How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies

Goat Island

at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, September 27-29 and October 4-6

By Carol Burbank

Watching Goat Island perform is like watching a human ghost caught in a machine. Each performer has a distinct role and personality but maintains a studied gestural neutrality that turns any story, relationship, or tension back on itself. It’s a cold, compelling, strikingly ideological performance style that defies sense but somehow creates its own sensibility.

How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies is appropriate to this ghostly style, a series of scenes haunted by the ghosts of cultural icons, soldiers, and lost possibilities. The performance opens with a straightforward announcement. “We have surrendered,” says Bryan Saner, who seems to be the leader of the group. We’re told that the four performers are prisoners from a destroyed country whose prospects for survival are unknown. And from their pressed military uniforms to their bland faces, the performers reinforce the feeling of a military prison.

Even when their gestures, role-playing, and interactions turn into desperate choral repetitions of movement and circus-style narrations of the histories of Amelia Earhart and Mike Walker, the Fattest Man in the World, the impression of a military prison hovers over the performance, a didactic reminder of impending death. Narratively ambiguous but solidly choreographed, the piece has a haunted, expectant feeling that breaks down only at the end, when Matthew Goulish apologizes to his unhappy colleagues for being the only survivor and the three ghosted dancers hop-kick offstage one by one. The pat, overexplained ending blunts the earlier evocative excerpts from movies and songs, which create flashes of meaning.

The piece employs a carefully paced development from abstract motions to increasingly theatrical scenes. At first Goulish stands, lifting his arms to rub nine circles on his right hand over and over, varying the motion slightly by holding one arm, then both arms at shoulder level. Karen Christopher breaks the stillness with a “puppet jump,” as the program calls it, a hop-kick turn with windmill arms. Then, almost sullenly, she comes to a stop to stare fixedly at a distant point.

As the other company members join her in this stomping dance, the feeling of expectation sharpens. It’s the kind of motion that could go anywhere. Its blandness and athleticism combine to produce a stoic frenzy, setting up rhythms constantly interrupted by other leaping figures. The different ways of leaping and the variations in physical capabilities seem to evoke personalities for each of the uniformed figures, giving each performer a character that becomes part of the later, more complicated scenarios. Christopher quotes from Renoir’s Grand Illusion as she shows playing cards to Mark Jeffery, who must name them faster and faster, listing a different torture for each card; four or five tortures put together make a complete set. Goulish follows a chair carried around the room by the other performers, stepping on and over it with what becomes grim determination through sheer repetition.

Through these scenes Saner’s apparent leadership grows into a caretaking role; he plays a circus announcer, moves props in and out of scenes, stops staged twitches and freezes moments, halting the momentum of gestures. He interrupts the card torture and sets the stage for the Mike/Amelia scenes. He’s a comforting presence compared to his docile companions, who fixate on tasks and motions and appear at times to have no will of their own. Simultaneously outside and inside the action, Saner provides a point of contact beyond the performance’s entertaining asymmetries. The plainness of his gestures is deceptive: he’s capable of leaping into a complicated turn, falling with his full weight to the floor, or twisting his long body into a sudden knot.

Christopher plays both aviatrix Earhart and ex-soldier Walker, characters linked by their status as fallen heroes whose lives were put on display as models for others. Christopher’s odd combination of playfulness and passivity, coupled with her willingness to extend a gesture or a sound into a comic-ugly metaphor, makes her a compelling performer. Lying upside down on a table at a 45-degree angle as the bedridden fat man, or recounting Earhart’s story in half thoughts standing on the backs of her fellow dancers, she’s not unlike a talking prop. Her body seems to serve gesture; only her face registers an emotional subtext.

Goulish–who plays the verbally frenzied Mr. Memory, the man whose freakish vaults of knowledge fill out the two histories enacted–is remarkable to watch. He seems to move as quickly as a thought, going from stillness to a compulsive head twitch though his body remains frozen, compelling Saner to break the obsessive progression by comforting him until he’s calm.

Jeffery, the newest member of the company, is the most inscrutable; his almost total blankness makes him perhaps the most disturbing performer. When he dips his eye in red paint and rubs it over the chest of a pressed white shirt, creating a stain like a bullet hole, his suddenly bleeding face seems young, vulnerable, and dead.

Images like this one, woven into seemingly random stories and interactions almost entirely lacking in touch, imprint themes of war, loss, and transformation. The smallest change in a motion becomes very important; large changes become dramatic, almost emotional, despite the lack of emotion in the performance style. Director Lin Hixson has provided an effective outside eye for the piece, facilitating a full use of the stage and a relentless, steady pace. Except for the easy ending, this evocation of the haunting of war and the return of a haunted peace is a daunting, exciting collaboration that extends the ritualistic traditions of performance art and dance with fuguelike gestures and blank-faced moments of whimsy and horror.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): live performance photo.