“Fallen,” by Jess Curtis/Gravity Physical Entertainment and fabrikCompanie.
ODC Theater, San Francisco, February 7-16, 2002
By Toba Singer
Let’s say that living is the struggle to achieve equilibrium, comprehending that living things never do, because the earth, air and water in which they thrive are in constant motion. Let’s say that rather than achieving it, all living things either approach or recede from equilibrium. Given that assumption, the word “fallen,” as a synonym for the word “death,” is a perfect match. After all, what has fallen has achieved equilibrium. Equilibrium is found in death—animas at rest. Gravitas, gravity, grave: If you could decline nouns in English, those three words could define the boundaries of the piece, “Fallen,” a truthful exploration of the conundrum that sends us from whence to thence. Five performers, U.S. and German, make up this compactly powerful and sentient company.
The curtainless theater is set with five, approximately 4 x 5-foot, beveled, horizontal and vertical aluminum picture frames, suspended at eye level. Centered in one frame is the musician/composer, Matthias Hermann, who plays incidental music on a cello before the piece opens. On the floor are several chalk-rendered human body silhouettes. It looks as if multiple murders might be under investigation. So, it takes us by surprise when the voiceover relates a story about the curious and precarious mating habits of certain eagles. In the story, they mate in mid-air, and their chicks are born when the eggs that contain them fall toward earth, and crack from the heat of the sun. The hatched, falling chicks are then lifted by a breeze, so that the neonates may commence to fly with an assist from nature. Eggs ready to hatch on that random day when there is neither sun, nor wind, complete their life cycle without ever really starting it, approaching and realizing equilibrium all in one frightful moment.
In a series of isolations done lying down, a limb falls, then a head, and a torso. The dancers assume the postures of birds, poised to fly, splayed on the ground, or preying on other life forms. They lay down in the chalk drawings. They peck at the ground beneath them, and their dusty nest is fractiously stirred as the music screeches. A man’s serpentine, raptor-like hand throws itself beyond his body. He is led into random motion by the hand. Bodies are led by their heads, or a pair of shoulders pulled into gyrations, by resisting or committing to gravity. A woman dancer preens, as the cellist plays over synthesized music. The resulting sound is of someone trying to stop a record with a hand, in the way that we might vainly hope to use a foot as a brake against a motor force far greater than we are willing to admit could be moving us toward death.
A woman stands behind a man and, like a shrouded puppeteer, manipulates him around the stage. She wields him like an Uzi. They exchange weight in a series of lifts, and move into spirals that end in loose penchés. Then he launches her, and she recoils, goes limp, and dies. Soon a couple is seated at a table in one of the frames. He steals a look. She offers a hand. He drops an egg into the hand. They shift positions and levels and this time, the female drops the egg. He catches it. They move around the table and around the frame. It is both a protoplasmic and terrifying game of Chicken. She extends a waiting hand, slightly outside the frame. He ups the ante by mounting the table, and threatens to drop the egg from “high and outside” the frame. She changes her mind, shrugging her shoulders at his escalation of the hostilities, moving out of the frame and away from the game. The voiceover tells us that fear becomes excitement, and as flight hastens, fear is lost. The bodies seem to take on the feedback of the sound gone awry. Feathers drop from above. Trains are heard, with other transport sounds.
In a solo, Sabine Chwalisz, becomes flamingo-like, poised in profile, arms lifted. Her movements assume the language of a djing, djing, djing percussion. A dancer/aerialist descends a rope. The stage is a full-fledged urban nest. Two of its male fledglings take possession of a table, where they chart their moves, angling the table, and then moving it out of its frame to center stage. There, they hoist it in the air, and spirit it around the stage. They drop its top in front of them like a child’s snowball fort, from which they play-shoot at the audience in gleeful camaraderie, enhanced by calliope music that seems to come from a far-off carousel. The fort is now a proscenium, and they now carouse in a Punch and Judy act. They shift into a gentle, four-handed finger play, with a lyrical choreography of its own.
The voiceover announces a “note to self.” It says, “Don’t worry about being important. Take revenge on meaning. Communicate to be misunderstood.” This instruction to turn everything on its head is further elaborated by a headstand. The dancers then break out into a boogie-woogie duet, with generous heaps of jazz slides, creating a virtual Birdland of revenge. Confetti pops out of the ceiling, as the music brazens through a bad connection, all scritchy-scratchy, moving us into a cacophony of a louder, more chaotic, more dissonant crescendo. Don’t expect the diminuendo to offer much in the way of succor.
A male dancer courts an approachable-seeming female. She blocks to defend; he leans in, not believing her. She leans in, believing in him. The voiceover asks itself about the term “falling in love.” Do we fall because love is dizzying? Do we surrender to a greater force? We land on our own two feet when it’s over, just a little injured, knowing that we must find a new way or die. Gravity renders life fragile. Some die, but the resilient don’t. Survivors molt their brush with death, and go on.
The final tableau makes frank use of the upstage brick wall at ODC. A rope descends with a man hanging upside down, as if he might have jumped. Another man is suspended, one foot perpendicular to the wall. The voiceover candidly admits to examining the detail of the photos of those who jumped from the windows of World Trade Center. Now, at the end, we understand that the set leads a double life. If the brick wall represents the towers’ edifice, the frames now appear to be their windows. “How would I feel?” the voice asks, if I had made the choice to flee the flames and jump. Until September 11, we had believed that the only choice was between fire and ice. The voice recalls that in one instance, a descending man’s hands remained folded serenely across his stomach, making it seem as though he were in prayer. In another, a portly woman’s billowing skirts made her look absurd. Again the voice: this time, inside of us: How would I feel?
While work on “Fallen” was begun before September 11, it was completed in its aftermath. Though not intended by Curtis as a political statement, for me “Fallen” stands as the consummate rebuke to the politically-motivated false sentiment that formed a second skin around the WTC event, immortalizing a piece of commercial real estate, idealizing cops, counterfeiting patriotism, marshalling any pre-existing, irrational worry into the official column of institutionalized fear, and confecting the mantle of victimhood into a fashion statement—all in the service of preparing to bomb Afghanistan.
On viewing Curtis’ work, I feel instantly free. It is as if I am no longer the hostage of a pack of propaganda thugs. Clearly, Curtis’ intention is far leaner than what I may impute to his work, but the feeling of release is no less palpable for that fact. Were there a Palme d’Or equivalent for choreography, Jess Curtis’ “Fallen” would get my vote for this year’s winner.
As the piece ends, an English horn adds ceremony to the denouement, leaving only that single question, “How would I feel?” still hanging in the air.