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Cacophony Challenges the Familiar

This weekend’s Cacophony for 8 Players demands to be described by contradictory terms. It was sight and sound, dance and text. It was heady and visceral. It was satisfying on its surface and challenging in its depth. Cacophony is the collaboration between Director Torben Ulrich, who initiated the project in 2011, Composer Angelina Baldoz, and Choreographer Beth Graczyk, joined here by dancer Allie Hankins. The venue for the evening-length show, which opened on Thursday January 23, was Washington Hall, yet it was rendered unfamiliar by a white drop that created new boundaries for the stage space, leaving only fragments of the old fashioned architecture visible.

From left to right, Torben Ulrich, Beth Graczyk, Angelina Baldoz, and Allie Hankins perform in Cacophony for 8 Players
Photo by Tim Summers

Baldoz set the tone for the evening, traversing the balcony with a trumpet, visible only above the white drop that created the stage space—she looked like some herald on a parapet, silhouetted against the partially obscured arched windows. As her live playing layered with a recording, and the sounds came from unexpected angles, her sounds morphed from straightforward to uncannily familiar to wholly foreign, a transitional effect straight out of dreams. Down below, the three others sat still in the darkness among four gut-skin sculptures (by Micki Skudlarczyk and Steven Berardelli). The performers moved the sculptures to change the feel of the space, what was seen and what was obscured. With eight figures now in play, duets and doublings began to take over.


Eight more voices joined the fray, two by two: Bharata Muni and Abhinavagupta; August Bournonville and Vaslav Nijinsky; Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham; Maya Deren and Pina Bausch. Periodically, a pair of quotes flashed on the screen, giving a textual anchor to the performance with words on the nature of art, art-making, and being human. The pair of quotes then got smashed together into a single block of randomized text, effectively turning words of great meaning into nonsense. Each of these moments signaled the start of a new section. Each section differed subtly—a new movement or vocal quality, a different performer or duet the focal point—but it is hard from a single viewing to say just how each section related to the accompanying text. This is a connection that another set of artists might have chosen to make more explicit, but in the context of Cacophony and its collaborators, the more open, fluid format did not detract from the show’s effect.


Each performer added a very particular persona to the atmosphere. With Ulrich, the group has its own living, breathing sage. Ulrich looks every bit the part, right down to the long grey beard and skirted attire, simultaneously wizened and lithe. His presence projected a simple assurance in his body, in his movements, and in his voice. In a vocal duet with Baldoz, he made low-range, guttural sounds that sounded both direct and intense. Any time he walked, he progressed with intention, as if carrying the weight of some ritual.

Torben Ulrich performs in Cacophony for 8 Players alongside sculptures by Micki Skudlarczyk and Steven Berardelli
Photo by Tim Summers

Baldoz drove the aural atmosphere of the evening using her voice and various instrument set-ups, including a trumpet played with and without mute and an electric bass. Her voice made all sorts of unfamiliar noises that added a sometimes eerie note to the performance, but she could also be very straightforward. After hundreds of slips of paper containing the selected quotations rained down upon the audience, she instigated a read-along cacophony with great frankness. First, she directed the audience to read their quotes out loud, then to read one word as slowly as possible with either a descending or ascending note. The noise that emerged was dissonant and chaotic, but each time she responded with a simple “thank you.” Later, the slow saying of words came back as she sang a song, one word at a time. Estranged from their everyday rhythms, the words became almost unrecognizable.


Graczyk and Hankins, as Cacophony’s primary dancers, are both compelling movers whose distinctive individual styles complemented each other well. Hankins’ first solo, full of angular and linear movements and pathways, was the most animal-like (Nijinsky’s Faun came to mind), but she danced with a fierce attack and piercing gaze throughout the evening. Graczyk, by comparison, danced more like a person, especially in her first entrance after Hankins. Her gaze was closer in, her movement more three-dimensional and swoopy with hips and spirals. Costume changes helped their qualities morph and differentiate one section from another. In one duet, they wore bizarre glasses that echoed the sculptures, hiding their eyes and enhancing the awkward, teeter-tottering qualities of the movement.


Cacophony reached its climax with Graczyk and Hankins dancing in not-quite-unison against Baldoz’ increasingly relentless sounds as she played over her live-recorded loops. The dancers performed the same repeated phrase, but their own voices, inflections, and accents came through. Their timing on a gesture was subtly different, or a palm faced a different way, or each woman directed her focus differently. The repetition of music and dance brought about a subtle frenzy. This moment, as much as any other in the show, got to the heart of cacophony: where many voices say the same thing (or do the same movement), but differently enough so that the voices layer unevenly. The result seems like noise, but with a certain internal logic.


Taken as a whole, the experience of being an audience member of Cacophony for 8 Players was like being the reader of a poem. On a first read, the language sounds melodious, the rhythms pretty. But the more the reader engages with it, the more satisfying it becomes. Its internal network of connections become clearer, and, at the same time, it opens itself up to the world outside the poem—or, in this case, the performance. Here, the textual voices (Bharata Muni, etc.) helped open the work up to history and philosophy as recorded by the written word.


Cacophony for 8 Players has also provided a wealth of textual resources to supplement the performed work—a relative rarity in performance art. The project’s website includes an extensive bibliography, an illuminating essay by Ulrich, and even a blog documenting the project’s history. The website texts constitute an intrinsic part of this work: the performance is just the tip of the iceberg. The textual trace it leaves ensures that one can engage with it continually.


Visit Cacophony for 8 Player’s comprehensive website for more insight into the project.