at Blue Rider Theatre, June 25-27

The forces of nature were on Lynn Book and Tatsu Aoki’s side the night I saw their latest work: When Book entered the theater through the back door, thunder and lightning erupted. Her entrance–with billowing dress, forbidding, stabbing shadows, and the percussive ensemble of the heavens–was nothing less than spectacular.

Geographies, which was constructed specifically for Blue Rider’s weird space–its loft area, open kitchen right off the stage, odd railings, dusty windows–marks a new direction for Book and Aoki. Book has used movement expertly for years in her solo work, but her pieces with Aoki, an avant-garde jazz bassist with whom she’s been collaborating for the last year, have been primarily musical and performed mostly in music venues such as the Elbo Room.

In Geographies Book and Aoki’s talents are better integrated. The work’s biggest plus is that it allows Book to do something at which she’s expert: create movement tableaux. For the last year she’s mostly stood alongside Aoki as a singer, but Geographies shows off her talent for movement, for the quirky gesture, the unexpected. It’s not simply that she’s graceful, but that she can easily switch emotions, from playful to threatening.

The piece’s biggest weakness is the faltering narrative. When she was working primarily as a singer Book was forced to perform something akin to songs, which, by virtue of their shortness, don’t have to–often can’t–develop ideas deeply. Instead they suggest, poke around, touch. But an hour-long song cycle, much like an opera narrative, demands more than implication or allusion. The program for Geographies says it’s about “being in a place.” That’s fine, but what about being there?

Certainly there was plenty to be enchanted with. Aoki’s playing, with its dissonance and idiosyncratic rhythms, was hypnotizing. When he used a slide, the effect was eerie, bewitching. Book’s percussive forays–tugging on gigantic metal sheets hanging from the ceiling, which created swooping sounds, a hysterical shake-up of pans and other appliances in the kitchen–were well-timed and fun.

Book’s voice, as usual, was fantastic: pliable, soothing, dangerous–an instrument of tremendous capacity and energy. Though she used words in only one section of the performance, her voice conveyed amusement, joy, fear, insecurity, petulance, etc convincingly.

Book moved from center stage to the loft area, down a ladder to the kitchen, over to a row of chairs against the opposing wall. She doffed one layer of clothes for another, then came back to her original garments. Her supporting cast, six silent partners who rose from the audience and moved throughout the space during the show, were like chess pieces: cautious, changing places almost imperceptibly, and yet totally altering the dynamics of the stage with each move. They were like the quieter forces of the universe, like the passage of time: you didn’t always see what they were doing, but every now and then you’d notice them and be forced to consider the whole scene all over again.

Yet for all its musical and visual grace Geographies was missing something: an emotional center. We never knew what was at stake, what impulses were at work. The piece seemed rooted in some sort of fragmented subjectivity, an ultimately distancing element. The one recognizable song–an aching, bluesy riff about loneliness sung as Book scribbled on a windowpane with her finger, her back to the audience–was the only moment with any emotional resonance.

Still, here are two immensely talented artists, each pushing and prodding the other, each stretching in his or her own right. More than anything, the importance of Geographies is in its promise: a transition to the next plane for both of them.

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