The audience is led to a nearby parking lot in the rain, marked by a line of performers singing gentle ‘“aaaahs” and a sign that reads “Gather Here.” We’re here for the performance portion of Catalyst’s SHORE in Dᶻidᶻelaľic̆/Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Seattle), presented by On the Boards. Performers encircle the crowd, cutting a path that herds us into a mass. Director and creator Emily Johnson stands above the crowd, and begins by thanking the Duwamish and Muckleshoot peoples for allowing us to be on their land.
Johnson begins to tell a story. Her narrative has a casual, matter-of-fact quality, but the content is imaginative and layered non-sequiturs: a dream she had, the perspective of a tree that once grew here, what we might expect to see if we turned a corner, what happened in rehearsal that day, what happened to John T. Williams on these streets. Per her request, the audience walks back to the theater together in silence. My brain is primed to imagine some kind of mythology around this place. A bro yells at us out a car window, “Hey, you guys headed to Pesos?” I am reminded that the shifting values that are the current hot topic of Seattle are only the latest entry in a long history of shifts and displacements for this place. A performer hands me a jar of water.
Back in the theater, we are given name tags, but I sit alone. I’ve lost my friends during the walk. I don’t read anyone’s name tag, was I supposed to? The stage is covered in fog, and local dancers sway, arranged in three big groups about the space. Their smooth audible breaths sound like wind and waves. Throughout the work they occasionally scatter and reassemble—little eddies that leave behind residue here and there. They sing and witness.
There appear to be three main dancers (one of which is Johnson) dressed in red, yellow, and orange jumpsuits. Red paint covers the oculus, accented with false eyelashes. One wears a false mustache. I don’t know why. Other elements have a casual, practical feeling. Bra straps are visible without apology. The cast wears a mish-mash of street clothes.
The choreography also straddles the pragmatic and fantastic. Part seems task-based: get from here to there. Lift this arm, that leg. The pathway clarity recalls Trisha Brown, but with an urgency that pushes the speed of gravity, verging on franticness. A precise gathering of energy that then gets tossed away. Emotion and context seep in around the edges. A solo by Aretha Aoki is explicitly presentational to the chorus and to the audience, like she needs to prove her technical prowess. Other times the trio of women laugh in moments of joy and intimacy. Sometimes they charge through space, galloping half bent-over in different directions. Every once in awhile Johnson’s expressive eyes flash deep sadness.
The sequence of events seems completely arbitrary, but from their precision I know it is not. There are threads that come through here and there, often beautifully layered, but most are left dangling, each element is part of a tapestry half-finished and cut off the loom. The crescendo comes as Johnson tries over and over to tell us a story about a whale, but an interrupting chorus, repeating fragments of her own words, drowns her voice out. I never quite catch what she’s trying to say. Perhaps this piece is about disconnection. Perhaps these loose ends are tied up somewhere between this performance and the three other associated SHORE events: potluck, volunteering, and storytelling. Sadly I could not attend these, and on its own SHORE: Performance felt untethered—adrift and just out of grasp.
Learn more about SHORE and Emily Johnson at Catalyst’s website. Learn more about On the Boards’ current season at Ontheboards.org.