With Dark & Pretty Flat, Esme Boyce marries rigorous technique and familial intimacy

“My parents were driving from L.A. to New York, in a cross country move that would re-unite our family. The were in Arkansas, or at least my mom thinks so, when I texted her, “What’s it like there?” Her reply was, “Dark and Pretty Flat.” This piece is about an American attachment to a certain landscape, about great horizontal journeys and about how one can feel like a foreigner in one’s own homeland.”

Esme Boyce
Photo © Darren Hoffman

Esme Boyce is growing into a choreographer of more than just dance. Her vision on each new project aims to encompass more and more media, more and more players, and in so collaborating she discovers new ways to bring the deeply personal to bear on stage.

Her previous works (The Particular Premiere of a First being… of particular note) found what seemed like a perfect solution to the problem of emerging choreographers– how to develop a unique language of movement to maturity within the span of a single piece? By keeping things abstract, by repeating basic movements, and by using imagery from the cosmos and early childhood, Esme created a piece that, like the glowing sphere it featured, looked perfectly whole, perfectly balanced between abstraction and figuration, between giving its intentions away and forcing us to search for meaning. However, the inevitable problem arises: how to you build on such a work? How do you progress from a shape as perfect as a sphere? You have to carefully place disturbances, carefully reveal imperfections, that give it new context without rupturing it. And I argue that, compared to creating a perfect universe, the feeling of having perfectly shaken that universe is a more satisfying creative act.

Photo © Darren Hoffman

Dark and Pretty Flat is a work in the continuing vein of Esme’s earlier pieces: a continuous performance that morphs with each movement or section (it is the maturation of the same ideas sketched out in Emergence, which premieredat BAM with The Satellite Collective in May of this year). With the players all present and visible, the audience gets to witness creeping shifts and changes– within the choreography itself, and also within the milieu. As Ted Levine reads poetry from a book, an image has appeared on the rear wall… Cody Boyce, guitar slung over his shoulder, stands up and joins in on his own low-frequency prerecorded soundtrack… and then you realize your eye has drifted away from center stage, and you notice a body inching forward from the wings, the high frequency of the sweeping feet on the floor a contrast to Cody’s strumming… this time the body is wearing a different costume, the lights have changed, and once the movement settles you discover the music has changed as well… if you aren’t careful, you’ll miss the tiny instances when a certain pose or gesture gets reflected, repeated, reinterpreted within the quartet of dancers… throughout, the warped horizontal stripes on the bunched-up canvas which serves as the minimal set reminds you of the order that once was and the imagined connections and revelations being made once the fabric of space-time folds in on itself.

Every limb of this creature gesticulates on its own, but in response to stimuli from the others. Multimedia is becoming commonplace in contemporary stage productions, developing to interlock with the ever-whittling attention span of an audience accustomed to multitasking. Such a shift is exciting because it allows a dilution of narrative, a permission to have a story flow from a musical instrument to a voice to a leg to a pixel. Such choreography requires great technical rigor and knowledge of pacing. Esme Boyce has these qualities.

Photo © Darren Hoffman

Esme wants us in an intimate space. She has long been interested in crafting shows that are both immersive and ‘soft’ on both ends– that is, where the hard line of start and end is smudged a bit. Terms like ‘evening length’ and ‘multi-disciplinary’ readjust all comers’ expectations regarding contemporary dance.

Many tweaks to the tired dance-format aid in this deconstruction:

  • Cody Boyce & Ted Levine are always present on stage right, both performers and audience members.
  • The pyjama-like costumes that evoke a slumber party on acid.
  • The unmistakably Esme-esque choreography, which in the context of more concrete words and images give the impression of a body no longer certain of its own capabilities, or of a body straining to evolve faster, knowing it will, but unable to prove it yet– without losing any playfulness or emotional weight.
  • Kit McDaniel’s glare at the audience during her solo, cracking the 4th wall.
  • Ted Levine’s poetry, with lines like “I slowly lean down over the concrete ledge and see my reflection. This time I’ll study my face,” while industrial cityscapes are projected behind him… indications of a man observing his life.
  • The final movement in which a pair of bright lights shines and gyrates across the diagonal of the stage, undermining symmetry and traditional lighting schemes.
  • That the piece was born form a very personal phone conversation across thousands of miles.

All of these signal the conversational cadence of the piece. Esme has a knack for presenting any given narrative as simply the possibility of one single event viewed from multiple angles, or multiple interpretations of one concept. This approach allows her works to tackle complex themes with playfulness, and with the tangible contribution of others. This is the ultimate success of Dark and Pretty Flat: the way the collaborative approach lets a lay audience and a highly specialized creative team meet halfway and explore ideas together. Live.

Photo © Darren Hoffman

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, urbanist, and researcher based in New York City.

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