THEATER REVIEW | Fire Drill’s “Absolute Bliss”: Where West Coast and Midwest choreography meet


It’s nice to know I can always count on Fire Drill (Billy Mullaney and Emily Gastineau) to put the sort of performance in front of me that I probably wouldn’t run across myself if left to my own devices. Since they’re artists I trust because I enjoy their work, and they see all manner of other performers when they’re out and about touring around the country, I figure if there’s a group of artists they’ve gathered together for a showcase, it’s going to be worth checking out. The first such showcase of theirs I saw, Bring In The Indigo, confirmed this. So when I got word they were doing it again, this time at Bedlam Theatre with performers from the West Coast (Oakland and Portland), calling it Absolute Bliss, I knew it’d be worth checking out.

This hybrid of dance and spoken word and low-tech multimedia is always tricky to describe. Revisiting the descriptions the artists provided ahead of time after I’d seen the show was a curious exercise. Remembering what I’d just seen, then reading the words they used to label it, in every case I came away thinking, “Hmmm, well, that’s not what I thought I was seeing, but that’s an interesting lens to filter that whole experience through as well.” There weren’t any programs prior to the show and that was actually a useful challenge. I didn’t have any words or preconceived notions to hold onto—so I had to just encounter the different dance/movement compositions in the moment they existed in front of me. Rather than being bewildering, it helped me focus on just watching and being present. It was quite freeing. (Of course I was very happy to get a program at the end, so I had a handy reference with everyone’s names and websites but that’s mostly just so I’m not describing the action as “then there was this long-haired brunette who…”—which, honestly, given the composition of the evening doesn’t narrow it down much.)

For instance, one of the most successful events of the evening in terms of hooking me right away and then bringing me along on its quirky little journey was Portland performer Allie Hankins“Don’t Lend The Hand That Feeds You.” She started out on the spiral staircase descending from the level where the light board was situated, in a jumpsuit that covered nearly all of her body, holding out something tantalizing in her hand that was covered with a piece of billowing fabric. Hankins is really good at making you think she’s doing something awkward and ungainly, when in fact she’s actually in such total control of her body that if you tried to duplicate the moves she’s making, you’d fall flat on your face. For instance, try putting one leg up on the railing of the spiral staircase and then walking down to floor level, gracefully, all the while holding out that mysterious object in one arm. Or try dancing with a microphone stand with a boom arm on it. Hankins entwined herself in the joints of the mic stand and vice versa, then moved on to wrangling enormous lengths of microphone cable. Again, seeming awkward, yet fluid underneath it all. Amazing control, and also totally amusing to watch in action. She also was clearly tweaking the audience expectations of seeing a little flesh to go with the sultry music. The first half of the dance, the only thing doing serious jiggling was the seductively revealed plate of multi-colored gelatin she’d been carrying around under that cloth. When she shed the jumpsuit to unveil the red leotard underneath, it was in the most utilitarian unprovocative way possible. Drawing the piece to a close was her sing-along with Dionne Warwick on “Walk On By,” also subverting expectations in performance.  In conclusion, her intermittent narration was brought to a close by sticking the microphone down the front of her leotard. Not sure if we were supposed to hear her crotch making any noise, but again, it was not done in the name of titillation.

The blurb about “Don’t Lend The Hand That Feeds You”? In part it: “…results from Allie’s personal experiences as a caregiver and personal assistant to the elderly, the impaired, and the overworked. This piece is a meditation on the depletion & replenishment of personal power, sacrifice & retainment of personal time, and failures & successes of personal efforts.” OK, I think the only thing I’m following is the personal power dynamic there, but you know what? Doesn’t matter.  I was engaged, and thinking, and intrigued the whole time. Hankins is a performer I’m definitely curious to see more of.

If I told you that Portland performer Takahiro Yamamoto’s “Objecting” was billed as “a meditation on the phenomenology of live performance in direct relationship with the viewers” —what would you expect? Yeah, pretty open-ended there. It was definitely a piece that acknowledged the audience was present at all times. He spent a lot of the time speaking to us: whether it was counting off the number of circles he ran around the space with a hop as punctuation; or interrupting that count-off with a “4.2” or “6.8” that broke up the circle with a pattern crossing the space in some form of straight line; or intoning the lyrics or whistling the melody of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” very seriously replacing the “ain’t” with “isn’t” and making the double negatives of the song more ludicrous. You could also tell the age split in the audience during this piece because there was a sliver of audience right down the middle of the age spectrum that got the reference, while the older and younger contingents on either side of that pop culture moment were perplexed.

