News with Aeschylus:
In “Beacon,” her new site-specific work at an abandoned bathhouse in Brooklyn, choreographer Yanira Castro sets out to torment her audience, and she succeeds. But her work succeeds, too, as art. Almost against her will, it seems, “Beacon” softens our pain with the balm of beauty. And mercifully for the audience, the whole ordeal lasts barely forty minutes.
The show begins with audience members being randomly separated into groups, like prisoners, and led down into the ruined shell of the bathhouse, where they are herded into “pods” holding about a dozen people, surrounded by red curtains. We sit for a few minutes contemplating what is normally the performer’s point of view—behind the curtain, facing out. Then, with no warning, the lights go down and the curtain shoots up, revealing a plexiglass wall, which acts as a dim mirror. We find our blinking faces straight ahead, and contemplate them, just long enough for the thought to sink in: “OK, this is about us.” Then the lights go up on the space—a floor, four ugly walls, and four women, in bony white light by Roderick Murray, who also designed the audience space.
The women, like the place, appear to have been ruined and abandoned. Nancy Ellis, in a transparent white shift, begins and begins again, trying to find something, trying to go somewhere, with no results. She winds up flat on her face.
Three other dancers, in black, leap up and skitter across the stage like insects. The sound score is a steady deep hum, broken up by sirens and snorts, then later a violin lamentation. The dancers jerk themselves across the floor, cough and wheeze, hyperventilate and scream.
Who are these people? Nobody in particular, but their situation is familiar to anyone who watches the victim-and-survivor spectacles that are the staple of the evening news. Ms. Castro cites TV news as one of her inspirations, along with Greek tragedy. Aeschylus gets credit for the minimal script, which reads: “I can’t stand it here. I have to leave.” The lines are whispered by Heather Olson into a microphone placed near one of the audience pods. She then sets out to leave, but her exit ends in the exact middle of the space, turning into fits and starts, wobbles and finally paralysis. There is, of course, nowhere to go.
If this description sounds unredeemably grim, it fails to convey the intensity and authenticity of the performance. We don’t know who these people are or what has happened to them, but we care. We have to, because they are human, and not incidentally beautiful. And they are trapped, like so much of humanity, in a place with no openings, no possibilities. The last scene drives it home: two dancers are up against a black wall, reduced to a repetitive series of useless motions. They roll over, squirm, and slam their feet against the wall, then sit up and do it again. And again. Ms. Castro evokes Greek tragedy, but takes it a step further into the void. At the risk of seeming foolish, I must confess that my favorite moment in "Oedipus Rex" is after the play ends, when Oedipus the actor steps out for his curtain call, no longer blinded, smiling and waving his bloody headband to the cheering audience. Or likewise when Medea the actress comes out holding hands with the two little boys she didn’t really slaughter. This was art, not life, these moments say. You don’t have to go there, you are released. I was yearning for such a moment at the end of “Beacon,” but choreographer Castro denies it. For a curtain call, the performers briefly stand and stare at the audience, then stalk off to our timid applause. We have done nothing for them, just as TV news fans do nothing for the people they watch suffering every night. That’s the point.
But still, it’s not the last word. Deeper than the guilt trip is an experience of beauty. That comes first from the dancers, Nancy Ellis and Heather Olson, along with Pamela Vail and Marya Wethers. All of them project a yogic strength and stillness that enables them to hold painful poses for unreasonable times, and then suddenly uncoil into action. Their bodies are set off by designer Albert Sakhai’s stunning costumes. These are long flowing black coats, with the lower front panels cut out to allow the dancers to move, and the audience to see. The coats are shed to reveal transparent shifts with slender decorations following the bodies’ lines. Finally, the calm center is sustained throughout by Dan Siegler’s meditative sound score. That constant hum isn’t just industrial noise. Somewhere in it is a hint of the sacred syllable OM.
The show continues through January 23.
Photos by Steven Shreiber.
3, No. 3