Missed Connections: Gwen Welliver's "Beasts and Plots"
“Lines in the the body, between people and things,” the program notes quote Gwen Welliver as saying, “are common forms of human communication.” In Beasts and Plots, however, Welliver’s latest work at NYLA, these lines are more about miscommunication – revealing missed opportunities to engage – rather than connections.
The piece opens on Stuart Singer sitting in a chair facing the audience, his arms wrapped in paper spirals that extend into long lines reaching towards the audience. He shifts in his chair as he simultaneously shifts his facial expression, moving through different states until Welliver appears and abruptly cuts him off. Throwing away his paper extensions with palpable disappointment, she walks to the back of the stage and sits in a chair facing the back wall–waiting expectantly, mirroring the audience onstage. Is she the choreographer in control of the others on stage, the audience, or both? Who are we in relation to these people, watching her watch them? This opening sequence throws the power dynamics of the space into stark relief, and it is a surprisingly thrilling moment.
What follows, however, does not continue with this promising beginning. Very soon after the opening section, Singer and Beth Gill take the small stage within the stage at the back of the theater, with Welliver as the audience. Singer begins to relay a story to Gill, and at first, from so far away, it is difficult to make out their relationship. When Singer’s performance gets larger and more exciting, it becomes clear that they are not making eye contact; in fact he is completely ignoring Gill, his sole audience member. He has not even noticed her own lack of attention. The dance seems to exist for the performer alone–the desire to communicate meaning to the audience, even the very presence of an audience, is secondary to the act of performing. As the music gets louder and Singer’s story takes him all over the stage, we get a window into Gill’s experience of this exchange: she crumbles, puts her head in her hands, and finally lurches up the wall, bracing herself against it.
It’s hard not to read this as a way into Beasts and Plots, because the rest of the piece proceeds to dispense with human connection altogether. After this point, the dancers do not acknowledge each other but dance in the space separately, even when they are together. They do the same movement in close proximity, then far apart; they sit on top of each other. At one point a dancer lies directly on top of another, but the first dancer is entirely hidden from view by a large sheet of paper. Welliver later even hides her own face with a mask, which is frustrating primarily because, even in this fantastic cast, she is the standout performer. The lines between the dancers did not highlight the connection between them so much as the distance.
The program notes promise a unicorn, a white peacock, and the god Pan, and the piece delivers, but these are not the takeaway moments of the show. (Fantasty turns out to be somewhat empty in a world of isolation.) Instead, what stayed with me were the few opening sections when the dancers seemed to be in the space with each other. I was still thinking about these a week later when I had the chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar: a show all about miscommunication when people do try to engage directly and still fail. I couldn’t help but wonder what Welliver would do if she were to tackle this type of engagement and push the beginning of Beasts and Plots further. How do we reach another person? What do we do after we fail?
A show that focuses on the inability to connect is, by its very nature, hard to connect with. Welliver does not undermine her project by making it easier to swallow. Though this make Beasts and Plots at times a difficult piece, it also makes Welliver a choreographer to watch.