Local group Aniccha Arts presented their work in progress “Fold.” This was the sort of piece the audience lives inside for a while. The length and labored pacing of it were deliberate. It created its own time and space the more it continued, and the more dancers were added to the onstage movement. The ethnic makeup of the performers is mixed—Asian, African American, East Indian (these are guesses on my part, I could be wildly off the mark, but clearly a contingent the majority of whom are artists of color, both dancers and soundscape managers—Kurt Blomberg, Masanari Kawahara, Ben Reed, Deja Stowers, Piotr Szyhalski, Jasmine Kar Tang, Chitra Vairavan, and Pramila Vasudevan). 

“Fold” included large creations made out of panels of cardboard boxes, bound together at flexible joints made of tape or plastic. These cardboard items lay flat at first and were given life and movement by the performers. Sometimes they seemed in full control, sometimes not. Sometimes something created in the folding by one artist was undone or corrected by another. Here again, the description: “Through the presentation of numerous simultaneous events, ‘Fold’ becomes an ecosystem of comments on migrant experiences, a way to visualize the complex system of interrelations necessary in understanding contemporary migration issues.” OK, if you say so.  The more time you spend inside the world they create, the more the issues of culture, translation and understanding do come into play in the mind of the audience. So I didn’t feel as far removed from this one. Mostly, I just appreciated an artist asking me to sit still and watch something long enough that something which might seem repetitive began to make plain the subtle variations and changes that were being unpacked.

Portland artist Lucy Lee Yim’s “Devastation Melody” seemed to be an experiment with silence as much as movement. Moving through the space at first with no musical or sound effects accompaniment, Yim got us to focus on the subtler sounds of her body moving through space and across the floor. Then these distressed cries started to pierce the silence and at first I wasn’t entirely clear where they were coming from.  It didn’t seem like it was coming from any of the children in the audience.  hen I realized the noises were coming from Yim herself, though her mouth often barely moved. She later grabbed a microphone but in that initial environment of so little sound, her cries rang out and certainly didn’t require magnification to be heard. But again, it was other sounds she was trying to push out, as she removed her blouse and bra, crawled along the floor sticking her head in a garbage bag full of… Cheerios? Punctured at the end and spilling everywhere to once more reveal Yim’s face, the bag served to keep things hidden we expected to see, and kept the focus on the movement rather than the lowest common denominator audience question of “will she show us her breasts?”

The writeup on “Devastation Melody” says it “sits in an uncomfortable soup mixed with grace and sadness and shame and exhaustion turned apathy. First-world/first-gen/post-trauma/first-gen-post-war, post-trauma kind of noise.” I will attest to the disquieting nature of it all.

The other Minneapolis ensemble on the program, the trio known as SuperGroup, presented “Proxy.” While Margot Bassett chanted an ongoing undercurrent of wordless noise seating herself in often awkward positions on a stool, Junauda Petrus moved through the space in a series of moves I can only describe as celebrating the curves of her body. Around and through this was Greg Waletski, adding a verbal and miming element to the mix. Performing like a child making an oral report to the class, Waletski’s character manifested an Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment (a report on Robber Barons becoming Wobber Bawons, or one on Dirigibles turning into Diwigibles). The final report was on the trouble some children have with pronouncing the sound of the letter R. So we feel both better informed, and like jerks for laughing at the kid with the funny voice, who’s been told to tackle public speaking in order to meet the speech impediment head-on and conquer it. There wasn’t much of a write-up on “Proxy,” just a listing of all the other things SuperGroup is doing around town.  They’re a busy group as well as super.

