Every day in this world is an answer to the ruthless cruelty of its constant demand of who or what you are, nothing being adequate to the void that all the flesh in the world can’t eradicate or fill in: if I place word after word, do I write? If I place foot after foot, do I dance? If I put my body and mind in a place, does it stick—what have I done other than confirm through contact that there may have been a space?
Sidra Bell’s Unidentifiable; Bodies seems to pose such a question in an hour-long experience that asserts as much as it effaces. I wrote my preview for SF Weekly based on little more than the mark that struck me most as an erstwhile copy editor [“The semicolon is a punctuation mark of great beauty and subtlety, properly indicating two independent clauses that nevertheless complete each other further, yet frequently employed asyntactically to make an emoji wink. New York choreographer Sidra Bell does not specify which usage she prefers in her newest work, Unidentifiable; Bodies, on view at Dance Mission April 3-4, which announces itself by its opacity. Given that bodies are the building blocks of dance and also its engines, given that bodies in need of identification often cannot move or speak for themselves, Bell’s new work, promising to “navigate … terrain that is simultaneously profound, fragile, and devastating,” might also be anticipated by its desire not to be identified or contain identities, or even necessarily humans. Backed by an electronic sound score also created by the bold and multifaceted Bell, the work aims to be in your face, possibly winking.”]—now, having seen the work, I can append to my uninformed impression that the opacity is the necessity of the piece, a striving to express that also denies expression, placing the emphasis on action.
Bell’s four dancers are clothed in the same uniform, a tank thong leotard and black seamed tights. The effect is both androgynous and sexual, anonymous and exposing, which reflects a movement vocabulary that is simultaneously beastly and made mechanical through precision and repetition, executed with an energy that almost seems inhuman in its sustained exertion. Relationships are hinted at, as any pair or trio makes much of new dimension—but nothing develops enough to distinguish a duet from a solo except for the possibilities contained in angular complexity. When I say “nothing,” I only mean nothing chemical or dramatic, though plenty occurs in the realm of physics. The effort is relentless: running back and forth, getting up and falling, jumping up and down, climbing and collapsing, somersaulting, jolting and quaking with the impulse—the need—to do, do, do—and they do it with conviction and prowess, through all the varieties of cacophony that find itself in the soundscape: whirring, droning, humming, babbling, ratcheting, hammering, creaking. Impervious to this activity, one dancer walks clockwise around the stage slowly, zombie-eyed, a powerful contrast to the commotion. Does he hem them in or dream them? Do they, with all their motions, make more of a dance than he, or is his presence what makes theirs visible? He circles in a square space, motioning by the ground he does not cover at an absence, the silence that envelops the room in a brief break in the sound.
In better times, I have argued that the ability of an artist to discover order in every moment was proof of spirit; in worse, I see it as a terrifying delusion that threatens at every moment to dissolve on its own flimsy terms. The black box theater is the kind of space that mirrors the mind: an often cramped interior that becomes infinite in its imaginative possibilities, so long as one can imagine. Bell takes up all the space, leaving off the wings at Dance Mission so that we see exactly where the room begins and ends when light lights nothing but the tape that holds the floor down, and lose its borders entirely when the lights fall. One of the most striking moments was a brief one in which two dancers moved frenetically, barely visible in the darkness, not registering a change as the lights came slowly up around them, the light haloing first the hairs on their bare arms.
The piece ends abruptly—two dancers frantically agitating at each other, partway between the emphatic gestures of semaphores and the excess reverberations of short-circuited wires, desiring and indicating and initiating and refusing contact, context, significance in the half-light for so curt a duration that it feels like an interruption when it ends.
I reject the abyss because it is too orderly—it seems verged on a solid edge, directed in its plummet—vacancy is better but suggests that occupancy lies on the other side of circumstance—void might be best of all, utter negation, a mistake.
Yet when I see what I think are Japanese maples, their red leaves pillowed against each other on the stem, I wonder what it is that enables even this nerveless vegetation to connect.
Incidentally, what happens to all these words, deposited in the infinitely extensible space of the Internet, vibrating against nothing but each other in this absent universe?