The Nature Play Center at Indian Boundary Park is transformed at night: in the half light the three tiny houses, the sand garden and low bridge, the ring of short wooden rails appear ominous, a tableau of totemic objects grown large. Once a small zoo, the play lot feels unsettlingly liable to transform itself without warning—and you with it.
Oubliette, an hour-long piece by Jonathan Meyer and Khecari, a contemporary dance troupe known for its radical experiments, ingeniously takes a hint from these surroundings, producing a similarly unsettling weirdness with its unique staging. Inside a barn at the far corner of the playground and built especially for the show is a wooden “microtheater” (it seats just 12)—two benches overlooking a five-by-eight-foot pit. That pit is the oubliette, or dungeon, of the title, and huddled in it below us are the four performers.
In the riveting opening, the dancers are configured in a tight shape like Solomon’s shield, crushed into each other cheeks to shoulders, heads hidden under hoods, straining hard but maintaining the knot. Minutes pass before the first evidence of struggle—slipping feet—appears in time with a shriek from a broken-down grand piano missing its lid and keys (sound artist Joe St. Charles plucks the strings with a metal spoon). Soon after, the dancers begin to shake hard and break apart on the floor. Subsequent sequences have them upright, then along the walls—and sometimes climbing them, all to accompaniment by St. Charles and Sarah Morgan on accordion.
The trouble is Meyer’s hyperactive use of metaphor. Oubliette is crowded with themes—prisoners, torture, mazes, dungeons, jellyfish, fish tanks, oceans, pain, oppression, inhumanity—and they pile up till they self-destruct in a puff of dust. The result is a disconcerting sense of estrangement from the unrelenting emotional content of the dance. Meyer’s choreography alone suffices to create powerful images that stir up their own clusters of meaning without extra input. When three of the dancers lie down in a spoon shape facing left as the fourth makes the same shape facing right, their mismatched parentheses—the body reduced to punctuation—is an indictment of war whose purity is breathtaking.
Amid the clutter of themes, abjection remains the one indispensable concept, and we’re confronted with it throughout, as when Chih-Hsien Lin, facedown on her belly, pulls her body up into a miserable hunch, tormented by the accordion’s grueling polka, her arms and legs and forehead still pressed to the ground. But in other moments of equal tension, there’s a disconnect—the abject bodies are negated by facial expressions so vacant they’re practically goofy, and at such close range an unfocused gaze is distracting, even distancing. Rather than terrified victims, the dancers resemble blank-faced babies staring up out of a crib, and a dance that aims to alarm compels barely a ripple of fear.