Early in August, the prestigious Capezio Award was given to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where Berkshire-country tourists, locals, and diehard fans enjoy a cornucopia of dance events throughout the summer. The presentation ceremony coincided with a splendid demonstration of the Pillow’s ongoing agenda of exploring the new: the showing of a work it had co-commissioned – and nurtured by means of its residency program – from the postmodernist Susan Marshall.
In this program-length piece, The Most Dangerous Room in the House, the choreographer suggests that the room in question is whatever one we happen to be in, since dwelling with confusion and catastrophe is as much a state of mind as the effect of objective situations and events impinging upon us from the outside. Marshall gives us a group of closely interrelated people far too aware for comfort of how human feelings become human failings. Here the “characters” – the roles shift, as in dreams – are mother, daughters, and sons and lovers, or perhaps just a woman with more of her life behind her than ahead of her, remembering who she has been in terms of her most intense and unforgettable connections. This older woman, played splendidly by the actor-dancer Norma Fire, also occasionally utters fragments of a monologue (written by Christopher Renino) – the kind of internal conversation we conduct endlessly with ourselves.
Marshall’s movement vocabulary is ideal for her psychic explorations, mutating back and forth between the stuff of ordinary physical life and the more fluent, rhythmic, stylized quality of what we label dancing. The first segment of the piece depicts anguish and rage in a claustrophobic space – the primal family, in a nutshell – with the participants vying for position on an impossibly small stretch of wall (ironically set up in a vast void) and a single bare-bones chair. Next, two fragments of wall are abutted and angled to become a corner; it’s still a trap, but the structure is placed at a distance, creating the illusion that the area has opened up to let some air in. Dominant now are images of rescue and resuscitation performed on victims who may be figments of the imagination, people with whom one has tried and failed, or figures whose needs are recognized too late. The final section offers too facile a resolution. The wall-like elements become a window, a bed for making love, a hill that offers a longer perspective – emblems of freedom and release. But Marshall hasn’t shown us how her characters have earned or even arrived at their relatively happy ending, so we’re left to wonder: Was it self-examination, resulting in a conscious effort to revise one’s life, or was it simply the healing conventionally believed to come from the passage of time?
Throughout this piece, Marshall captures the eternally contradictory nature of our desires. At a given moment, one of her protagonists may seem to cry “Stay with me. I’m afraid. I need you” and “Let me go. Let me out of your clutches. Let me out of here.” Throughout, too, the small, closed society of intimates is intruded upon by people running swiftly and freely across the stage, serving as a reminder that though we are the center of our own tiny universes, the populations of other worlds, busy about their affairs, touch us tangentially or sweep through the constructs we’ve created with such intent self-obsession. Neither does Marshall forget the theme of each human individual’s essential isolation and loneliness (which is simply isolation with a little hope left).
Despite its easy out – which might well be revised before Dangerous Room comes to BAM in December – this is a notable achievement, profoundly and wonderfully disturbing because looking at it is like looking into a mirror.