Dd Critical Conversation: Meryl Tankard's "The Oracle"
Alejandra Iannone: I saw The Oracle on February 7, 2013. It was a cold Thursday evening here in New York City and the theater at the NYU Skirball Center was far from full, with most of the audience seated to the right, left, front, or back of a mostly empty patch in center orchestra. As I waited for the performance to begin, I noticed a screen covered with tall and wide strips of muted color that stood upstage center, softly lit and unconcealed until the performance began a few minutes after 8:00 pm. I suppose the screen could have been there, in that way, for any number of practical reasons, but it seemed like a statement to me.
Lara Wilson: I saw it on February 26th in Orange County, CA, at The Irvine Barclay Theatre. It was a chilly night for California, but very pleasant. And there was a full moon–deep yellow and huge. I’m glad you included the atmosphere of the theater; it makes such a difference. At the Barclay, I usually wind up in the balcony, but this time we were seated in the 586-seat orchestra section, which appeared to be sold out, and standard pre-show bustling-whispering energy permeated the space. The crowd seemed to fall in the over-50 demographic, mostly, and people were dressed up. The ladies had their mink coats on since it was 59 degrees out.
A: Even though this was billed as a dance performance, it seems strange to characterize The Oracle as only that. From its outset, the work seemed clearly multidisciplinary, incorporating natural soundscapes punctuated with loud, startling blasts, and screen projections of shifting, intricate patterns. Watching the first moments of The Oracle was like what I imagine it would be like to look out from an enormous kaleidoscope.
Some of the projected images were pleasant to look upon, others not so much. I’m thinking, for example, of that moment in the screen projection when the images transitioned to morphing sections of a man wearing a baby’s bonnet and glaring down from the screen. I think it was at this point that my friend seated next to me nudged my elbow and whispered, “Um…didn’t you say this was a dance show?”
L: The Hitchcockian bird sounds were piercing and fearsome in the dark. I loved the use of projection and its poetic implications–kaleidoscopic, with seeping blood, horror-movie eyeballs, Ganesh, mirrors, reproductive organs, grotesque shapes, choral music. Interesting that you perceived the hat to be a baby’s bonnet. I can definitely see that now, too, but the whole time I was thinking winter cap. Like a vestigial garment as the rite of spring proceeded.
A: That’s an interesting angle, and I can see where you are coming from there. Our interpretations are not diametrically opposed, though—both suggest a sense of vulnerability, maybe, or even longing for a season of life now gone away. But, this image is an important and recurring one in the piece, and I find myself wondering how our differing interpretations might inform our understanding of later moments in The Oracle. I suppose this means we should move on. Let’s talk about Paul White.
L: White as a performer and mover was incredible. Stravinsky’s infamous score is a huge and meaty piece of work for a single dancer to fill up, yet I felt that he did. I was reminded of Afternoon of a Faun. The movement held reference to Nijinsky but was powerful to see performed by such a muscular, robust man. I was also reminded of Greek statues I’ve seen in museums, despite their immobility–the Youth, Kouros.
A: I got Afternoon of a Faun too! And I agree—Paul White is a force of a dancer. He showed no sign of lagging strength, stamina, or spirit as he moved through his immensely athletic solo. He demonstrated wide, rippling, port de bras, fearless cartwheels, sweeping leg fans, and fluid turns, all while skillfully manipulating his costume. I was particularly impressed by the section in a floor-length skirt or cloak. What did you think when he removed that fabric from his hips? As he draped it over his bowed head, it seemed to me that his skirt became a dance partner that he at first embraced tenderly, then twisted around his body as if to shield himself.
L: When he placed the cloak over the head and started twisting it and wringing it out, I thought suffocation. Then, when the cloak became his “partner,” I thought the intricate movements he made with his hands became extremely sensual, almost masturbatory, or as if he were playing an instrument, a string bass or harp.
A: A moment that I remember in particular was when White reappeared in white briefs and what I saw as a baby’s bonnet, laying curled up center stage surrounded by a thin, circular rim of white light. Upstage, there was a grainy, black and white video of White’s image projected on the screen—I thought ultrasound or gestation. As the video continued, White burst out of the circle of light—immediately I thought of birth.
L: Overall, the lighting gave this piece an otherworldly effect. That widening pillar of light from above made me think of liquid, maybe womblike liquid, or else a foggy clearing in a wood. In general, there was a lot to do with darkness and light: continual appearing, disappearing, reappearing, revealing, covering, exposing, et cetera. But the bonnet with briefs was undeniably babylike.
Ritual is another big part of Rite, obviously, which strikes me as the biggest challenge for it as a solo. Then again, I guess we all have our private rituals, too. Anyway, the shadowing section struck me as demonically ritualistic. It seemed like the shadow was directing White’s movement rather than White himself.
A: The shadow section may have been my favorite moment in the whole piece. White danced a perfectly synchronized and extremely athletic duet with another projected image on the screen which appeared to be his shadow. They moved in and out of unison seamlessly. I didn’t get the feeling that White was controlled by the shadow he danced with, though. In fact, at the duet’s end, it seemed to me that White had confronted his shadow, putting an end to their feverish race of a dance.
L: Despite the apparent use of technology involved in the projection, the work seemed both contemporary and timeless. Certainly there were references to the age-old. Nudity.
Having no conception of what it might be like to have a penis, except to liken it to the experience of having breasts, and then to imagine dancing with everything out and about–well, basically I thought that the naked solo was beyond impressive. But we don’t have to include that.
A: No, we must! When White emerged from the wings bottom-first and fell to the ground, I sat up taller in my seat, startled. I even squeaked—“He’s naked!”
L: And then that powder on the floor: snow?
A: I thought baby powder. I particularly recall the moment in this section when White fell to lay face-up on the floor, and his whole body began to jolt as though in spasm. This might be TMI, but it made me realize that there are all sorts of parts of the body that are capable of contributing to the quality and content of a movement phrase, but we ignore, limit, or restrain many of them. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. But, it popped into my mind.
L: A valid point. The performance I saw received a standing ovation, almost immediately after White’s final, full-frontal jump. It’s weird to think that people in Orange County could have been more open to the risks Tankard took than in New York. Sometimes in NY, though, I found it difficult to really get into performances, either because they were such a constant or I was so exhausted and distracted.
A: An older gentleman seated a few rows in front of me stood up and left the theater midway. He didn’t return. After White’s final jump, there was a pregnant pause. Then applause began—cautious at first, then increasingly generous, until it faded away at last.
L: Rite of Spring has been imagined and reimagined by many choreographers, including Pina Bausch, for whom Meryl Tankard danced before embarking on her choreographic processes. This was the first time I’d seen it as a solo, and rather than following a clear narrative, the piece touched upon familiar themes from the work. For example: sacrifice. I kept thinking about risk as sacrifice. There was the physical risk of the choreography itself, which I thought was brave and daring, especially with the addition of nudity; and then there were some specific references to self-sacrifice.
A: I couldn’t help but consider the moment in ballet history to which The Oracle almost explicitly refers. On May 29, 1913, during their Paris season at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed Rite of Spring, a collaboration between choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, set and costume designer Nicholas Roerich, and composer Igor Stravinsky. Audience members rioted in response to work’s then avant-garde nature, a reaction that seems almost inappropriate today considering the path that modern dance has followed since then. Now, one hundred years later, Tankard’s Oracle cross-examined modern expectations of dancers and dance performances to nearly the same score as Nijinsky’s infamous ballet. And so, as I left the theater that night, I found myself asking, “Was that dance, or a danceworld prophecy?”