Robin Lakes/Rough Dance

at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University

February 29

At one point in Dissonance–a “full-evening work derived from Holocaust images” recently performed by Robin Lakes/Rough Dance at Northwestern University–a spotlight shines on a man half-asleep with his arm draped over a suitcase. Like a lover, he caresses it lightly with his fingers. He begins kissing it, licking it, knowing it’s just a suitcase but wanting so badly for it to be his lover. In a neighboring block of light, another man takes two small cream-colored leather shoes in his hands. Gently, he makes them walk as if his son were still wearing them. A woman alone in another spot of light frantically rummages through a blue overcoat, looking for the person who once wore it; a man plays with a string of pearls that once hung around someone’s neck.

The people who belonged to these objects are gone. We can imagine where they went: to another concentration camp, to the gas chambers. We look at them and can’t believe that anyone could long that much for another. The father sniffs his son’s shoes, hoping to get one last drop of him; a man climbs into the suitcase hoping to get closer to someone we know is gone.

It seems absurd, but we have to believe it. That’s the strength of Dissonance–it condenses an attempt to systematically exterminate a race into the experiences of a few, unnamed individuals and makes these individuals incredibly real.

Dissonance is an all-too-human, fleshy dance. It draws us into the psychology of these people, yet it also deliberately keeps us at a distance. We remain on the other side of the barbed wire that stretches from the proscenium down to the floor. We are the ones on the outside who can only watch. The fly space and wings are open and visible. We can see the lights, the mechanics, and even the door that leads to the dressing room. So why do we fall for the illusion that these people are real when the stage contains only some scaffolding, a cage, a few suitcases, and a bench?

Lakes combines a psychological, emotional dance vocabulary with concrete actions and objects that jog our memory in unusual ways. In “Families Torn Apart” we see three vignettes: a mother and her daughters locked in a frightened embrace, a man bending over for another man to enter him from behind, and a woman holding her husband’s face to her crotch. Suddenly the male lovers are torn apart. The husband is torn from his wife. Arms flailing, he fights some invisible force to get back to her. He’s torn away again, does a backward roll. On his knees, he arches back, trying to get his face between her legs again, but fails. It’s an emotional, erotic image that plays up the power of physical contact in a love relationship. When these people are torn apart, we feel it in our groins and our stomachs. These people are not martyrs. They’re just people: heterosexual, homosexual, families.

The families are scattered, each individual heading to a different distant corner of the stage. Violently, they remove their clothes. They scream angrily, not really understanding what’s happening to them, removing their clothes as if controlled by a malevolent force larger than they. When we see them again, they wear only a few flesh-colored rags. Some sleep on bits of scaffolding, uncomfortably curled around hard metal poles. Their flesh looks soft and vulnerable. All they wear besides the rags are work boots, hard heavy black things.

Their work is the transportation of bodies. One lies on the ground, another stands. Six in a row, like a train. Then one bends over, grabs her left ankle with both hands, lifts her foot, and puts it in front of herself. She does the same with her right foot. Then she rolls the body on the ground a few feet forward. Bends over and does it all again.

The dancers move as if propelled by a force they neither like nor understand. Only at one point do they seem to actually want to move: Israeli folk-dance music is played and the people leap up, filled with just a bit more energy. Defiantly joyous, they kick their legs behind them, lifting their chins to the sky. Yahoos and whoops escape their mouths, and they join hands in a circle dance.

But as quickly as it began it ends, and the people find themselves up against the barbed wire at the front of the stage. Each reacts to the wire in his or her own way. One stares out with big round blue eyes, another curls into the fetal position, a third compulsively fixes her hair, still another waves flirtatiously at the people watching on the other side of the wire.

Lakes has assembled a first-class troupe of dancers and actors: Amy Alt, Jeffrey Carpenter, Ginger Farley, Frank Fishella, Anne Kuite, Lakes, and Louie Miller. They grab you and they don’t let go for a moment. Dissonance is also a well-constructed dance. It progresses in a circular manner, opening with a section called “Photographs” and closing with a photographer who arrives at the end of the war to document scenes from the concentration camps. In the opening section, the people in the photographs are alive: we see a flash of light on a group of bodies writhing in a cage, then dark. Flash on a man still holding his violin under his chin, but his glasses have been knocked from his face and his bow is broken, then dark.

The young photographer calmly and meticulously begins to photograph the bodies left to rot. He cuts the barbed wire and crawls into the camp to take more photos. The only sound is the click of his shutter. He walks away, ready to go home and hand the pictures in to his editor. Suddenly, he jerks to a halt, as though he’s hit an invisible wall. He seems overwhelmed by horror, his hands curling inward as though shriveling up. He dances a dance of disbelief and repulsion, jumping over dead bodies, rocking on his toes with his feet crossed, palms upward as if asking why. His dance, performed to quirky, raucous music, would be funny if it weren’t such a gut reaction to the horror around him. Then he walks away and slams the door behind him.

The lights come up again and a calm, clear voice sings a section of an old Negro spiritual: “No more, no more.” The woman’s voice is like cold water flowing, somehow soothing the audience. The dancers quietly exit the stage. There is no curtain call.

Dance can cleanse us emotionally. After watching Dissonance, we feel like the photographer, wanting to somehow dance out of our bodies what we’ve just seen. But the images stay with us–in our groins, in our stomachs, and in our memories in a way that no amount of dancing can ever remove.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eileen Ryan.