As the audience enters the theater and finds their seats, seven dancers in gray and black street clothes move on and around folding chairs scattered across the stage. We seem to be mirroring each other. The dancers hold hands, pull each other off the floor, and embrace, creating a human interconnectedness. The title of the program is Witness—making me think about what that word demands and what awaits me as witness to the hour-long, nonstop performance by Marlo Martin’s bamarmarDANCE company.
When the house lights dim, the dancers (Ally Elliott, Nicole Cardona, Miranda Chantelois, Hayley Keller, Sean O’Bryan, Tyra Rose, Bri Wilson) forcefully move the chairs into a circle. All remain seated except for one, who paces around the circle assessing and challenging the others. The central dancer is like a conductor who, with a movement of her arm, causes the others to fall into and drape over the chairs. The music booms and my heart hammers. The dancers trade off the dominant role, the dynamics of control hinting that we all contain a lust for power. At one point, a dancer alights on an isolated chair like assuming a throne. When O’Bryan puts a choke hold on Rose, she literally laps up the sado-masochistic kink as she thrusts her tongue out, licking in a simultaneously seductive and grotesque way. I am reminded of the banality of violence in all of us. This is one of many times where witnessing forces the audience to turn inward and embrace our subconscious delight in all aspects of our shadow selves.
Throughout the work, the dancers make and hold eye contact with the audience challenging us not to shrink from the discomfort. Instead they offer us a mirror to look into the multi-facets of our human experience. The dancers constantly move the chairs, changing our perspective and the window through which we view them. The tour of our psyche continues as O’Bryan laughs insanely and points at the audience indicating we too could be crazy. A voice over of the music asks, Where does it hurt? Do you want it to stop? Hurts everywhere. What happened? I didn’t listen. Couldn’t let go. Needed more. I couldn’t move. Haunting questions that highlight both how difficult it can be to understand the source of our problems and that self-sabotage may be at the root.
The athletic choreography moves from shoulder stands on the chairs to pogo stick jumps and we hear the dancers’ animalistic breathing. They mass together amoeba-like and separate into featured solos and duos. They whisper counts sounding like the soft scratching of insects. Their hair flies with each head toss, a visual of reckless abandon and freedom. Massing together and at turns lifting each other, their literal support of one another showing a trust—their community is there for them.
The arc of the piece is like a storm—turbulent energy that builds to a crescendo. At the height, two dancers, Chantelois and Wilson, seem to hover on the edge of a cliff, arms blowing back behind them. I hold my breath as they suspend in hinged positions, creating a visual metaphor–would they plunge into a new direction, or hold onto what they know.
Suddenly, like a break in the clouds, blinding light bars illuminate along the floor. The mood shifts. The dancers explode, jumping off the chairs in joy, fully alive. It’s like they have integrated everything that came before–pain, grief, violence, flirtation–with joy and purpose and move through their world with total confidence. Indeed all the dancers are gorgeous movers who let their individuality shine while moving together in beautiful synchronicity. One image captures the idea of getting out of your own way to achieve success: one dancer runs through the others who have formed a single file line, waving them easily aside.
At the very end, the dancers line up the chairs and rush through them toward the audience indicating it is our turn to examine and love the range of our emotions and desires. Accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly of ourselves without shame allows for the type of transformative magic Martin and company create in Witness.
Witness showed at NOD Theater October 27-29th, 2023.