Robin Lakes Rough Dance

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

June 8 and 9 and 15 and 16

It’s the rare performance that is so intense you want it to stop. It’s an even rarer occasion when, despite this intense emotional engagement, you want to keep watching. When a choreographer jolts you out of your placidity as a critic–reminds you of just how jaded you can become after seeing countless performances that move you only marginally–that reminds you of why you go to performances, waiting for that moment when the power of art transports you to another plane.

It always happens when you least expect it. Dissonance, an evening-length work by Robin Lakes Rough Dance, was described in a press release as raising “the haunting images of Holocaust.” Heavy material to dance to. I figured it would be like watching another TV or film documentary, focusing on the issues of racism and the ugly possibilities of man’s inhumanity to man. The medium is never the message here, only a conduit for the content. Photos flash by and you’re horrified by their mute accusation, more terrible than any condemnatory rhetoric in words could ever be. Then you turn off the TV and eat dinner.

But Robin Lakes has recognized the power of bringing photos to life, of reenacting images that move you. In the first section of Dissonance, we see the dancers in a series of split-second flashes of light dying horrible deaths. A man suspended on a wire is electrocuted in his desperate attempt at escape. Bodies fall from the flaming ovens into a pile. The images are powerful in their detail: we feel the man’s spasms against the fence as death throes, we feel the limp bodies stiffening into the contorted shapes only corpses could retain. Yet the images, however powerful, are too brief to be really moving–and unfortunately we’ve become immunized by the many books and films on the subject.

Or so you think until, in the next few sections of the dance, scenes gradually lengthen into scenarios–prisoners on their way to concentration camps, couples separated against their will–and the intensity of the situation becomes unbearable. You want to leave the room screaming. Because now the nameless victims have become real, identifiable people before you, people whose terror at being buffeted meaninglessly on crowded trains has become your own terror. Given a different quirk of fate, you could have been herded off in fear to an unknown destination.

Lakes, with the help of set designer A.J. Sutton, has so successfully transformed the cavernous Dance Center space into a prison camp that you really feel as if you might have a number tattooed on your arm. The rows of barbed wire in front of you could as easily be enclosing you. You could as easily be dressed in the dancers’ rags and bandages. Consequently their every movement, even the tiniest, seems charged with meaning. When the stark symbolism turns into more lyrical movement, it’s a relief. You can let out your breath, which you suddenly realize you’ve been holding.

But the idyllic dancing is quickly dispelled; the dancers disperse, and reach out against the black, chipped walls that keep them prisoners. Their reaching hands trigger flashbacks in the viewer to the opening scenes of death. When the dancers finally find temporary relief from their hard labor in the section called “Quenching,” placing soothing wet rags against their parched skin, you feel their pleasure in this small luxury–that it is cause for celebration. Their joyous line dance–“mere” survival a victory here–is a salute to life and the fact that they’re still alive. They forget themselves, and we forget ourselves with them–part of us wants a happy ending, is willing to suspend disbelief and pretend it’ll all be OK because we want it to be.

Suddenly, mid-smile, their dance is broken up by the grim realities of war and persecution. Lakes wants us to remember those realities, and where this dance is set–why, in fact, she created it. The dancers, seated right behind the barbed wire at the front of the stage, are suddenly close to the audience, using it as they might a mirror, silently howling out their pain as they go through their daily rituals rubbing and rerubbing a smudge on a face or arm, delousing hair. Frenetic and frantic, they are more than lost souls; going through the motions of life has become their reason for living. In “Remembering,” a completely bare stage gives rise to a very moving moment: a single spotlight highlights nothing. All that empty space where there had been so much movement, so many people. It’s an eloquent statement about loss through genocide.

In “Labor #2,” a metronome ticking is the accompaniment, counterpointing the discrepancy between the comfortable work of learning to play the piano and the backbreaking work the prisoners are forced to do. In “Extinct,” each dancer clings to a possession from his or her former life: his baby’s shoes, her high heels, his wife’s necklace, her husband’s coat. One woman (Alyson Syrek) clings to a suitcase, at one point wearing it open on her head and shoulders like a pair of wings and flapping it. Earlier, in one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen on a stage, she’d climbed into it, trying to make herself smaller and smaller, the incarnation of a Beckettian image.

In her solo “Forced March,” Lakes becomes a myriad of prisoners going on when that no longer seems possible. Her hands bound by a rope, her every movement impeded, she keeps taking one forced step after another until she falls to the ground in a series of exhausted spasms. The thunder and lightning that follow are not only good stagecraft but a symbolic condemnation from above of her unjust death and those to follow. Later other prisoners, drenched by the elements, keep marching till they drop, reaching out to support each other in an effort to stave of the inevitable. One prisoner (Frank Fishella) holds a woman up by tying her to him, until they both collapse in a heap. The impact on the audience is as direct as a slap across the face. The performers are literally in front of us, soaked by the rain, drops of water flying at us as the prisoners roll into their death dance. They’re outside the barbed wire now, in the only liberation possible for them.

Suddenly the lights go up, and a dispassionate photographer (Dan Prindle) enters. Businesslike in his suit, with a touch of the tourist, he busily documents the corpses, cutting the barbed wire so he can get in closer, making sure he gets everything on film. just as we’re about to condemn him for being so emotionless, when we are laden with the wrenching horror of it all, the photographer drops his camera abruptly and, overwhelmed, cringes at the desolation. He performs a shaking dance, wiping his hand over and over again, not wanting to touch the horror that surrounds him, distancing himself. Ultimately, the only way he can deal with it is by exiting.

The audience, however, couldn’t leave so readily. What we had just experienced kept us riveted to our seats, as if the performance were still going on. Minutes passed–and minutes seem like aeons in the theater. The normal rush to get out of the room as soon as a piece is over was absent. And even when we too, like the dancers, had exited, we were still prisoners of the dance: this was a performance that would stay with us for a lifetime.

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