The Sublime and Surreal in Salt Horse’s Titan Arum
One of the delights of Jonathan Raban’s seafaring Passage to Juneau is the excursion he takes to explore what the word “sublime” means now and what it used to do. Charles D’Ambrosio wrote in a review:
Raban is thus tempted by the sublime as a way of gaining access to new states of feeling, some release or hope beyond the quandary of his doubt, some sense of the terror below his classical temperament. He quotes Burke approvingly: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
That conception, in part, fuels the project of surrealism, which is (also in part) to liberate the imagination from the staid or conventional. Sublime is the dial up to eleven; in lesser degrees you have the eerie and uncanny of the ungrasped infinite, the disquieting queasiness of displaced revulsion. As Raban points out, the sublime Romantic landscape is deeply pathetic, infused with how it makes the viewer feel. But that is to look outward.
When you look inward, the landscape is surreal (surrealism grew up with Freudianism). Here the landscape is infused with viscera, competing and denied relationships and associations, the unwonted finitude of existence–all the perturbations of the conscious organism which, if it can’t avoid seeing itself seeing, can at least forebear talking about it in public. But that is, of course, what surrealism does.
Just as the sublime can be scrubbed from a landscape, it’s not reliably produced by art over the ages–who today thrills from within at the sight of melting watches? So the project is unending, to find the mobile gates that allow access, at just the right time.
As you walk up the old, creaky stairs in Washington Hall, you climb with the images of Margot Bird’s art priming you–the faces broken out in a rash of eyes, a tiger-headed woman, the perforated torsos that invite you to look inside at brown shag rug, at glittering stones.
You’re on your way up to Salt Horse’s Titan Arum (through May 21, tickets), and naturally you will find as you emerge from the straitened way that your seats are up on the stage, looking out over the hall.
Salt Horse choreographers Beth Graczyk and Corrie Befort use that space, I’m tempted to say, and will, to uncanny effect. When the lights go down, Washington Hall joins the dance troupe (Alia Swersky, Allie Hankins, Jessica Jobaris and Shannon Stewart) and musicians (Stuart Dempster, Greg Campbell, Lori Goldston, Tari Nelson-Zagar and Jaison Scott) as an artistic collaborator.
Its decaying lath-and-plaster ceiling intrudes into your consciousness, while at the far left a paper construction falls over the horseshoe balcony that rims the room–double doors at the back swing mysteriously open, creaking with authentic age. Salt Horse composer Angelina Baldoz’s inventive, eclectic, atmospheric score arrives in stereo, with musicians stationed on the floor either side of the stage.
Through the course of the evening, Salt Horse will use seemingly every inch of this vast space to recreate the sensation that (we’re told in studies) lab test-babies feel when you violate their unconscious expectations of object permanence. At least that’s how I felt when a jerky, stumbling black-clad figure tree-frogged down a wall into the room, with a kinesthetic style similar to the hirsute well-dweller in Ringu.
Salt Horse likes to bring odd statements to life, and here they have built the performance around “Six Myths,” beginning with The Dormant Fire Goddess (“Sedentary I want, not be. Covered in roses and passive. Ignite this dormant fire in me–to be red not black”) and concluding with Agni/Soma (“Standing on the periphery so long that suddenly one becomes aware they have been witnessing while dreaming and now awake they see they are in the middle, no longer the periphery”).
I shudder to think of what lesser hands might make of that, but here it’s a profusion of scenes that hew to the live-wire sensation of the sublime: Allie Hankins, looking feverish and wan, is caught by surprise in a wash of light (il v s Strauss’s lighting dances about as much as the people) and croaks in alarm–the double doors swing open behind her and a woman drags a foreshortened bed out like a bug maneuvering a large prize, with solicitous twitches keeping Hankins abed until she can slither under the matron’s arm. (Costume, set, and video design are credited to Corrie Befort with Mark Ferrin, Suzi Tucker, Jon Patnaude, and il v s strauss–the results are tremendous.)
I don’t want to over-describe the show, though that’s a distinct temptation: The first two-thirds are a Pandora’s Box of surrealist invention and investigation, and the psychological undercurrents are so affecting, you end up wanting to recount them like you would a strange dream.
The woman whose hands flutter like a moth around a light; seen from a distance, at the far end of the hall, she’s so far away you cease to feel she’s a performer–she’s like a glimpse through a window. The pulling of ropy black hair. Walking mannequin legs. The repeated fingertip drumming on the breastbone, as if trying to coax something up and out the throat.
Near the work’s conclusion, the troupe gathers as an ensemble–to this point, they’ve mostly done solos and small groups of twos and threes. I get the feeling this is not a group that wants to know how well they’ve danced; each is very good, but it seems off-point to discuss the technique of Befort’s golden-faced Empress, say, Graczyk’s tiger-headed woman. Better to say that each comes alive for you, that you get to know them from their gestures and movements because they illuminate.
To work out the center/periphery dynamic, they form a court of maenads who with a fierceness that yet never seeks allay their vulnerability (the dancers aren’t afraid to display their bruises). To be in the center, in a dervish-y whirl, is both exhilarating and alarming, and the other dancers look after the one caught up in the moment. The imposing Alia Swersky gets the coda, a regal, balletic incarnation who seems to bless the proceedings.