Mullaney, Gastineau, Yamamoto and Yim joined Oakland duo Maryanna Lachman and Sam Hertz, along with visiting artist keyon gaskin and local dancer Tristan Koepke on Lachman and Hertz’s piece “Other Options.” The piece is billed as “a multi-day television broadcast that models organic phenomena and the steady and inevitable reclamation of objects by nature.” But it also may be one of the more obvious examples of the overall theme of the showcase itself, described as “highlighting experimental forms and speculating on contemporary embodiment.” “Other Options” took place after a short break in the middle of the program so they could erect a slightly more elaborate set up. Two sheets, hung as screens, bounded two sides of the space, leaving the other two sides open from which the audience could watch the video projected there. But that wasn’t the only place the performers wanted the audience.  Everyone was encouraged to get down in the middle of the playing space itself and mingle among the performers. 

Many audiences like their fourth wall firmly in place, separating them from the performers.  Others just have a hard time being transgressive and inserting themselves into the stage space where they feel they “don’t belong.” “Other Options” was pushing back hard on both of these notions. Because for the most part the dancers were isolated in particular places. Sometimes they were very still, at other times they were gesticulating broadly (though mostly bound up in pairs as two halves of the same moving object, so they didn’t move in space so much as fling their arms and torsos out and back again, or up and down again). A few brave souls gamely inserted themselves in the middle of the action to better see both screens. The dancers in the video used a lot of the same moves being played out at Bedlam Theatre in real time. This piece continued, like “Fold” before it, for a significant amount of time. It was enough time to allow you to become a little unhooked from the passage of time and just get lost in the repetitive movement of the different groups of performers (who also came and went, just like the audience). Once a pair had been on stage for awhile, their absence was notable. Their return in a different area again realigned the balance of the space, and the performers and audience within it. The whole thing was a very intriguing experiment in poking at the rigid definitions of audience and performer and their assigned spaces.

While the crew dismantled the “Other Options” set-up, the final performer of the evening, Portland’s keyon gaskin, was working his way through the crowd, engaging each (willing) person individually, asking them a question, listening to their answer while applying lipstick, thanking the person for sharing their story, and then asking, “Where may I kiss you?” (The query aimed at me was “Talk to me about a time today when you were afraid.”) After all that one-on-one time, the lights were dimmed almost to complete darkness, save for one intense backlight. For his piece “it’s not a thing,” gaskin first enumerated all the things he doesn’t like doing—like curtain speeches before he performs, performing for mostly white audiences (sorry, dude, you’re in Minnesota, we have a LOT of white people, particularly in theater seats), dancing to music, audience participation, drag (mostly because of the unacknowledged misogyny involved in the form), tap dancing, celebration of celebrity and pop music—basically everything he had already done or was just about to do.  Oh, and eventually he would also be naked.  Tap dancing.  And lap dancing.  For a lot of white people.

“it’s not a thing” was tagged as “a solo performance in consideration of Blackness. Representationally/abstractly it explores themes of absence, death, space, nothingness in relation to race and its cultural, historical, social, and international implications.” I can both see that, and also realize that as a white man I’m barely scratching the surface of my consciousness in regard to a lot of this.  gaskin is WAY a head of me. He’s also another example of a performer screwing with space, and seeming to be out of control of his body but instead being completely in control. There was a moment when he started tap dancing violently through a section of abandoned audience chairs. We’d been shifted into the center performing space with him, leaving nearly all the seating open. The final tap dancing assault had him flinging himself into the mass of chairs in a way that made you wonder, “Damn, is he OK?” then immediately realizing, “Oh, he meant to do that, and make us worry while he did it.” The pre-show work gaskin did (thought, let’s face it, in most of Absolute Bliss, there was no “pre” or “post” show, there was only “show”) engaging the audience directly allowed him to fearlessly go places in performance he might not have been able to go otherwise. This is mostly because if the audience hadn’t seen him as a person first, they might not have been willing to follow him where he was going as an artist. Naked or not, the guy’s got balls. I’m sure it’s exhausting, but it makes for a suitably intense performance to cap the full evening’s showcase.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to miss these two showcases Fire Drill has already concocted, you should definitely visit their website, Like their page on Facebook and get on their marketing radar so you don’t miss what’s next. The informality of these events guarantees you’re in for a night of risk-taking that brings audiences and artists closer together. In my opinion, more of that can only be a good thing. Whether I personally understand it half the time or not is kind of beside the point. My brain always gets some much needed exercise, and I never leave wishing I had that time out of my life back. It always feels like time well spent.

5 Stars – Very Highly Recommended

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