The dancers of Khecari picked as good a time as any to get off the grid. Last Thursday, two days after the presidential campaign came to an end, I made my way to Indian Boundary Park Cultural Center in Rogers Park for a pseudo-getaway called The Retreat. Upon arrival, I was asked to relinquish my phone for safekeeping and put my mind to rest for at least a few hours. I was assigned a “ranger” who’d help guide me throughout the night. I was given a mug, a notepad and a pencil and instructed to doodle, grab a cup of tea, lounge. The lights were dim, the music soft—the idea here was to get comfy.
You could be forgiven for thinking that none of this has to do with a dance, but it does, and judging from the faces of my fellow audience members, much of it turned out to be therapeutic, even if only subconsciously so. The Retreat, the first installment of Teem, a new multipart performance project from Khecari’s creative duo of Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick, is a test of will, an endurance exercise that comes packaged with the bells and whistles of some kind of spiritual resort. It’s beautifully arranged and designed. But is it all just a gimmick?
Over the course of a single evening, The Retreat goes from dance concert to intimate social hour to slumber party, its underlying intention seemingly to show that dance is, in its own way, a spiritual practice around which people can coalesce, maybe something like Buddhism, Hinduism, or even animism. Nature is a big theme. The set, for example, is reminiscent of cavernous rock formations, and is given a warm glow from lighting designer Kat Sirico. Percussionist Joe St. Charles, a frequent Khecari collaborator, roves back and forth from one end of the room to the other, plucking at strings and filling the space with a range of brooding sounds (Native American?) that inspire a wistful form of meditation.
In developing this performance three years ago, Meyer and Antonick decided to give people a choice between a two-hour evening-length experience, a four-hour long-form experience, and an overnight experience. The longer you stay, the better the perks: the long-form and overnight groups are treated to a midnight snack that consists of cheese and homemade vegetarian soup; the overnighters get all that and are subsequently asked to participate in a “hypnagogic movement workshop,” then in “nesting,” which I was told is less like a form of sleep than slipping in and out of consciousness.
This is to say nothing of the actual movement, developed from an improvised “duet investigation” of Meyer and Antonick’s called Orders From the Horse. But the dancing comes across, perhaps intentionally so, as more of an afterthought than a focal point. Meyer and Antonick are typically steady and lucid in their pacing; when Meyer’s grows quicker, dancer Chih-Hsien Lin wraps him in a tarp, as if to say “slow down.” The few choreographed sections draw the audience even further into what apears to be a state of hypnosis, the ensemble sliding and rippling across the floor like pools of water. But all the while you’re given the freedom to do as you please.
At one point, my so-called ranger told me I should feel free to fall asleep at any time—no judgment. I took him up on it and dozed off for a few minutes before a crawling Meyer happened to bump my feet. I noticed others snoozing too, tucked under blankets. Surprisingly, the attendees who were awake looked refreshed, even enthralled by what was happening. At nearly every stage of the performance (which for me spanned from 8 PM to midnight) someone was moving. When the dancers, who double as rangers, directed their respective charges to tables for a brief pause, a member of my dinner group remarked that watching felt like falling asleep with the TV on.
With The Retreat, Meyer and Antonick have once again productively, ingeniously messed with our environment and our senses to inform our thinking about what dance is and what it can be. Two years ago, in Oubliette, the ensemble negotiated the confines of a five-by-eight-foot pit in a tiny 12-seat “microtheater” consisting of two benches overlooking it. In last year’s The Cronus Land, they set up shop in the decrepit ballroom of the former Shoreland Hotel in Hyde Park. Site-specific choreography and radical thinking have taken them to some very weird and unconventional places, but none of their productions so far, I would argue, have been as altogether mind-bending and strangely rejuvenating as The Retreat. At midnight, when a ranger quietly escorted me to the front of the building to retrieve my belongings, I was saddened knowing that my getaway had come to an end. v