Created, curated, and performed by Alia Swersky and Tom Baker, Body. Space. Time. Sound (B.S.T.S) brings together dancers and musicians for an evening of improvised sound and movement. Volume 4:Cube features the aforementioned Swersky and dance artist Corrie Befort (LIMITS, Befort&Graczyk, Salt Horse) as movers. Musicians Baker and Kate Olson provide the live accompaniment for the evening with Olson on soprano saxophone and Baker using a range of instruments including guitars, theremin, and mbira (also known as an African thumb piano).
The contradictory thing about improvisation is that being a good improviser takes years of practice. Developing intuition is something that happens with a sustained commitment to improvisation as a technique. The musicians and dancers in B.S.T.S have clearly committed. Their expertise shines through in their ability to play, allowing the work to unfold in real time.
Baker and Olson are able to create an orchestral environment with a relatively sparse assortment of instruments and to produce sounds you’d never imagine could come from standbys like the guitar. In one section, Baker sustains a high-pitched, shrill tone that cuts laser-like through the air. In another, Baker and Olson each use their instruments percussively, Olson tapping the keys of her saxophone rhythmically to create a beat, while Baker uses a wooden stick with a round head to hit his strings.
The design of the space encourages intimacy. There is no off-stage. As the title suggests, the action takes place in a cube created by a cord wrapped tightly around four corner columns. The audience sits in a one row square, eliminating any sense of front and creating an aisle around the outside where dancers can walk, run, or rest, but can still be clearly seen. The closeness is exciting, allowing us to see the details of every gesture. At times, Swersky and Befort get close enough for audience members to touch, even using them as surfaces on which to bear weight.
Befort’s use of gesture is particularly captivating. Her hands and face emanate meaning. As she crawls across the floor from the corner, she pulls the side of her wrist against the surface of her face like an animal tending a wound. At times, her fingers seem to be doing a dance completely separate from the rest of her body, as if controlled by some external force.
Swersky and Befort’s ability to stay present to one another without merging energies creates potent exchanges between them. They contrast one another, Swersky embodying a calm, expansive energy and Befort a frenetic one, like a bumble bee buzzing around the head of an elephant. In one gorgeous exchange, Swersky rolls across the wood paneled floor, her long limbs spreading to meet it like reaching for a lover’s touch. Befort, upright, stumbles around her, a wildness erupting through her upper body and out through her limbs.
Their refusal to conform to one another’s energy lends a sense of obstinacy to their relationship. Swersky’s touch is trusting and soft against Befort’s rigidity. She cradles Befort’s head in her hands, Befort’s torso leaning sharply away, her feet navigating an escape plan from Swersky’s fingertips. Later, Swersky holds Befort horizontally in a gentle embrace allowing Befort’s weight to slip, spiraling toward the floor. But rather than yield, Befort slams her fist into the floor like a kickstand and breaks away from Swersky’s touch.
Witnessing the expertise of these improvisers is a gift. Improvisation is interesting because it forces a performer to stay present with what is and to create on the spot with the materials at hand. To do it successfully takes an awareness of intangible elements like energy, time, context, and the balancing of opposites. It’s a difficult and subtle practice that these accomplished improvisers make look easy.
B.S.T.S is part of an intermittent series of improvisational performances between musicians and dancers. Volume 4: Cube was performed November 1, 2019 at The Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.