The Black Piece (Dance Review) — WArd/waRD
November 6-8 The Dance Centre
By Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
A main feature of The Black Piece, by Dutch-Flemish choreographer Ann Van den Broek, is a hand-held video camera inside a ring of LED lights. It first appears as a disk of light with a black hole in the middle — a luminous ring floating in the darkened theatre. Another feature is a large screen on the upstage wall. As the camera searches the darkness it captures dancers and objects which are live-fed, in silvery monochrome tones, to the screen: for example, a performer seemingly caught off-guard, a dancer boldy confronting the lens, an antique pair of scissors, a pair of white sneakers, and the black stilleto shoes of a woman running away.
The Black Piece is an investigation of the absence of light and how that absence creates different kinds of presence. One such presence is that of a texture appearing on an item of clothing, and the way light paints the ridges of the creased fabric. Another is darkness as a velvety caress that releases us from the overused habit of looking. Yet another is an anxiety-producing darkness.
Darkness can steal our sense of sight while sensitizing our hearing. In The Black Piece human performers utter cries and laughter from the blackness around me. Some voices sound patently insincere (forced laughter) while others pleasingly tickle my eardrums (a soft cry that wavers between musical tones). Much of the sound, live or recorded, manifests as a regular beat. The movement of the dancers is tightly bound to a metronimic score, almost always in either 4/4 or 3/4 time. Shoes stamp the floor on the downbeat, leather jackets are pulled tight and then eased off before being jerked down onto the torso again, bodies snap back and forward from waist or mid-torso, and the lights are switched on and off whenever the choreographer taps a floor plate with her foot.
All of this is expertly done. Despite the metronomic rhythms, the piece doesn’t feel monotonous or simply repetitive. Rather it builds in intensity over the 75 minute duration, finding variations on its theme of blackness/darkness. Gradually we see more and more of the moving figures, bodies of monochramatic texture emerging on screen as if trying to escape the two dimensionality of the projection surface. Most often the camera is an aggressive interlocutor, but sometimes a performer’s gaze is thrown back at the lens and therefore at those of us sitting in the house.
It’s only late in the game that I realize not all the figures on screen are accounted for on stage. While the camera searches the darkness to find a subject, the subject isn’t always in the theatre. In fact it was recorded some time ago. So there are absent figures taking part, seemingly located where a live dancer should be, and moving as if in-the-moment and according to the overall flow of the work, but present only as projected light on the screen. Present time overlaps with past time in a way that fuses them. This is what I find most fascinating about the piece.
During the first part I’m immersed in darkness and trained to accept the basic structure — a camera seeking out and illuminating people and things in the dark. I come to believe that whatever is on screen must be the live-feed of a dancer on stage somewhere. When the previously recorded figures appear, they feel as present as the live performers. It becomes obvious that they aren’t exactly here with us — in body — when a small child emerges on screen. This seems like a miracle. Where were they hiding the child? Only in the computer software that delivers the moving image to the projector.
And yet the child feels very there. Other absent figures emerge from the shadows on screen. They become dance partners for the on-stage artists. I assume some or all of the live performers have had a previous relationship with the on-screen performers, and that they are therefore interacting with them as both present figures and trace figures from the past. I take this as a dance with embodied memory. These beautifully captured figures, so vivid they feel more present than the live dancers, address me from a past I had no part in but want to make contact with. The children in particular intensify a sense of time passing. They seem to be younger versions of the adult dancers, floating in the nothing space of darkness, a geography that exists only as transience — due to the fact that it isn’t accompanied by other sensations from the past such as smell and touch, or clues as to place. Because they are in this nowhere place, and as digital projections have no ability to age, they also intensify a sense of time as eternal present. When darkness fills the room, in all of its featurelessness, it too seems a thing out of time.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes darkness as a heavy presence that erases reference to things and crushes orientation. For sighted people it removes visible features. Darkness itself becomes a palpable void. The tension in The Black Piece, between a depersonalizing darkness and the live and digital figures, is for me the great pleasure of the work. The dancers become playful time capsules. They seem to wink at me. Impossibly, since they are light beams from the past, they seem to acknowledge me where I sit. In this way The Black Piece traverses the threshold between darkness-as-presence and figure-as-emerging-location; a temporary space that says, “Here I am,” while also saying “I’m not here.” The things and people on stage, the dancer ghosts on screen, as well as time, darkness, and self become, like the performance, passing phenomena to be greeted lightly and then let go of.