Lucky Penny’s Threshold, a Balance of Control and Primal Forces

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Dancers: Claire Molla, Alisa Mittin, and Alex Abarca. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks. Click the image to zoom.

A few months ago, I watched a short preview of the new dance performance Threshold. Looking at my notes recently, I was puzzled to see that—among the more comprehensible, routine observations about the movement—I’d written down the word “chimpanzee.” Seeing the full performance last night at Georgia Tech’s DramaTech Theater at the Ferst Center served to remind me why I’d jotted down the odd little note.

Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art at the Hunter Museum through January 8th

Although the show has plenty of elegant danced moments, the most inventive aspects are the visceral, primal, and purely performative ones: sniffing, pushing, pulling, lifting, dominating, forcing, submitting. There’s conventional “dance” at the opening, but the performance picks up pace—indeed, it almost seems to begin—at a moment without music. The dancers vie over a position, which for some reason has been deemed the most desirable. There is a stripping away of extraneous and civilized decoration in the way they claim or lose that space: if the house itself is made of plain, unvarnished cardboard, then the movements and relationships of the people inside it will become bare, primal, herdlike, animalistic, reduced, and exposed, too. The word “chimpanzee” doesn’t quite capture it, but it certainly goes a long way.

Dancers: Claire Molla and Alisa Mittin. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks. Click the image to zoom.

Threshold is a collaboration between the dance artists of the fledgling organization The Lucky Penny and the renowned, award-winning Atlanta-based architectural firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects. Choreographer Blake Beckham conceived the idea of creating a dance performance in a two-story structurally-sound house made entirely of cardboard. The show is the result of the architects’ and dance artists’ parallel considerations of the concept of home and the relationships that play out there. It’s a work for three dancers—one man and two women (Alex Abarca, Alisa Mittin, and Claire Molla)—on an abstract cardboard set designed by the innovative architectural team of Scogin and Elam.

The house is gorgeous, worthy of independent consideration as a sculptural installation. There are upside-down rooms and a central staircase that the dancers rotate by pushing with their hands, and the furniture swirls into an abstract swoop of a chimney in artist Karley Sullivan’s contribution.

And the performance sustains and develops interest in the set. Points of physical contact are the words in the choreographic language, though the dangerous flexibility and openness to multiple meanings of physical contact are always foremost. A hand on a throat is tender, then threatening. Arms raised in defense can suddenly embrace, and weight surrendered lovingly suddenly becomes burdensome, even adversarial. At one point a dancer gives an addled laugh that becomes a (chimplike) shriek that’s possibly a sob, or a warning, or both. The cardboard home has been cracked open (it is, in fact, opened up by the dancers themselves as one of the first movements in the show), and we have a privileged view into normally hidden intimacies, private jealousies, secret abuses.

Dancer Claire Molla incorporates the cardboard chair into her upside-down pose. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks.

Threshold put me in mind of the work of German choreographer Sasha Waltz, who often focuses on a similarly grim take on the universalities of home, human bodies, and the physical body as a tool and trap. These abstract systems of power and dominance appear prominently in works such as Körper (2000) or Travelogue I (1993).

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

But there’s an exciting, restless, radioactive uncertainty about roles in Threshold: a sense that the dancers are striving towards domestic intimacy, peace, and communication, in spite of the fact that these goals remain elusive. The constant striving most often results in creating more opportunity for violence, misunderstanding, and cruelty. It’s darkly and pessimistically humorous. The dancers press their mouths into each other’s stomach, knees, or shoulders and then speak, unaware that this seemingly direct and intimate method of communication is actually totally hopeless and incomprehensible.

Overall, there’s a tidiness and a tighter focus to the production than seen in the Lucky Penny’s previous show PLOT, which featured more expansive settings and ambiguous gestures towards narrative. The spareness and clarity are evidence of a lot of growth in my opinion. Though Santiago Paramo’s score is heartbreakingly lovely—plaintive, evocative, and haunting—the new maturity is most apparent in moments of silence and in two segments choreographed to opera arias. A satiric spoken-word take on breathing and visualization exercises was nicely done, but stood out for its more detectable sense of effort and closed specificity.

Dancers: Alex Abarca, Alisa Mittin, and Claire Molla. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks. Click the image to zoom.

Designer Tian Justman’s gauzy costumes for the dancers are pleasant enough, but she achieves absolute glory with a costume that emerges towards the end. One of the dancers—we hear the sound of rain so we know trouble is coming for this house made of cardboard—puts on a paper raincoat. There’s a hopelessness to it, even a blindness. We don’t know why the dancers are suddenly compelled to stack boxes in the attic when they hear rain, but we do know it won’t do any good.

I imagine that some audience members might feel that the dance does not integrate into the set enough, and perhaps this criticism is fair—much of the dance takes place in front of the set, and the dancers don’t go up to the attic space until the end. But I felt that the show’s strength derived from the dancers’ and architects’ parallel, if not always intersecting, considerations of home. There’s a spaciousness in their dual approaches.

A final image of a dancer crammed inside a suitcase at the top of the architects’ cardboard staircase—trying to move out of this horrible house but actually making herself more immobile in it—is the show’s strongest. The phone rings, no one answers, and she seems to accept that this is just her new condition.

It all captures some distant, unspecified fear. We’ve never visited before, but that home is frighteningly familiar.

The final day to see Threshold is Sunday, August 19, 2012. As of the publishing of this review, there are four remaining performances. Click here for ticket info.

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