Lisa Townsend's indifference and Mica Sigourney's MASTERWORK collectively illustrate the risks and the rewards of giving artists the support they need to experiment. Townsend and Sigourney are part of the Artist Residency Commissioning Program at CounterPULSE and have developed their dance theater pieces over the past several months. They get rehearsal space, "work-in-progress showings," and a performance venue to make whatever they want. Some artists profit enormously from that freedom, while others use it strictly to indulge themselves. The double-bill of these two works, which concluded Sunday, cover both extremes.
Indifference uses dance theater to explore Albert Camus' The Stranger, the 1942 novel best known as an illustration of existentialism. The title character is Mersault, estranged because of his consummate apathy. Asked by his girlfriend Marie whether he wants to get married, he responds that it doesn't make any difference to him and they can if she wants to. More weightily, when he shoots an innocent man, he offers no explanation why and feels no remorse afterward.
Townsend brings this tale to life with six dancers (Patric Cashman, Eric Garcia, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Christine Bonansea, Brenton Cheng, and Townsend herself) and three live musicians (Piro Patton, Michael Bello, and Dave Mihaly) as well as recorded music and video projection. She uses little text, and it can be easy to forget her literary inspiration in favor of simply enjoying the aesthetics of different media interacting with each other.
At one point, dancers and their video-recorded shadows appear to be in the same space and time; at another, twitching legs and windmill arms, accompanied by guitar, create ocean waves. But the novel does periodically assert itself, and Townsend finds apt ways to make the text theatrical. A rectangle of white light becomes the beach sun that at least partially motivates the murder; the dancers' moving like slack marionettes leaning on each other for support makes physical Mersault's attitude. The show does miss a few beats, at times becoming too tender or brooding for the novel's tone, but on the whole it makes for a lively riff on a fertile tale.
The same cannot be said of Sigourney's MASTERWORK. CounterPULSE describes it as "a self-obsessed, introspective piece that endeavors to supersize the ego of the artist," and the company is not mincing words. Another descriptor might be "hella hipster." We don't have anything against the asymmetrically shaved hair-dos favored by Sigourney and many of his seven performers (Harold Burns, Trixxie Carr, Dia Dear, Rachael Dichter, Kolmel, Elijah Minnelli, and Tessa Wills). But we do take issue with snark for its own sake, unsubstantiated contempt for the audience, and artwork that tries to stretch one idea into an entire show.
MASTERWORK begins with its one good concept. As Sigourney's dancers, clad in tribal makeup, sequined matador jackets, and garish floral leggings, strike glamour poses to Robyn's "Dancing on My Own," Sigourney himself is slightly offstage with a mike stand.
"No lip-syncing," he tells them. "Sadder."
This is a director giving his performers notes. Some they can follow while others are arbitrary, confusing, and impossible: "I need your eyes to be empty, but smile with your eyes."
At first it's amusing to watch performers desperately vying for their director's approval, and at other points in the fragmentary piece, the bit does raise interesting questions. Trixxie Carr, performing one of Clytemnestra's monologues from The Oresteia, is bombarded with whispered notes from Sigourney and her castmates practically at every line. She follows all of them, alternately making the monologue deeper or slower or whatever they demand. Even as Sigourney exposes all the mechanistic operations an actor uses to tug our heartstrings, Carr still successfully tugs them. In this scene, we are simultaneously moved and aware of how we are being moved.
It's a complex moment, but what's the point? The show never moves beyond simply exposing the constructedness of theater, which frankly isn't something that should take a whole show to accomplish. Here, the only deeper message is that Sigourney's actors never go deep enough for him. And the contemptuous tone the cast adopts suggests that, if that doesn't constitute enough of a show for the audience, then the spectators aren't going deep enough either.
"People need to make space in their person for this project," Sigourney has said of MASTERWORK.
But it's possible the only person who can truly go deep enough is Sigourney himself.