The extended work, featuring a mix of local and touring dancers, is a co-production presented at Base that marks the start of On the Boards’s 40th season. It runs through tonight.
Sitting through all five straight hours of Morgan Thorson’s durational work, Still Life, might be a little much. At various points, the choreography gets redundant. David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes plays three times, with the same group choreography. Other steps are repeated throughout the performance.
But much is new with each passing segment, and some devices, too, are interesting to watch more than once. A human chain sprawls, impossibly, from point to point across the yawning space. The chosen anchor points seem random, selected at either end and then joined in the middle — strategically and stretchily, with dancers sprawling out, making foot grabs and, at least once, doing the splits.
But if sitting through five hours is an endurance challenge, performing it for five hours — four days in a row, 20 hours total — is that, many times over. And yet the dancers rarely seemed winded. The only point at which they seemed even close to it was well into a segment that’s surely pure torture to perform: keeping their arms aloft, in sun-shaped arcs above their heads, for more than five straight minutes. It’s a testament to their strength and endurance.
The dancers include three local performers (Alyza DelPan-Monley, Jordan MacIntosh-Hougham, and Fox Whitney, plus Meredith Pellon as understudy), and a touring cast of six: Allie Hankins (from Portland) and Non Edwards, Sam Johnson, Valerie Oliveiro, Kristin Van Loon, and Maggie Zepp (from Thorson’s home base of Minneapolis). Each looked different from one another, a welcome reprieve from ubiquitous leggy blond ponytails and bowl-cuts frequently clustered on stage (a phenomenon seen less at On the Boards, but certainly at Base and others).
They performed in a wide open, white-floored, white-walled space, with soaring 20-foot ceilings; under a haunting soundscape by Dana Wach and Sxip Shirey; and lit by the natural light from a single window in the corner and a single spotlight, with a glow that varied from pure white to burning red and which moved along almost imperceptibly, mimicking the daily rise and fall of the sun (lighting design by Lenore Doxsee with dancer Oliveiro). Their only props were plastic chairs occasionally borrowed from the audience, and a narrow chalkboard that ran the entire perimeter, some 150 feet, on which a dancer would stop by to record some unnamed count, reminiscent of an inmate of yore tallying time served in stone.
Thorson’s piece is inspired by extinction, informed by research around killing, decomposition, endurance, and survival. (Read more about its development here.) And while extinction wasn’t a readily apparent theme on day three of the repeating-yet-changing cycle, save the towering images of plant and animal species chalked onto the walls, killing in another form was.
Two hours and 47 minutes into the Saturday showing, the popping sound of fireworks, or something, took over the soundscape. (It would return a few more times throughout the work.) Backed by a bright red sunset, two minutes later, seven bodies, clad all in black, were lying on the floor.
Earlier in the day and throughout the performance, live updates of at least 20 people killed in El Paso, Texas, by another homegrown terrorist were coming in, with at least 26 others injured by gunfire. (Later that night, another nine people would be killed and at least 27 injured in Dayton, Ohio, in the second mass shooting in 24 hours.)
The dancers lie on the floor. And then, white light.
Are we making ourselves extinct?
Still Life runs through 8/4 at Base: Experimental Arts + Space, inside the Equinox Studios complex in Georgetown. The show is a co-production with On the Boards. Tickets $25 with re-entry permitted, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; two gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms are located down the hall past Yaw, nearest the blacksmith studio. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible through a side entrance toward the northwest side of the building (look for the popsicle stick-style house and sideways motorcycle); however, studio complex has some uneven floors throughout. Read NWT’s previous write-up about Base here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.