“We are working with the inspiration of lichens, fungi, mosses, and molds,” Keely Isaak Meehan told me recently in a telephone interview. “That whole world of small organisms that creep into the undergrowth of the forest and unused man-made spaces.”
Inanimate objects may not seem like the logical inspiration for a choreographer, but honestly, that’s one of the things I find so fascinating about Manifold Motion, the company run by Meehan and her husband Mike McCracken, who does interactive technology and design, in conjunction with a variety of long-time collaborators. Part dance company, part installation and interactive technology artists, Manifold Motion presents ambitious, complex performances in which movement artists interact with immersive worlds generated in cross-disciplinary collaboration to produce works that one way or another are going to surprise. Just this last weekend, their new evening-length work, Under, opened at INScape Arts, in the old INS building in the International District, where it runs through November 28, three days a week (tickets $18).
Nearly two years ago, I caught Manifold Motion’s last full-length show, Woolgatherer, at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, and as it began, I was a little bored: Bridget Gunning came onstage and performed a sort of psycho-emotional breakdown in dance-form against a screeching electronic score, in front of a digitally generated projection. Oh God, I thought, here’s another exploration of the stresses of modern life crushing someone’s soul. But about as soon as I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, Gunning collapsed, tearing down the projection screen with her and exposing a stunningly realized anti-modern world constructed of distressed wool yarn.
From atop a platform, actors operated spindles, letting the yarn cascade down like weeping willows. Two dancers appeared with long poles longer than they were tall tied to their legs, festooned with the stuff at the top, and performed a dance in half-crouch, the focus shifting from the dancers’ bodies to the movement of the poles and the dangling yarn. An aerial sequence, performed by Nicole Sasala, dispensed with traditional circus-style work and instead left the aerialist mostly trapped within a brown looped sash, the result occasionally recalling a bat waking from a slumber, and other times the pulsing of a cocoon.
So in short, I was duly impressed with the mise-en-scene and how this in turn influenced the music, and I’m fascinated by what MM has done with Under.
“One of the most important things to us was that this show would be a world people could be immersed in, even more so than Woolgatherer,” Meehan told me. “One of our challenges to ourselves was to bring it three-sixty around our audiences.”
Unlike Woolgatherer, Under does not take place in a traditional performance space. Instead, the audience is led through three different spaces by a unspeaking guide dubbed “the Moldy Minstrel.” The first room, “inspired by lichens and tree bark and stuff like that,” as Meehan explained evasively so as not to give away too much of the experience, is mostly an interactive installation. The second scenario evokes a cave, and the third, the floor of a forest, with the floor partly covered in mulch.
Curious how Meehan went about realizing movement inspired by things that don’t move, I asked how she approached her task as choreographer.
“One piece I’m choreographing came from the idea of, there’s this infection this guy has in Southeast Asia where his hands look like they’re turning into tree roots,” she explained. “So I imagined, if they actually rooted into the ground, if they were growing into the ground. So that piece, the movement is really inspired by that–she actually does not move her hands from the ground through the whole piece.”
“Another part is inspired by fungi that infects the brains of ants. It drives them up to the tops of trees, and then grow out of their head. So a lot of the movement in that is inspired by the idea of the ant being taken over by this infection.”
In order to pull off the piece, Manifold Motion has worked with a larger group of performers and collaborators than ever before. In addition to Meehan and McCracken, the core creative group included Leo Mayberry, a video and projection artist, movement artists Nicole Sasala and Bridget Gunning, as well Chaya Eastwood Jones and Luara Moore. The piece is performed by eight artists: Alexandra Baybutt, Mary Cutrera, Brynne Flidais, Emily German, Bridget Gunning, Annie McGhee, Elizabeth Rose, and Jill Marissa.
In short, it’s an ambitious move by a small, self-producing company, and speaks, I think, to the opportunities that exist in Seattle to put on complicated, cross-disciplinary work. But if you want to go see it, you should act fast: though it’s performed three times a day for the next two weekends (Fri.-Sun.), there’s only 15 seats per performance.