Robyn Orlin

at Mussetter-Struble Theatre of Northwestern University, September 23

South African expatriate choreographer/performance artist Robyn Orlin is seemingly incapable of a false move. Every piece she’s done since her arrival in Chicago three years ago has featured a fearless emotional honesty, spare yet clear execution, and deft manipulation of sets, lighting, and costume. She manages to pull her audiences into her bizarre, abstracted, yet absolutely consuming world.

Though Orlin is largely unknown in this country, she was a well known presence in South Africa, where she taught, performed, and choreographed for over 20 years. Because of apartheid, she–and many other visual and performing artists–were unable to bring their work out of the country. (This performance was offered in conjunction with Northwestern’s exhibit of visual art, “Displacements: South African Works on Paper, 1984-1994.”) The political climate there seems to have created a claustrophobic sense of loneliness, isolation, and fear, represented in much of Orlin’s work.

In a Corner the Sky Surrenders . . . is her fourth solo here. This piece is a departure for Orlin (who moved to New York a scant three weeks ago), with a leaner feel, less excruciatingly perfect lighting (which in the past has reminded me of Hitchcock), and a meager set: a continually evolving folded and flattened cardboard box, sort of a collapsible house, illuminated by clamp lights she herself attaches and rearranges to accommodate various stages of her performance. She’s accompanied by a wonderfully imaginative sound track edited and orchestrated by Eric Leonardson, a compilation of ambient sounds as well as Miriam Makeba singing and breathing percussively.

More than ever before, Orlin seems to be pursuing Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theater.” Even her props–windup toys and assorted gold shoes–are humble. The piece is as lean and evocative as a haiku, a brilliant example of what can be done with very little. It should inspire others weary of the expense and worry of overproduction to investigate what can be accomplished with slender means.

In a Corner the Sky Surrenders . . . addresses the sense of being countryless, companionless, exiled and homeless. It reveals the frailty of dignity and pride, their impotence and uselessness in an indifferent landscape. A small mechanical toy train appears at the beginning and the end, acting as a signal of the beginning and end of her journey. Orlin, an athletic, svelte vision in a gold brocade dress with dangling chestnut-size faux-leopard-fur balls dancing across her bodice, begins the piece by limping across the stage wearing one gold high-heeled shoe. Has she just returned home from a dicey all-night date? Is she a lost, displaced princess? She clutches her opera-gloved arms across her chest and seems to perch on one leg against a glowing shack. One can’t clearly see at first that this is a cardboard box–in the light it looks a bit like a pagoda. Painted blue within and illuminated from within, it provides a faint blue glow.

We hear a crackling record–a skip repeats and repeats itself. (Interestingly, both Mathew Wilson and Lynn Book have also used scratchy records and the image of the train in recent pieces.) The little train makes its way across the bare stage, a sort of homage to De Chirico; its smokestack shoots out little puffs. And as in a De Chirico, the tableau is spare and severe. Orlin pulls out a round, hard valise, the ultrafeminine sort popular among women of the 50s and 60s, and drags it along by a looped handle. Is she embarking on a journey? Is she returning from a journey? Nothing is clear, everything is ambiguous.

A small mechanical plush elephant seems to appear out of nowhere center stage making a strange sound less like trumpeting than like the noise of battery-operated gears grinding. Not unlike the little mechanical train puffing its way across the stage, the elephant paws the stage and its trunk rises up and down. Orlin has opened a window in the cardboard box and crawled inside, and she reclines inside this glowing house clutching the stuffed elephant in both hands. Its trunk rises and falls, and she lets the tip of it touch her face, then lowers it to her chest and continues to gaze at it. The elephant’s trunk suggests a tiny yet willful penis–there’s a sense of impotence and futility in her relationship with it, perhaps a metaphor for her position as one of South Africa’s “privileged” yet disenfranchised artists, or for the endangerment of the elephant in Africa, or for the difficulty of life whenever one’s home is a cardboard box.

Throughout the performance Orlin is poker-faced. She stretches the box out on the floor, directs the lights toward her, and tries to sleep. She might just as well be on an airport runway. We hear an invisible fly, and she swats at it with her hand and shakes her head. Then she pulls out a gold fly swatter. We hear The Blue Danube, and she begins an Isadora Duncan-inspired fly-swatting dance. The audience laughs, but we know that the woman in her box has not slept, nor has she made love, nor has she really rested. This dance is a swan song.

By the time the piece ends, Orlin has created at least five different configurations of her domicile, she’s painted her feet red, and she’s danced, shuddered, and glided gracefully throughout her set, an iron-willed presence. It’s almost as if she’s daring herself to dance or move or defy gravity at times, almost as if she’s more comfortable rooted, earthbound, plodding. The little De Chirico train signifies that the journey has ended–but that it continues. By the end we’ve seen one more trumpeting elephant, and Orlin, the girl’s shadow in a De Chirico, quietly disappearing from view. This cinematic fade-out leaves Orlin’s character still relentlessly searching for rest and a sense of place, ultimately allowing the bleak countryside to prevail.

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