photo by Andrea Mohin for The New York Times
I just watched my life flash before my eyes. Well, many lives. In Maguy Marin’s Umwelt (at the Joyce Theater this week) dancers appear and disappear through a slatted set. We see them, for a few moments at a time, in the midst of performing mundane and sometimes unusual tasks. Nine performers move in and out of our awareness and we get glimpses of solitary and communal lives.
They move in unison while visually separated by vertical openings in the set. Three appear and take big bites out of apples. Two put on crowns. Four button shirts. A few scratch. They put on doctors’ coats. Eat carrots. Carry trash. Wipe their noses. Pull their pants up. Hold a baby. Kiss. Fight. Carry a naked and lifeless body across their shoulders.
One spool of rope on the right side of the stage unwinds towards another spool on the left. It is a constant marker of time. Unceasing air from very high-powered fans blows on the dancers the entire time. The ongoing sound of the wind and the score is abrasive and driving.
As the 60 minute piece moves forward, I begin to notice patterns and relationships. The performers put on crowns, but also shower caps, sunbonnets, blue caps, and wigs. They eat apples, and big pieces of meat, cupcakes. They dress in doctors’ coats, a drunkard’s housecoat, monks’ robes, sexy silk robes. A performer points a finger as if mad with the same phrasing as another pointing a flashlight or a gun. A woman jumps on a man, another woman is carried away.
Within the ceaseless and ongoing movement and imagery, I begin to find meaning. My eyes and mind search for things I have seen before and they search for differences.
Each performer takes a moment to stand still at some point during the piece. When he or she does, everything stops. In those moments, my mind returns to the image of the monks’ robes. I think of the religious practitioner, philosopher, and artist, those necessary and slippery roles. Those roles in which standing still can find patterns and meaning, but also nothing.