Rashaun Mitchell’s latest dance collaboration, presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art over the weekend, is called simply “Performance.” One could take it as reductionist, like naming a pet dog Dog. But Mitchell’s too provocative for that. There are layers of questions in the title’s allusions. Isn’t life itself a kind of performance? Do we project who we really are or who we want to be? Is there a difference between our public personae and our private interior selves? If there is no audience, are we still “on”?
Mitchell, in collaboration with visual artist Ali Naschke-Messing and the Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, doesn’t answer these questions as much as pose them in the most ambiguous of ways, and we get to come to our own conclusions — or not. Begun last summer during a two-week residency as part of the ICA/Summer Stages Dance “Co Lab: Process + Performance,” the work was inspired by a quote from Richard Avedon, who calls performance “a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognized as what we’d like to be."
In the beginning of this 40-minute piece, Mitchell shows us the process of getting ready. As he warms up with cartwheels and bounces, the stage is a mess. Light booms are down to the floor, gold streamers sag and puddle, and shard-like gold fragments litter the floor. Cori Kresge listlessly sweeps, while Silas Riener screws and unscrews light fixtures. Hiroki Ichinose polishes the back wall of windows — open to the dark harbor, they act as a giant muted mirror.
When Mitchell straps a silver bowl to his face, it becomes another kind of mirror, reflecting not him, but us. As Merritt, perched coyly on a boom, sings “The world is a disco ball and we are little mirrors one and all,” the dancers begin to slide and spin, periodically stopping to pose.
Thematically, that concept of reflection seems to be at the heart of the work, but it never really goes anywhere. Once the dance gets more underway, there is scant development and little to hold onto. “Performance” evolves into a kind of playful, absurdist, rather self-indulgent happening, with Merritt singing about three-toed sloths and mermaids in Barcelona. When the dancers pass through Naschke-Messing’s streamers, now raised to create a kind of glimmering tent, one expects (or at least hopes) to see some kind of transformation. But though two dancers climb atop the shoulders of the others, they seem unchanged. That’s too bad — Mitchell and his dancers are beautiful movers who rarely get the chance to blossom. Most of the movement is either quirky jerky or slow-moving contortions that aren’t that interesting to watch, though there are some stellar isolated moments: Riener’s off-center développé, Ichinose’s majestically held passé, which seems to last forever.
The work’s most compelling aspect is the visual design, especially Naschke-Messing’s curtains of hanging shards, which create striking interplays of light. The loveliest dance sequence in the piece is a slow-motion series of supple, liquid balances and extensions that cant and tilt, seeming to emulate the gentle spins and drifts of those suspended gold fragments.
Mitchell says in the program notes, “My aim is to create a world where the ordinary, the spectacle and the spiritual meet . . . an ambiguous place where the wonder of children exists all the time.” He finally catches a sense of that spirit in the work’s ending tableau. As the lights dim on the dancers inside, Merritt leads a somber promenade just outside the building, bringing the harbor into view. While the small coterie processes around the back of the building, one of the participants creates a blizzard of giant bubbles. Caught by the wind, they dance off into the night. Sweet.