In the heart of industrial Georgetown, a giant metalworking sculpture lit on fire stands beside the entrance to Base: Experimental Arts + Space. The complex is a maze of art studios and performance spaces, exuding creativity and providing an exciting atmosphere for Lydia Shamoun’s world to come alive. Shamoun, though NYC based, started out in Seattle after receiving her BFA in dance from Cornish College of the Arts. Her company, C-LS, is an interdisciplinary performance art company dedicated to “transcending conventional limitations of performance,” according to their website. Founding members Sean Rosado (of Gallim Dance), Sierra Hendrix (a NYC dance/visual artist), Allison Burke (of Chedonna’s company DONNA) and Drew Lewis (Chicago based artist and Merce Cunnigham Endowed Scholar) join Shamoun in touring A Future Western. Inside the performance space at Base, the wild west is already alive before the start of the piece. A dancer lounges in the middle of the stage in a white cowboy hat under a drone of club music. The performance space is small and perfectly intimate for a piece that gets up close and personal.
The words “BETWEEN HAY AND GRASS,” projects onto the wall, an obscure idiom for adolescence. Allison Burke perfectly embodies this conflicting time in life. Starting on the floor, Burke moves with a jerky robotic quality reverberating through her until she is standing, as if powering up for the first time, testing the limitations of her limbs. Lewis crawls on stage with Rosado riding him, mimicking the motions of a cowboy riding his horse and dolled up in silky white lingerie. The movement and costuming feel clearly sexual, touching on elements of BDSM play but surrounding them the bass-heavy music and neo-noir lighting add a feeling of real danger. While Burke is facing the audience, Rosado steps in front of her, ripping the front of her white western fringe top in one violent motion, revealing her bare chest. Humiliation and shame shrouds Burke’s expression and she is left paralyzed. Perhaps this shows her what it takes to survive in the Shamoun’s world, as later she adopts the movement and manipulative intentions of Lewis and Rosado.
Further into the first act, Rosado and Burke tie up a seemingly unconscious Lewis. After tying the knot, Burke and Rosado pretend to beat Lewis up, their faces contorting into exaggerated expressions of sadness and anger. The set up appears to be a reference to bondage, but their clownish demeanor and Lewis’s sleepful state makes the whole play feel extremely disturbing. This structure of manipulation continues throughout the piece, rotating which dancer gets singled out. The movements in this structure are sexually rough, sometimes crossing the line to portray real violence. Watching them tiptoe at this line made it hard to watch and forced me to question the implied consent.
Still, moments of humor and gentleness show through, especially in the second act, “TENDERIZE.” Under brighter lighting now, Burke and Lewis engage in a loving moment with Lewis carrying Burke, who straddles his upper torso. As she strokes his hair, Rosado joins the two onstage and chuckles trickle through the audience as he removes Burke, replacing himself in her position. The two continue to rotate places a few more times, each competing to be in Lewis’s arms. The exchange lasts not nearly as long as its violent counterparts in the first act, but provides a more holistic view of the relationship between the three dancers. A little later, all three dancers walk diagonally across the stage on their tiptoes, their upper bodies and gaze moving with an air of softness and royalty. This quality contrasts the jabbing and violence in the first act, adding a sense of relief to the cutthroat atmosphere. Near the end of the act, all three dancers learn to share their tenderness as they engage in a physical embrace, their eyes closed and faces peaceful. Even though the second act stirs feelings of warmth and safety, it does not erase the fear and anger conjured as the dancers violated each other with ease earlier in the piece. Needing to accept both of these moments as true to the nature of these dancers’ relationship required an abundance of emotional fortitude as an audience member.
The third and last act, “A PIG TO SLAUGHTER,” brings the dancers back to their earlier power dynamic. Beginning on the floor just like in the first act, Burke places Lewis and Rosado in different sexual positions and initiates their back and forth movement as if they were nothing but automatons. Burke then hops on and joins in the movement, facing directly to the audience and appearing to be the only alert dancer in the dynamic. The movement once again feels treacherous but has changed the structure from two dancers taking advantage one to one dancer manipulating two. Perhaps this implies Burke’s final role in the world, having started as the first one to be violated in the beginning.
The discomfort builds within the audience as later Burke and Rosado team up on Lewis by hand and foot and physically pull him by both ends. Teaming up to bring him down to the floor on all fours, Burke holds down Lewis to keep him from squirming. Lewis begins to protest, wanting to escape. The piece ends with Lewis’s blood curdling scream as Rosado dumps a heavy bucket of ice on him. Gutting and visceral, this visual stuck with me long after I left Base.
A Future Western ignited emotions of visceral fear within myself and it did it well. There were moments where I wanted to stand and shout for the dancers to stop and be kind to each other. Later it forced me to reflect on our human need to be loved and the violent turns we take to try to get it. -Gal Snir