In a recent review, Sheila Regan attempted to parse the aesthetic iterations that have followed the rise of modern dance. Where does “smithsoniansmith” (this is it) by Hijack and Scott Heron fit in that taxonomy? Well, there’s modern dance, there’s post-modern dance, there’s post-post-modern dance, and then there’s dance that involves the active use of hot glue guns.
It’s the kind of piece that might be accurately labeled “experimental dance,” but while the piece’s three creators and performers—Heron with Hijack duo Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder—are adventurous spirits, they’re very experienced performers who don’t need to flail around in the dark to figure out how to achieve the effect they want to achieve.
|“smithsoniansmith” (this is it), presented through june 27 at open eye theatre. for information and tickets ($15), see openeyetheatre.org|
The irony is that “smithsoniansmith” does in fact have the performers literally flailing around in the dark (or near-dark) at multiple points. The understated and deliberately flat quality of Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design casts the stage in an even light, through which the trio—often clad in denim, making this a kind of high-art Jean Jam—run, tumble, prance, and throw one another. Van Loon and Wilder have been working together for 17 years and have been collaborating with Heron for eight years, so the three are comfortable enough together to convincingly beat the crap out of each other.
The piece’s title, I gather, makes reference both to the Smithsonian Institution and to pop anthropologist Harry Smith; the piece takes a tour through 20th century tropes and scripts from the “primitive” to the avant-garde, suggesting numerous questions about art and value while offering no real answers. (Even if you have a Ph.D. in cultural studies, you’ll probably miss more references per minute than your grandma watching Family Guy.) A dark, almost despairing atmosphere suffuses the piece—making it right at home in its current performance space at Open Eye Theatre. As in resident puppetmaster Michael Sommers’s creations, in “smithsoniansmith” interludes of absurd physical humor rise up and are quickly tamped down by pained—sometimes almost excruciating—interludes of struggle and longing.
The piece’s pleasures are largely found in watching three performers completely in control of their challenging craft, but there are also a few visually transcendent moments: Van Loon emerging from a trembling, opaque pile of denim; the three performers circling under a bobbing prob that looks like a combination between a UFO and a Christmas tree; and especially the three dancers, nude, weaving across a foggy stage and waving palm fronds from their crotches. It sounds ridiculous, and of course it is, but as ridiculousness goes it’s quite sublime.
On Thursday night, one audience member had a large dog with her, and for the first few minutes of the piece it barked often, and loudly. Eventually someone called out for the canine to please be removed, and it was duly walked out, but until that point I wasn’t sure whether or not the barking was actually part of the piece. “Smithsoniansmith” is so effectively raw, pained, and provocative that it seemed only right to have Man’s Best Friend raising the alarm: this is not right. Except it is, and if you prize inventive, challenging contemporary dance, you will not want to miss “smithsoniansmith.”