By Jack Helbig

The final chapter of Stephen Hawking’s popular book about astrophysics and the origin of the universe, A Brief History of Time, begins with a haunting paragraph: “We find ourselves in a bewildering world. We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?”

Marianne Kim and Sara Kraft use these lines as a jumping-off point for their sublime, witty multimedia piece Diallel, part of an evening, shared with Andrew Fearnside, called “Meditativengeance.” Kim, Kraft, and their seven-member ensemble combine dance, film, and performance into an hour-long meditation on the mysteries of creation and the universe. “Diallel” isn’t a term from physics, however, but from genetics, a fact that broadens even further the scope of Kim and Kraft’s exploration. Though they count Hawking’s book and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as sources, the piece is rich with references to unscientific knowledge: during a filmed sequence, Kim and Kraft rise up out of Lake Michigan like a pair of goddesses born, as Aphrodite was, out of the surf. Interestingly, though, when they return to the water later, also on film, they crawl in like primordial creatures, their dresses fanning out behind them like tail fins–a reference perhaps to evolutionary biology and our amphibious ancestors, the first animals to live half in, half out of the seas.

It’s one sign of the piece’s remarkable power that Kim and Kraft are able to weave into a seamless whole elements from biology, physics, and mythology without making the science seem half-baked or hobbling their storytelling with the dry recitation of scientific facts. The fragmentary, multimedia nature of the piece is crucial to their success: we’re clearly not seeing a unified view of the universe that accounts for everything with a single, all-encompassing force. As Hawking himself says in his book, modern physics has no unified-field theory yet, though scientists from Einstein on have yearned for one. Instead Diallel presents many of the ideas, both rational and crackpot, that are floating around our culture. At times Diallel resembles nothing so much as a performance version of the Python-esque faux-physics exam circulated in science classes when I was in college: “Define the universe. Give three examples.”

Kim and Kraft give us many examples over the course of this dreamlike show: the universe as theater, the universe as cocktail party, the universe as picnic, the universe as abandoned building, and in their most postmodern moments, the universe as performance about the universe. Thus the big bang is replayed in a film in which a huge abandoned building is brought down by a number of explosions; a few moments later, there’s a movement sequence of running, spinning, and banging across the stage, as if the ensemble were so many elementary particles let loose in the void. Later these same particles, dressed with tongue-in-cheek solemnity in tuxedos and long black dresses, cohere into a cocktail party where the chitchat revolves around such theological questions as who invited them to this “party” and whether she or he actually exists. Later Kim and Kraft appear as “our hostesses,” but somehow they answer none of our basic questions.

Did the two of them set this whole world in motion? They did create the piece we’re watching (which abounds in such postmodern jokes, as when the creation of the universe is likened to the moment when the lights come up in a performance). Are Kim and Kraft meant to be what Aristotle called the unmoved movers, the beings who lit the fuse for the big bang?

To their credit, Kim and Kraft don’t tell us. Instead they present scene after scene of remarkable grace and beauty: comic songs, whimsical films, half-serious rituals, short choreographed gestural scenes (reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s dance-theater) that are simultaneously about human relationships and about the force of attraction between bodies in space. Through it all is suffused a yearning for ultimate knowledge that, like Godot, never comes.

Which brings us back to Hawking’s paragraph. In Diallel Kim and Kraft create for us a “bewildering world” but they do it with so much intelligence and craft–remarkably this nonnarrative show has a beginning, middle, and end–that we enjoy the bewilderment and the surprising moments of beauty and order that emerge from the chaos.

Andrew Fearnside’s meditation on the life of 15th-century mass murderer Gilles de Rais, Bluebeard, is less successful. In his notes Fearnside claims he’s exploring both de Rais’ dark side and his yearning for spirituality. Yet he leaves out the most spiritual aspect of de Rais’ life, the well-known story that he was Joan of Arc’s bodyguard.

But then he leaves out a lot in this three-person nonlinear hybrid of dance and performance. The piece is full of brief moments of striking beauty, as when Fearnside, playing Bluebeard, rises from a victim and we see that his skin is a bright, bloody red. But overall Bluebeard doesn’t hold together. Bereft of narrative tension because Fearnside chooses not to tell de Rais’ story, lacking the enthusiasm that energizes Diallel, and performed to remarkably dreary music (selections from John Zorn, Nina Simone, and Buddy Collette, with a little Haitian ra-ra thrown in for good measure), Bluebeard feels too long shortly into the performance. Then it continues for another 40 mind-numbing minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo.