Review: Bistoury Physical Theatre’s ‘The Commune – Chapter 2’ has a lot to say
Carla Forte was one of four dancers in “The Commune — Chapter 2: The Anarchist,” which was presented Oct. 7-8, 2021, at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Alexey Taran)
When Bistoury Physical Theatre performed “The Commune — Chapter 1: A commune of oranges,” back in January 2020, the show questioned the threshold between dream and reality in the search for alternative ways of being in the world.
In its second installment, “The Commune — Chapter 2: The Anarchist,” performed Oct. 7-8, 2021, at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, BPT had a different message. In show notes, the group said “The Anarchist” presented a practice of freedom based on principles of equality and nondiscrimination.
It opened with dancers Heather Maloney, Carla Forte, Carlos Fabián and Gabriela Burdsall seated in a line, to the left of the stage. Alexey Taran stood behind them working soundboard and videos. Behind the stage, a film screen draped the back wall. On the floor, the tight loops of a spiral were drawn in white chalk.
Beside each of the performers were props. At Maloney’s feet sat a suitcase carrying children’s drawings and a mask, in front of Forte were oranges and an open book. Fabián occasionally leaned forward to write sentences on the floor in chalk, and Burdsall, in a black robe tied with a red sash, looked like Medusa with long twisted curlers wrapped snake-like in her hair.
As with BPT’s 2020 work, “The Anarchist” depended heavily on film. Early in the performance, a black-and-white video showed the dancers sitting around a table drinking, laughing and eating. In English and Spanish, they posed topics such as the persistence of life after death (a la Facebook algorithms messaging a deceased person’s birthday), the connection to one’s surroundings through feeling, or speculations over past lives. Fabián insisted he had once lived life as an animal, while Maloney believes she had once been a temple girl.
The conversation cuts to a cello solo and closeups of a tree canopy. Maloney, in a floor-length white dress went backward to the center of the stage then bent over, walking her fists forward then palming her legs. She repeated the sequence then cradled her belly, arms sweeping overhead. Her movements throughout were stiff and fatigued.
Maloney’s dance was the first of four signature pieces from each of the performers. Each dance expressed a feeling and movement motif that recurred and transformed as the show progressed.
As violins fired up, Forte paced the stage in a black polka-dot dress. Projected on the backdrop were two images of a seated woman’s back, one in color, the other in black and white. Water ran up her shoulders, defying gravity.
On the floor, Forte laughed and sobbed like someone losing touch, walking with legs turned inward then akimbo, arms making sharp angles at the elbows or swinging wildly at her sides. She squealed as she punched the air, her fists and feet catching the music’s accents.
When a piano began to play, Burdsall crossed the stage, her arms and legs smoothly circling her body. From time to time, she partnered with her silhouette cast against the wall by a bright spotlight. On the screen, fingers created a pattern of small mirrors against a slab of cement. She closed at the center, pointing intently at something above her.
As the music grew ominous, a combative Fabián strode across the stage, at times assuming a fighter’s stance, fists up, at others standing at the center, hands palming nervously up his body. He finished his sequence staring fixedly into the audience, repeating: “I just wanted to say … um … uh … I just wanted to say … ”
The next segment unfolded in two gorgeous duets and suggested as it did so how the principle of association could intervene in the emotional struggles the opening performances presented.
In each duet, the signature movements of the dancers gradually took on aspects of the movement style established by their partner. For instance, as Maloney and Forte danced, Maloney’s stiff, fatigued movements grew more casual, less effortful, and Forte’s agitated jerks and twists smoothed and grew calmer.
Similarly, Burdsall and Fabián riffed off each other’s opening patterns. From punches, his arms shaped wide circles, as Burdsall sprouted kicks and snapped an occasional fist. Their duet ended when Taran, dressed in black, abandoned his place behind audioboards and computer screens and began to stalk Burdsall with his camera, inches from her face, her closeup projected on the backdrop in black and white.
In the sequence that unfolded, the play of reflected and filmed images concretely separated the performer from their performance.
Burdsall first soliloquized into the camera, repeating, “I woke up, looking at myself … I woke up a bright light in my hand …”
As she spoke, Taran circled her, camera glued to his face. Her speech shifted into a chant in English and Spanish — “Crystal, crystal, crystal, machine, machine, machine, water” — and she crossed the floor on footlong mirror tiles she laid ahead of herself.
The scene ended with Burdsall reflecting Maloney in a tile filmed by Taran. Maloney then began her sequence with Taran obsessively focused on her hands.
Each of the four vignettes appeared to display the emotional messaging behind the performers’ opening signature sequences. However, this time, Taran’s filmic intervention created distance between performer and message, objectifying that emotional core onto the screen.
This sequence behaved as a pivot point for the work. Where struggle, trauma and grief opened the evening, subsequent segments increasingly suggested how silliness and friendship, intimacy and community can heal traumatic pain.
For instance, in the next sequence, the dancers placed their chairs at the center then began to loudly and frantically talk at one another, aggressively gesturing for attention. Their communication gradually slowed, and their eye contact increased. They ended responding casually to one another, recalling the show’s friendly opening discussion around the table.
Another sequence laid out a dance of connection as Maloney offered one end of a rope to Fabián. He took it and lunged across the floor as if to escape the stage but came up short against the rope’s limit. The two exchanged positions and Forte then Burdsall seized the rope as well. The four criss-crossed randomly, laughing at entanglements but increasingly coordinating until they came together at the center, silent and motionless, foreheads touching.
With the first strains of a cumbia, they dissolved into a spontaneous dance of community, extemporizing on the rhythms — first in laughing, intimate couples but increasingly as a happy group, the four dancers facing the audience in a line as they pressed out the music in legs and hips.
The message of “The Anarchist” is that principles of association, connection, intimacy, community and friendship can intervene in the emotional messaging at the root of interpersonal conflict and traumatic experience. The Thursday and Friday performances convincingly delivered on this message.
However, “The Anarchist” also poses the question of whether “the practice of freedom,” approached in this way, can intervene effectively in today’s political struggles around color, sexual identity and gender, themes (and struggles) noticeably absent from this treatment. Perhaps BPT’s response to that question will form “The Commune — Chapter 3”?
Bistoury Physical Theatre & Film provides an avant-garde creative platform for dance, theater and film. For more information on BPT, visit bistoury.org.