Review: Chunky Move, Mortal Engine

Last weekend I had the pleasure and delight of dragging my 9-month pregnant body up to the mezzanine and over a score of already seated patrons to the last remaining seat in the packed middle of BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House one last time, concluding my 2009 Next Wave Festival subscription.  Honestly, with a new baby immanent and the weather frosty, it took my husband’s urging and driving skills to get me there…but I made it barely by curtain time (to my row-mates’ chagrin), and I was so glad.

A year ago I had seen Chunky Move at The Kitchen with GLOW, a solo work using amazing technology by which a white screen on the floor created real time, interactive shadows and shapes based on the dancer’s movement upon it.  It was real eye candy, deftly conceived and impressively realized.  So I thought I knew what I was in for and to some degree I did, similar to knowing that a forthcoming baby will presumably have a certain kind of wonderful anatomy and fascinating progress through life.

But there was so much more.  Mortal Engine lavishly expanded upon GLOW in both scope and depth.  The white screen stretched across most of the enormous stage area and was raked so that six dancers easily flowed over and across it.  The same kind of light play occurred in ever complicating responses to the expert and serpentine performers, including interesting sections that featured the lower quarter or half of the screen raised forward as a wall.  And late in the hour-long piece was a stunning section of green laser lines and shapes, shifting and flickering directly toward the audience through a moving 3-D canvas of smoke that was pumped from the stage and balconies.  The effect (at once planetarium, Stone Mountain and V—Ger) was hypnotic, and at one climactic point I seriously wondered if we all were being ushered into an altered state of consciousness.

If we were, nobody seemed to mind.  I’m always surprised when a NY audience responds to a work with no guile whatsoever, but genuinely, even palpably receives it with innocent delight.  Throughout this piece, and especially during the laser play, there were audible gasps of enjoyment and wonder.

The woman to my left was particularly gaspy, but I forgave her because I too was touched by Mortal Engine’s powerfully successful visual craft, which achieved its intended juxtaposition of cold technology with warm humanity to inspiring effect.  I must admit I was initially dubious of this goal, which seemed kind of hackneyed and with potential for just being annoying.  But they did it!  The piece managed that elusive and nourishing wholeness that balances head, stomach and heart (or the trinitarian Idea, Craft and Spirit, says Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker).  The concept, technology, set, costumes, movement and performers worked equally toward the machine/human interplay, and delivered.

I was frankly surprised at how poignant this theme became for me in Chunky Move’s capable hands.  Perhaps it’s the ever-evolving quandary of how to deal with progress, and the creator’s rich and complex relationship with the creation.  That sounds good, but I think in this case it had more to do with the performers.  Clad in various forms of semi-transparent pajama-y undergarments, these virtuosic and, well, technical performers held nothing back, but gave themselves fully to the work in the most human way, evoking such a range of emotion while staying true to the work’s abstract aesthetic.  They were fierce, they were bored, they huddled together, they exploded apart, they made love, they just stood there, and always with a most inspiring courage to be both masterful and vulnerable.  At the curtain call, when the light shone directly on all of them for the first time, I warmed even more to these exquisitely accomplished and chiseled men and women, each of whom wore a refreshingly appreciative, almost sheepishly meek smile, as if so grateful and amazed to be a part of such an effort.  Those Aussies.  In short, thank you David for getting my belly in that seat, and thank you Chunky Move for offering this well-founded work just as I myself prepare to engage in some seriously human (but hopefully not mortal) engineering.

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