Blake Beckham, choreographer and co-artistic director of the Lucky Penny, will premiere her latest evening-length work, Dearly Departures, at the DramaTech Theatre for a two-week run starting July 24. Embedded within this work that explores relations of distance and proximity, reaching and withdrawing, is an examination of how we identify, create, and convey meaning.
Dearly Departures arrives two years after Beckham’s ambitious project Threshold, which involved creating a two-story cardboard house as the set. Like Threshold, this new work has been a major collaborative effort between Beckham and the dancers, set designers, lighting designers, sound composer, mechanical engineers, industrial designers, and artists.
In keeping with Beckham’s integrative use of objects, sites, and sets with her choreography, the work’s point of departure was the split-flap board, an almost obsolete device for displaying schedules of trains, buses, flights, etc.. Beckham says that, for her, the process was to “unpack what the image [the departure board] contains.” The arrival/departure board carries within it a metaphoric/semiotic richness linked to its specific materiality and physicality. Each letter is composed of two cards—the alignment has to come together just right to create the legible letter. For Beckham, this “chasm of the letter” provokes questions concerning our selfhood and ways of being with others; there is an inherent division, a splitting. Throughout the performance, the board displays text, though the phrases and sometimes cryptic and illegible messages are not meant to narrate. These words can serve as another visual layer or as ambiguous meanings that we can try to decipher.
The rest of the set design, headed up by Malina Rodriguez, also co-artistic director of the Lucky Penny and cofounder of Dance Truck, includes an elongated bench that evokes a baggage carousel, but also a train station bench, and a telephone booth. These objects situate the board in a transportation center that is out of time and seems not to exist on this plane. Crystallizing this impression is the fact that the dancers do not ever exit the stage; instead, when not “on stage,” they wait on the bench, watching the other dancers. As Beckham explains, “this is a place where there is no exit.”
Other details of the set are also thoroughly considered. Rodriguez pointed out that the marley floor covering is laid front to back instead of right to left. Though subtle, this creates a sense of receding into the distance; the perspectival converging of the lines echoes the dancers’ linear reaching movements. However, the slight angle of the curtains, which is replicated in the board and the bench, keeps the performance within a boundary. These angular iterations strengthen the sense of inescapability; everything is contained in this space—it is always a certain triangulation.
While constantly shifting groupings, the dancers always seem to remain connected to each other, though the intensity and character of the touch changes. Sometimes the contact is rough, sometimes there is no actual contact, though the viewer can almost feel the energy that binds the dancers together.
The movement is coupled with layers of sound. The clacking of the split-flap board, which triggers both nostalgia and a ticking clock, coalesces with composer Paul Kayhart‘s original audio composed of field recordings of transportation centers, sounds of objects being banged together, and also samples made by recording through a tube the sounds of various objects, like a refrigerator’s hum and a fan’s oscillation. Speaking with Kayhart, he describes the sound as working towards creating a “spaciousness and distance”—an aesthetic choice that speaks well to the overall conceptual framework of the piece.
Dearly Departures is a conceptually tight performance work. The choreography, audio, costuming, and set design, which borders on sculptural installation, are all extremely deliberate. While each element alone evokes feelings and thoughts of distance and departing, together, they create a cogent rendering of how we reach towards one another to create and share meaning between us.
Dearly Departures will appear at the DramaTech Theatre in the Ferst Center of Georgia Tech’s campus July 24-August 2.
Meredith Kooi is the editor of Radius, an experimental radio broadcast platform based in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University, a performance and visual artist, and a monthly contributor to Bad At Sports.