General 11-5-2004

Doomed Sod: Emily Johnson’s “Catalyst” at the Soap Factory

Lightsey Darst reviews a recent dance performance at the Soap Factory, one in a growing body of performance work that seeks political and social change.

“I’ll wait.”
“Don’t wait. Get out of there!”
“I’ll wait!”

—Dialogue from “Heat and Life,” the latest production by Catalyst, choreographed by Emily Johnson: one dancer’s left alone in the poisoned place, ground zero of the containment leak, the epicenter; while others in orange emergency jackets flee, she melts down, too afraid to leave, waiting for what, we don’t know, and then she vanishes in the dark at the back of the building and we’re left in the cold, lye-tainted Soap Factory, shifting on uncomfortable bleachers, with a soundscape of strangled whalesong, seepage, and groans of distressed girders (the work of J. G. Everest).

Reminded of the latest John Travolta film? The subject is global warming, but Johnson fills the danger zone of the Soap Factory with the latest heroes, not the used-up doctors of ER or the sleazy cops and dicks and D. A.s of Law & Order or the unbelievably noble pols of West Wing, but first responders, containment experts, defusers, biohazard techs. With their orange jackets, walkie-talkies, and no-nonsense commands, these are commandos we can trust, non-partisan saviors for our three-minutes-to-meltdown world.

Everything they do is necessary, their back-and-forth movements voodoo to undo disaster. And they’re glamorous in their heroism, like the gun-toting leather-clad intellectuals of The Matrix; Catalyst sports utility corsets and parachute skirts along with their boyish corduroys. When the music grows a hard beat and the dancers face the audience with legs firmly planted, I’m even reminded of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation.

I’m not just being flip here. We crave a certain rough-edged heroism, champions with gear and bruises, seemingly oblivious to the glamour they exude—witness the recent spate of superhero movies or the president’s flight suit stunt. All right, I’m being a little flip, because I’m not sure Johnson intends us to see these characters as heroes—they’re more than half fools, victims of their own paranoia, and the politics underlying this show say that technology is a band-aid, not an answer—but intentionally or not, Johnson has something here. The thrill of this kind of professional heroism is a strange and rare emotion for a modern dance audience.

But the heroism, false or true, gets buried under the politics, which seem to be the most important consideration, and yet aren’t compelling. “Heat and Life” aims not so much to convince its audiences as to bludgeon them. Catalyst doesn’t imagine that we might have thought about the environment and modern life before, or that we might get ahead of them, know where they’re going. And there’s no irony, no sense that this might have been said or done before. Take the ending: we’re commanded, high school fire drill fashion, to gather our belongings, leave the theater, and crowd around a window. But come on, we knew we were going to be implicated when Catalyst members recorded our names at the door; and the minute we stand up and check for our car keys, our leather gloves, we’re back in our own lives, ready to leave. Because there’s no explanation, no information, no argument, progressive politics are worn here as glamour, as the unquestionable badge of a clique.

One performer could change that, if given more leeway. Arwen Wilder shows a sense of humor both in her bio (amid others’ lists of eco-sensitive achievements, Wilder writes, “In 1993 I identified as an eco-terrorist. Since then, I’ve behaved like a middle-class liberal”) and in her stage behavior—she wears a cuirass of paper masks as if it were a strange disease, blows farts on the side of another dancer in the evening’s lone laugh. Let Wilder’s hijinks loose and Catalyst’s politics might complicate and deepen.
Politics are so monolithic here that they overwhelm the plot that guides the first half hour of the performance. Without a plot and without any change in tone, the performance drags. We hope for a climactic moment, but what feels like an ending (each performer enacting death while the performers’ and the audience’s names are spoken) is bypassed. Moments we want to hold on to disappear without conclusion.

And there are moments: Sarah Baumert’s tragic “I’ll wait”; a dancer alone in the post-industrial dark, hugging a pile of doomed sod; an image in the accompanying video (unobtrusive but illuminating, projected on the left rear wall, as if it were a window) showing five orange-jacketed dancers lying, almost floating, in grass so green it hurts to see.

And there’s the dancing, stuck in among all this like the night’s orphan child. The dance is unhealthy, disconnected, the movement of people who don’t know themselves—an embodiment of Johnson’s theme. Here, movement doesn’t grow out from a unified center, but jerks along the extremities; it’s angry yoga, fencing plus flight attendant gestures, with sexual curves adding danger and depth. Catalyst’s excellent dancers push to the dislocating edge of ability, but keep their difficult balance. In a strange interlude, Johnson turns Baumert into a broken seagull, her long thin limbs flapping and undulating. And Johnson has ideas: choreography as emergency response, with steps urgently shouted into a walkie-talkie; a meta-pas de deux, dancers calling out their steps as they begin them, as if on the success of this one dance sequence hinged the fate of the world. Here is politics and a language to speak it in. Why, then, is the longest extended dance sequence relegated to the rear of the stage?

So I’m frustrated. With interesting dynamics, inventive movements, excellent dancers, great support from sound and light and costumes, and the I-don’t-think-we’re-in-Kansas-anymore setting of the Soap Factory, “Heat and Life” doesn’t come together. Imagine a remix: we’re led along a hero story, then suddenly uprooted by the consequences, made to face our responsibility in creating situations we need to be rescued from. Or ditch the story, gut the text, and let meaning rise from the dance itself. Or de-center the performance and send the audience from one vignette to another around the spooky Soap Factory. For Catalyst, there are a thousand possibilities.