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“We are all in this together,” was director Laura Aschoff’s introduction to the night, as audience members lounged against empty white walls, stood in clumps with beers, and the dancers, also known as “The Grief Girls,” mingled in the crowd. Yet when the lights went down, the performers, having magically slipped out, came in the double doors from the hall. A mass of bodies, singing quietly, shuffled into the performance space with hands, eyes, and limbs seemingly soulless and disjointed from their owners.

Photo by Loren Othon

As they separated, becoming aware of themselves and of the space around them, they moved as complete bodies–alone, yet more human. That seems to be the crux of the divide we are asked to dive into by Aschoff’s choreography, aptly titled Chasm. The evening was a series of linked pieces, or scenes, that kept blooming with a constant paradox of support and fall, hold and release, anticipation and escape. When performer Erin McCarthy rolled around in a pile of empty beverage cans, it was essentially funny and looked like a parody of performance art, but the longer she rolled, crunched, and reveled in the cans, the audience giggles died down and we waited to see just how long, and in just what direction this was going. The Grief Girls were at one point clawing at the walls in a line, smooshed against the white and chanting inwardly, performing as if for themselves. But the chant of “your comfort is falling away” seemed meant for us. I had to ask “Am I present in this conversation or are you just talking to yourself?” to which there was, of course, no real answer.

The same sensation arose when all dancers, in a heap on the floor, took selfies in different combinations and poses. Audience members chuckled, recognizing themselves in those poses, recognizing perhaps a false engagement with real events, and feeling for a moment as an outside observer, looking in at how silly it all is. Selfie culture is easy to mock and parody. But it worked, because it took things a step further: dancers moved about the room inviting audience members to take a selfie. As I leaned in to join in a photo, viewing my own face on screen with a dancer’s, I was suddenly included in the event. I was invited in. I was now on record, in a sense. The photo made me smile, and actually feel good about myself  afterward. Which kind of feels dirty: how adolescent, for lack of better word, of us all to be pulled in and given a shiny luster by participating in this thing we as an audience were just laughing at. Aschoff had us asking questions continually throughout the night — Was that just a show? Was that real? Was it a real selfie? Was it a commentary on selfies? Suddenly it’s okay to be physically next to someone so close, so intimate, for the sake of a very impersonal digital photo that will likely be erased momentarily. Chasm creates a fluid space between  art and entertainment, placing  its audience in that center of experience where questions arise. It is not jarring in a bad way – it is satisfying. This is the art we need right now.  

Photo by Loren Othon

After a few frenetic group moments: singing, darting, and collapsing, a silence followed in which the only noise was a train whistle from somewhere outside, on distant tracks. It played a perfect transition to a high school prom-style slow dance, which effectively concluded the evening of experience, movement, and sound. Each artist chose a partner from among the audience scattered around the edges of the studio. The movement was shared, and spontaneous, but still very much controlled by the “real” performers. It seems to approach reality, but not fully releasing us from the grip of performance. The dancers retreated from the spotlight, leaving only the “audience” partner in the pool of stark yellow. The Grief Girls transformed their partners into performer by their own absence. A police siren sounded in the night beyond the studio walls as Chasm concluded and the room was suspended in darkness.

The magic of this Grief Girls creation is due to their seriousness and their understanding of collaboration and art as bigger than each individual performer. They are not new to each other’s bodies, voices or styles. You can only keep moving through a beer can orgy, or hold a difficult stillness, if you take yourself just seriously enough to outlast the audience. Performance works best when it is unexpected, and the magic of Aschoff’s choreography is that it hangs on a moment longer, is a little louder and bigger, bridging the chasm of expectation. Chasm, as a hybrid of dance and theater, suspends us in a beautiful, awful uncertainty and it is worth stating clearly how well it works as a vehicle for asking questions, immersing the audience in those questions, and being a deeply satisfying art experience.

Chasm was performed at Base Experimental Arts + Space on January 18, 19, 20. The performance viewed for this review was January 19. Laura Aschoff choreographed the work danced by Grief Girls, who are: Markeith Wiiley, Chelsey Weber Smith, Julia Sloane, Lilian Orrey, Erin McCarthy, Matt Aguayo, Hanna Hofmann.