Crystal Pite’s Dark Matter. Photo by Dean Buscher.
On February 17, choreographer Crystal Pite’s Dark Matter electrified On the Boards’ stage. As the work opened, a small spotlight traced the floor and walls of a modest-sized workshop to reveal a chair and hanging lamp directly over a table. Atop the table were tools, carpentry scraps, and a vintage radio. As the spot light continued its trace a voice narrated excerpts from Voltaire’s Lisbon Disaster poem. Faceless figures in black velvet body suits moved behind the table and then a man, played by Peter Chu, emerged. Dressed in soft earth-toned silk pants and shirt he sat at the table and with the help of a dark figure, whose hands placed the man’s hands on the table, Chu began to draw and construct.
Revealed between brief flashes of light and dark was the progression of the man’s project from paper to puppet. A unique soundtrack of industrial sound effects and a suspenseful melody, provided by Owen Belton, built the anticipation. Once complete, the puppet was revealed; delicate, only a foot and a half tall made of wood with metal hinges. Its head was faceless but conveyed character, like a wood drawing model; it has joints and all the mechanics to move like a man. The artist and his creation connected right away as Geppetto and his wooden boy did. But unlike Pinocchio, this puppet moved without the man’s direction. It stood on its own, existing in space as four other faceless figures in black controlled its every move with four-foot-long sticks that work each hinge and created emotional nuance with delicate choreography.
The man and puppet danced together as their bond grew. As the puppet took a step on Chu’s foot, he lifted his leg parallel to the floor like a bridge for the puppet to walk along reaching his shoulders, and as the man catapulted the puppet into the air, first with his hands, then shoulders, and a third time with his chest, the puppet took flight with gravitational defiance. As the light and dark flashes continue the audience is propelled through what seemed like days and it became clear that the relationship between creator and creation was beginning to erode. Before long the puppet and man were trying to kill one another; the man with an ax and the puppet with scissors. In the vicious fighting the puppet succeeded and red lights soaked the stage. As the man dies the red light faded away and a beautiful tragedy took place; the puppet conveyed remorse by its own action. Its figure collapsed—deflated in sorrow—and it sank to the floor to lie in the same position as the body of its creator.
Once the puppet was motionless the dark figures retired their sticks to the floor and were liberated by their empty hands, able to move in space away from each other. They began to deconstruct the setting. As they cleared the furniture and overhanging lamp, disappearing from and reappearing on the stage, one of the figures saw the pair of scissors near the man’s body, picked it up, and became enamored by its shadow cast upon the upstage curtain. A small light faced the stage from a downstage angle and the dark figure engaged in playful poses with its shadow. Alone on stage the figure began to dance faster and the lights behind the curtain revealed another figure and the two exchanged poses as the music picked up with a heavy beat and synthesized harmony. The music was rhythmic with a gothic pulse. Behind the curtain another dark figure held up a sign that read “THIS IS FATE” but then dropped the “FATE” and picked up the word “FAKE” and walked off stage and the words disappeared.
The scene ended when the walls of the workshop were torn down, crashing to the floor. The stage lights overhead came loose and a black curtain fell onto one of the dark figures crushing it to the floor and the music stopped. The dark figures emerged and one of them uncovered the man’s body from the debris. The figure manipulated Chu’s body slowly to a standing position. The man became the puppet. He was misplaced and only a shell of his real self. Chu’s body moved like a marionette in a sleep state. With support from the dark figure’s limbs he was pushed into a fluid walk across the stage and as he finds his feet the dark figure let go to watch his limbs bounce in slow, controlled waves of extension off stage. It was truly breathtaking.
In the second half the curtain opened on an empty, slick, white floor. One of the faceless dark figures emerged and began to lift its limbs in an explorative manner. It moved like a mechanical doll. As other dancers entered the stage, dressed in light-colored, loose fabrics with faces exposed, their bodies appeared as though guided by electric shockwaves. Eric Beauchesne, Yannick Matthon, Cindy Salgado, and Jermaine Maurice Spivey joined Chu in a transfer of energy that resembled electricity underwater—sometimes clumped together in a mass of limbs and other times spread out. They breathed and gasped in between positions. The choreography forced the dancers to torque as though they were connected by elastic string; bouncing yet controlled in space. The music in this section was haunting and intense as Belton mixed synthesized melodies with digitally versatile string progressions.
Beauchesne made vocal, mechanical sound effects while he manipulated his limbs and head: sucking, slurping, and creaking. All of the dancers seemed to be controlling, and controlled by, their own limbs. At times they seemed to be under the spell of something alien, as if their bodies were in a physical battle with a muscular virus. A dance of twitches and convulsions paired with weightlessness and fluidity; the dark matter tried to take over their organic beings.
Matthon and Salgado came together for a pas de deux that was electrifying. One dancer, like the puppet before her, walked on the body of her counterpart while they both moved from stage left to right. All the while the dark figure continued to move in the shadows on the edge of the white floor. It glided around and toward the two dancers with stage lights on wheels casting long shadows. Spivey’s contortions were amazing. While the poem excerpt played again, he jumped and extended like he had hydraulic joints, and as he exhibited multiple turns he folded his ankle under himself to gracefully twirl to the floor with such ease he appeared to be attached to stings. The dancers seemed weightless as they moved across the stage in unison. The lights exposed their defined bodies and the choreography juxtaposed pain and beauty in the sharp yet liquid movements displayed; each action with exquisite beauty and technique.
This performance is a theatrical treat. Crystal Pite’s imaginative story is executed with graceful athleticism. Dark Matter conveyed a strong sense of continuity throughout. The technique and refined actions of each dancer exhibited a physical dilemma; caught between controlling and being controlled. It was as though the dancers were puppets on strings themselves. Their backs arched with arabesques extended almost as if their legs were unhinged from the rest of their bodies. They can be fierce and jagged one second then balletic and fluid the next. They radiate pure electricity.
There are more surprises as the show goes on, and the last dance sequence brought wonderful closure to the performance as the dark figure shed its black velvet body suit to reveal Sandra Marin Garcia in nude-colored, skin-tight undergarments. Her muscular definition was accentuated as she and Chu began a partner sequence that told the story of forgiveness and redemption. Sleep, performed by Polyphony and Steven Layton, played loudly. Lights behind the upstage curtain were positioned like stars in the sky. In a back-and-forth game of puppet versus puppeteer, the two were caught in a graceful pendulum of movement. The puppet maker was resurrected as Garcia mended his pierced heart and they embraced as the lights went dark for the last time.
Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM’s Dark Matter can be seen February 25 and 26, 2011, at On the Boards. Tickets are available at the box office.