocals overlaid on top of each other: memory upon memory on top of a grave.
White used a varied cast of dancers: body types and ages vary as in a cast of actors. This allowed for interesting narratives to emerge, as when a younger dancer struggled to support and pose an older dancer. For Beacon, the aspects of the place, the time of day, the different types of dancers are all wisely understood as assets rather than limitations. The piece was an object lesson in the considered use of existing resources—space, time, bodies—in the creation of art.
In the final exit, as darkness fell, the whole group departed down a long path in a loose herd, casting glances back, leaving the suitcase behind. The work was abstract, almost wordless. Were these meant to be some sort of ghosts? Living people enacting a ritual for the dead? It was never specified, but its simple message was perfectly clear: whether things are remembered or forgotten, it makes little difference. Night is always on its way.