Beneath Our Own Immensity

Written by Victoria Jacobs
(Photo: Cornish student in Alia Swersky’s
“Beneath Our Own Immensity”
Photo by Nityia Przewlocki)

The BMX bike course underneath I-5 on Capitol Hill re-purposes a huge urban space that would otherwise be a wasteland. This November, a site-specific dance sets off the ridges, columns, and obstacles with the momentum of flying bodies and arching weight—and no bikes. Beneath Our Own Immensity, Alia Swersky’s new work for 10 Cornish College dancers, is a delightful and eye-opening experience for all audiences. The massiveness of the space creates depth and perspective, and it raises questions about how we engage with our environment, especially the physical relationship of performer and viewer.

Swersky invites the viewers to explore different ways of seeing: to give oneself permission to observe and hear what one chooses to. Being a non-traditional performance space, there are a few caveats; it gets dusty, the trails are steep, and there are no bathrooms onsite.
Beneath begins with a tangle of bodies around the base of one of the huge concrete columns; a pile of dancers, in teal and burgundy jeans and a rainbow of sweaters, ooze over each other like a colony of lichen. Cars roar and clatter down the freeway directly over the audience members’ heads, creating a humming, oceanic soundtrack.
(Cornish students in Alia Swersky’s
“Beneath Our Own Immensity”
Photo by Nityia Przewlocki)

When the dancers take off into the cavernous park, the audience gets moving. Views of the receding dancers appear and disappear between columns as the perspective shifts. In a distant patch of sunlit grass, a man in a striped sweater (Matt Drews) bends and hinges, then stands still. The audience arrives at the top of a long downhill path, and the dancers stretch out in a long line, waiting mysteriously like crows on a telephone wire. The audience is invited to look away, but on looking back the dancers are on the ground. In pairs, they twist and arch down, then lie in stillness on their backs. Down the long, distant line of dancers, the movement repeats in variations; far off, framed by the symmetrical forest of columns, the dancer at the end of the line flails and sways, tiny and enormous in the immense urban space.

From behind, a woman in a full green skirt strides through the audience and continues down the path; all of the dancers bound away before she arrives. The audience bustles after them in the narrow plane of sunlight that falls between I-5 North and I-5 South. The dancers clamber down the rocky cliff-sides, their joints angled like soft-edged stones. Their movement seems drawn from the ridges and rocks, the reaching of urban moss, the clouds of dust, and the roaring cars overhead. Perched on the ridges of obstacles, the dancers swing and arch and share weight; they hang and ooze and release into the landscape. They’re all filthy and rosy-cheeked, sweating and sliding fearlessly down dusty hillsides, then spreading out to engage with the myriad obstacles.
(Cornish student in Alia Swersky’s
“Beneath Our Own Immensity”
Photo by Nityia Przewlocki)

Beneath uses the enormity of the space to pan the viewer’s glance across it, to zoom out to capture the huge and strange landscape or to zoom in on tiny, distant dancing figures. I-5 arches overhead like a cathedral or a close, cramped ceiling when the action shifts. The dancers play with momentum and dynamism on surfaces of sliding dirt and rock, tearing around with the fearlessness of mountain bikers. The physical journey of the audience puts one in direct relationship to the work of the dancers, communicating space and struggle and kinesthesia without linear narrative. This is site-specific work at its most effective; breaking down walls, using non-traditional space to inspire unique movement, and moving the audience—literally.

Beneath can be seen again this Wednesday, November 2, at 4 PM and Saturday, November 5, at 1 PM. The event is free and open to the public.