Cultural Detritus, Haunted by Connection: “Four Short Stories,” “Spotted Series”

Lightsey Darst reviews Georgia A. Stephens Productions’ “Four Short Stories,” at Intermedia Arts, and Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater’s “Spotted Series” at Interact Theater. Both shows--blends of dance and theatre--ran Jan. 28-30.

I’m looking for a moment of connection. I’m looking for a meeting. I’m looking for an epiphany—not someone else’s, but my own. I want to escape for a moment into pure something—even pure degradation. I want clarity: the wide view. Or complexity, fields receding into woods where more branches than an eye can hold blur air into gray haze. Or the deep view, blue depression, love with the bottom dropped out.

What are we trying to do here? Express an inexpressible: inside desire pressed out. We can fail two ways—and we can’t succeed, since the mission’s impossible. If we manage to express, to say something, we’ve failed, because then it turns out what we wanted to express wasn’t inexpressible, but ordinary, banal. Think of an actor shouting, “Break down these walls!” The meaning’s bald and art’s beside the point. The other failure is not expressing, saying nothing. The water moves but nothing rises to the surface.

How to succeed: leap into the viewer’s own inexpressible. Suddenly the viewer jumps to his feet and shouts, “Break down these walls!”—but he means something more, something he can’t say. What’s seen or heard stirs the heart or mind and the viewer chokes on an emotion, an idea for which there is no word, no form but the art itself.

Georgia A. Stephens Projects (GASP) recently presented “Four Short Stories” at Intermedia Arts (Jan 28-30). This show was billed as dance theater, so I went, but it might more accurately be called anti-dance theater, as the dance itself is a meaningless exercise performed with blank faces, a representation of the meaningless busyness of life. But anti-dance theater is itself a type of dance theater, so I will not recuse myself.

“Four Short Stories” gives us a pile of items, absurd in their collision: a man in a red boa trying to write with cigarettes, a vaudeville hula hoop routine posing as metaphysical inquisition, some grand hand gestures, a guy dragging a cross, Hank Williams Jr., a nun, etc. It’s collage, as the program notes observe, the focus not on a single idea but on the thousand details and phrases and routines of modern life. But collage is a method, not an excuse for muddled output. I often see art works which point to their sources—“Look what I made it out of!”—as if multiple sources were the point, as if found meant golden. The most memorable character in “Four Short Stories” is a wretched toy with a paintbrush in one hand who shrieks out “We’ve got work to do!” when squeezed. He’s funny and freaky, but little else. Is it possible that we, the art-folk of the Twin Cities, have overfished our thrift stores? Yes, cultural detritus is amusing, the pile of naked Barbies, the mixed bag of hair ties and koosh balls, but the Unique Thrift Store is not a temple; just because we found it on the shelves does not mean it makes anything when we put it all together.

With GASP, I couldn’t tell whether the detritus made nothing or made something too simple; as the man behind me asked, “Once you get the disconnect, what’s left?” “Four Short Stories” has strengths: the rhythmic and bluesy performance of Mary Garvie, for example, or the animating idea of “Gumballa”—that we ascribe a false luminosity to particular places. Maybe a great deal swims below the meaninglessly absurd action, but nothing stirs in me.

“The Marys,” from Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater’s recent performance at the Interact Theater (Jan 28-30), falls on the opposite side. Suzanne Costello’s mini-drama about four sisters in the 1960s tells all—literally. Here, as in the GASP performance, dance isn’t the vehicle of revelation. It could be; Roxane Wallace, in particular among SPDT’s talented dancers, suggests that era and their sisterhood through the stumbles, poses, and twitches between words. Still, what we’re seeing now is the talking version of “The Marys”; Costello’s idea hasn’t left ground, hasn’t found an inexpressible to express.

In Stuart Pimsler’s “Rooms of Disquiet,” a woman (Wallace) at the back of the stage turns on an overhead light, tells the story of watching one man chase another in the city, gets angry, and switches off her light. A young man (Jesse Walker) asks cautious questions of the temptress (Suzanne Costello) who’s come into his room; we sense that he’s the dangerous one. Another woman (Vanessa Voskuil) flirts with herself before a mirror, rocking her head as if she were a china doll.

“Rooms of Disquiet” is half conventional noir—dark rooms, shady people, twisted sex—and half something else: an idea of connection, of possible loveliness in broken lives, haunts this piece. A woman dances to a mirror, finds a different self looking back at her. The temptress moves between men, between hunting and being hunted. A glance redeems; the common need for love binds characters. And then Laura Selle ascends from speech (the texts are written by Kafka, Pimsler, and Kira Obolensky) into pure dance, her character’s desire to be “a bridge” leading her into a swaying, pulsing dance in which desire itself fulfills.

“Rooms of Disquiet” stays mostly on the ground, the episodes remaining separate, the central story or emotion not quite rising to the viewer. But in the middle there’s Selle’s solo: a woman partnered by her capacity for love, sensual and strong, surging and reaching. That’s what I was looking for.