Creating an Atmosphere

by Clarinda Mac Low

A hill, a lot of barking dogs, a funeral home, a chilly little hut, a modern rickshaw.

How do you set a scene?

A select group of people, a secret instruction, a cinematic purview in Prospect Park.

What exactly is happening? Do I care?

In performance the what is often subsumed to the how. The actions, words, movements—the content of the piece—take precedence over the context of the piece.

In Death By Water, by the Canadian-NYC group Blue Mouth, we (the audience) meet in a funeral home, then are led by a rickshaw-pulling cowboy character to a beautiful vista in Fort Greene park, where we are ushered into a little hut and given headphones so that we can listen to the live dialogue via wireless microphones as well as a pre-recorded musical score. We view the performance through a Plexiglas window, and to our left, a video of many many images plays continuously on one membrane-like wall. Two people with generic character titles expending tremendous effort in the cold, and they do it three times a night, four nights a week. They do it in the snow, in the pouring rain, in the freezing air of February in NYC. They never postpone.

What interested me about Death By Water is that, because I couldn’t decipher the content, the piece became almost entirely atmosphere. (For a similar view of this from a critic’s perspective, see James Hannaham’s review in the Village Voice.) The various scenes became part of the flow of incidental, unplanned events (e.g. the myriad off-leash barking dogs that joined the show, one after the other, the night I was there—some herding the performers, some just barking from the sidelines. The dogs lent the show comic relief, and, at one point, a chilling depth. The piece is clearly about death in many ways, and one big white dog, that I imagine from a myth carrying people to the underworld, stands and barks magisterially, and becomes otherworldly). This vagueness-leading-to-integration may have been the makers’ intention—if so, it is an excellent strategy in many ways.

The dream logic of the content—stylized movement and non-specific poetic text—became a vehicle for the spectacular surroundings and a container for the intense energy of the performers. The endurance creates its own tension, its own sympathy. The relentless nature of the performers’ activity hermetically seals them from us, snug in our hut, but it’s this commitment that stays with me, back in the world, this frame of mind. I find no narrative to follow, but I do have…an experience.

The ellipses (…) here between “I have” and “an experience” are significant. It is in this gap between the living of the performance and the words to describe that living that I find the richest ground. I am glad I can’t put into words what happened there—that means it works. At its bottom, performance leaves you in a space outside of words, a suspended state where your world view has shifted, but you can’t say how or why, exactly. To me, this is the place I want to be. This place is why I don’t like applause, when I’m onstage or when I’m watching. Applause interrupts the flow, separates the “performance” from “real life,” when what I want is to bring that experience of the performance forward into your life, I want it to stay with you permanently as you step out the door, I want to alter the neurons so that the state of “real life” and the state of “performance” mingle inextricably.

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