Body Cartography Project
The BodyCartography Project
The Southern Theater
January 28–30, 2010
Reviewed by Linda Shapiro
Photo by Sean Smuda, courtesy BodyCartography.
Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad of The BodyCartography Project are best known for their large-scale and site-specific works and films. In 1/2 Life Ramstad and Bieringa seem to have taken a tiger by the tail, and it’s pulling them every which way. This 75-minute work grapples with issues of atomic power, science, and history by connecting nuclear superpower U.S.A., atomic survivor Japan, and nuclear-free New Zealand. Stylistically muddled and thematically vague, 1/2 Life lurches from Butoh-like expressionism to winsomely animated stagecraft reminiscent of Alwin Nikolais.
Three performers (Ramstad, Bieringa, and Takemi Kitamura) represent disoriented atomic bomb survivors, alienated creatures in hooded plastic coveralls, and innocents in a bucolic pre-nuclear paradise. They interact with a chorus of 12 dancers who carry and manipulate large plywood panels. The set (by Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Bieringa) consists of crinkled, low-hanging plastic, beautifully lit by Heidi Eckwall, which suggests both environmental waste and nuclear clouds. The sound score by Zeena Parkins creates an effective mélange of ominous rumbles, animal noises, and electronic buzzing.
But despite some luminous moments, confusion reigns. For instance, the chorus is great fun to watch as rectangles scurry across the stage, seamlessly molting from shifting planes to walls to flowing curvilinear structures. But it doesn’t remotely suggest the potential for a nuclear chain reaction implied by its title in the program, “Critical Mass.” In one section, Ramstad, Bieringa, and Kitamura suggest disorientation through robotic isolations and fluid gestural mayhem. They crackle with radioactivity, lurch and stagger, break into convulsive silent laughter. But nothing here seems deeply motivated; their frantic gesticulations lack urgency and border on cliché.
Only a solo by Kitamura captures anything close to the dichotomy between the theoretical elegance and tangible horrors of nuclear fission. Her hands shake, flutter, and undulate, taking on a life of their own that is both exquisite and terrifying. Their frenetic motion suggests an energetic core expanding exponentially, as if about to self-destruct. Meanwhile, images of what look like fragile nuclei gracefully dividing are projected on the wall. In a rambunctious solo, Ramstad lopes like an ape, attacks air like a ninja, suffers involuntary spasm while emitting barnyard noises. Fragmented and bewildered in the face of forces he can neither control nor understand, he seems to be channeling the collective unconscious of the 21st century.