“Center of Sleep”
Yanira Castro + Company
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
February 27, 2008
By Tom Phillips
copyright 2008 by Tom Phillips
Choreographer Yanira Castro had to sit out the premiere of her new work at Dance Theater Workshop, because she'd just had a baby. As it turns out this is not incidental information: “Center of Sleep” is intimately related with what was happening to her over the last nine months, the processes of gestation and development, an acting-out of the mystery of human growth. For this she turned the Bessie Schonberg Theater into a kind of super-womb, lined with mirrors, rooms and platforms, and invited the audience to follow her performers around. It was a circuit of surprises, with the best saved for last.
At first we couldn’t find the dancers. The two men and two women turn out to be crawling around naked in a corner, exploring their cramped little nook, occasionally eating from bowls on the floor. Eventually they crawl out and get dressed, choosing their clothes from a random pile. And suddenly, it seems, they realize they’d been naked. In their next scene they appear like department-store dummies, modeling their outfits from a platform above the crowd, and mumbling their adolescent insecurities. “I want to impress you,” says one. “I’m fixing up my hair.” But it doesn’t work, it “feels retarded.”
For the next 45 minutes or so, these four explore their space, their bodies and each other. One couple engage in a pushing and bumping match, amid a storm of white quilts thrown at them by a third. All four race around the central circular platform, running and leaping as in an indoor track meet. Two couples tussle on platforms with quilts --- there’s no sex per se, but a fixation on the women’s navels, which are examined, kissed, and at one point obsessively cleaned with Q-tips.
There’s also some dancing – strong but deliberately awkward and repetitive, with lots of turning in tight circles, suggestive of autism – defining one’s personal space, but in a painfully limited way. Painful limits and awkward sensuality seem to be the themes. At one point Peggy Cheng sings a rueful little made–up pop song about a baby, something close to this:
“You have no sense, you beautiful thing.
You don’t know how to shake that thing.”
The tone throughout is one of rueful compassion. There’s none of the hopeless turning-away that’s become a cliché of modern dance – the characters stick with each other, although they often don’t know what to do. Toward the end, Heather Olson is caught in a cul-de-sac, up against a black wall in a narrow space, writhing and cursing unintelligibly. Joseph Poulson stands with her, watching, not able to help, but not about to leave.
The tenderest scene is a toothbrushing ritual. Luke Miller carefully prepares brush, paste, water and a bowl for Olson to spit in, then has her open her mouth for a thorough cleansing. She complies, puzzled but trusting in his knowledge and intentions.
At the end, the four pass through a room with a basin, where they wet their hair, and then come out to shake it in a rock and roll finale. Then they climb the stairs and leave through the theater exit.
It’s over, right? But the music is still playing. And amid the shifting mass of spectators, we’re aware of someone gently pushing through the crowd; it’s a naked woman, about six months pregnant. She steps to the center of our circle and begins to dance, against a low hypnotic hum of sound. It reminds me of a Sufi dance – arm circles and turns in place, gradually building higher and faster, as if conjuring up the energy deep inside the self. Ashley Steele – the surprise guest – is a striking woman, solid but rippling with movement from her core, which now serves as a space for a life beyond her own. She’s in a moving trance; we’re mesmerized. At last she climbs the stairs onto a platform, takes a long drink of water, and lies down as if to sleep as the music ends. As we leave, she simply lies there, breathing and gestating.
The above is a superficial description of “Center of Sleep,” which like all Castro’s productions is as concerned with ambience and place as much as movement. The ambient sound was supplied by composer Stephan Moore and two other musicians – an urban hum and roar punctuated by a thousand incidental noises, from a guitar to a bouncing basketball. The dramatic but subtle lighting was by Roderick Murray. Because the audience was on stage it sometimes shone straight in our eyes, so we had to move to see what was going on, and we did, relentlessly shifting in waves like transfixed tourists or pilgrims. It was a measure of the piece’s effectiveness that I felt trust and a vague, developing fondness for the people I kept bumping into at every turn. For an hour at least, the audience felt like a community, or maybe even an organism, like a fetus sloshing around in the womb.
The place wasn’t ideal. The Bessie Schonberg Theater at DTW is a conventional theater space, whose theatrical features can be covered up but not transformed. Castro’s past works have been staged in warehouses, factories and public bathrooms, and one wonders where she would have put this one if she could have chosen anywhere in the world. Anyway, it’s worth restaging in some less conventional space.
“Center of Sleep” runs through March 1 at Dance Theater Workshop.
Copyright 2008 by Tom Phillips
Photograph by Julieta Cervantes