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A ball rolls from the wings onto the stage, and I watch its journey curve upstage, the sound diminishing as its velocity slows. Another follows, and another. The balls get bigger each time, until finally a large log-looking object completes the motif. Three dancers quickly run in, make a shape, say a year, then continue with their movement. They gasp, dart in a different direction, find sudden balances, outline boxes like mimes, and leave the stage quickly. Every time they re-enter, a new object appears. A dollhouse, a frog candlestick, a sweater. One of them drags a small statue on a string like a child’s toy. Each object that appears defines the space more, until an entire world forms – full of memories, big and small statements, objects to be used or simply sit still. They range from gaudy, to colorful, to simple, like flea market finds.

Photo by Loren Othòn.

Petra Zanki’s work Pleasant Place opens with the day to day world we operate in – one of physical materials, dates, tasks, effortful movement, and a general sense that we are in control of (or running between) it all. Whether the objects hold sentimental value for anyone involved, it’s unclear. Madeline Morser sits on a map, large oar in hand, and paddles herself through make believe waters. Lorraine Lau covers her eyes with a classy red hat and slowly tiptoes down center stage, slyly sipping imaginary tea from a cup. Jaclyn Mason turns a baggy grey hoodie backward on herself, descending to the ground. Playful, curious, and sometimes dark, they display their identities in relationship to outside realities.

This defined environment doesn’t last long, as they re-enter stage once more, stripped from their original pedestrian costumes, down to skin-toned unitards. Standing on one leg, they  ethereally float the other three limbs. A fourth person (dancer Sruti Desai) enters with a large plastic shopping bag, and begins to browse. Audience members join her as a fog spreads over the floor. They help each other decide what they want to take, stuff their bags, try to carry too many things at once. Concerned looks pass over the seemingly stuck dancers, like they’re helpless victims of robbery. Is this the apocalypse? An end-of-the-world sale? A free-for-all looting party? As the space clears, projected images of bright green forests come on the backdrop. The fog fades as we’ve transitioned to the natural world – perhaps we’ve died to the material world entirely.

Photo by Loren Othòn.

After three years in the making, it is obvious how rich Pleasant Place is with Zanki’s own experiences. In the program, letter from Tonya Lockyer, one of Seattle’s finest dance mentors (and former executive director of Velocity Dance Center), mentions Zanki’s immigration to the states and the loss of her husband thereafter. Pleasant Place seems to be a picture of a fruitful navigation through that grief. Sound scores by Benoȋt Pioulard fill the space and ears with gentle hums. Images of historic paintings and whimsical creatures pass over the shifting foliage scenes. The dancers recite poetry into microphones, ask questions in various moods. They whisper, yell as though at a protest, or calmly explain, like messengers from another world. They plead for us to understand: “I know it’s hard to relax, and lighten up. But it’s a game…that’s all!”

At one point the dancers gather upstage and sing a sassy tune repeatedly: “How a tree sways is as much of a matter as how you sway!” They have simple confidence in what should be a well known fact: that we are like trees – a combination of cells, and we sway, and it matters. Their song is laced with hope, light with innocence, but heavy with truth. With each existential exploration, it’s like our feet are digging deeper into soft soil. I’m washed in a confusing mixture of fear, peace, discomfort, warmth. The physical dancing carries me through, as Zanki’s cast fearlessly submerges into the work, bringing generous attention and humor to an otherwise disheartening search for answers.

Photo by Loren Othòn.

Lau, Mason, and Desai form a triangle. Through individual movement phrases, they contort themselves into abstract shapes and ask one question each, inflecting like curious children: “What will I be like when I’m old?” “Is happiness a realistic goal?” “Is suffering inevitable?” Each question taps into what we’ve all been hit with before – ordinary moments interrupted with the human search for clarity. More members of the audience join the dancers, each holding a small animal or a potted plant. A chorus of questions ring out from the stage, beautiful in their uncertainty. Pleasant Place appears to trace a journey that never ends, and a line said earlier in the work comes to mind: “What we call the beginning, is often the end. And to make an end, is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Pleasant Place was performed at the Erikson Theater Off Broadway on March 2-3, 2019. Find more about Petra Zanki’s work here.