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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Parallaxis, on ECLIPSE

Photo: Benjamin Nicholas
by Thomas Bartscherer

ECLIPSE begins with a new space and unfolds as a conversation. The first proposition: the Brooklyn Academy of Music invites Jonah Bokaer to create the inaugural performance at BAM Fisher, a small-scale theater set to open in 2012. Bokaer responds by proposing a collaboration with Anthony McCall, who in turn proposes an installation consisting of 36 lights arranged in a grid. Bokaer choreographs movement in response to McCall’s design, the latter adds sound—a projector, a train, a helicopter—and eventually the dancers’ work begins, their movements cued by the intricate pattern of timed illumination.

Where you sit determines what you see of ECLIPSE. True for any performance viewed by a seated audience, here the perspectival character of perception is paramount. The quadrafrontal performance space and the grid of lights, torqued 90 degrees and tilted relative to the floor, establish radically different views depending on vantage point. Seated at one corner, the immediate field of vision is dominated by hanging bulbs that the dancers navigate like an obstacle course. Looking from this side, the lines of lights gradually rise and lengthen till they reach a center row of six bulbs hanging six feet from the ground. Each subsequent row is one bulb shorter and one foot higher, topping out with a single bulb at 12 feet. For the spectator seated on that side, meanwhile, the foreground view is of dancers moving in an open space, the lights forming a canopy above them that gradually descends in ordered lines, each a foot lower and a bulb longer than the last, till the midpoint, where the lights dangle just over the dancers’ heads, suggesting Vitruvian proportion. Further back—upstage, as it were, from that point of view—one sees the dancers weaving between the hanging bulbs. In this complex space, an experiment in what McCall has referred to as “exploded cinema,” the various elements—patterns of lights, a spectral soundtrack evoking the life of the city and the history of film, bodies composed for close ups and long shots—register differently from each position around the square.

Photo of Jonah Bokaer by Benjamin Nicholas
ECLIPSE denies a single point of view. The ideal spectator is impossible, is everywhere at once, is nowhere. Real spectators, perceiving the conversation between objects, movement, and sound, are in turn put in conversation with the work and with one another. Conversation—from Latin, literally “turning together” (as these dancers do), but also, in a later meaning, “keeping company with,” or “living among.” ECLIPSE creates a strange community of spectators, who see one another but do not quite see what each other is seeing. The work is the occasion for the encounter. “Out of this same light,” writes Wallace Stevens, “we make a dwelling in the evening air, in which being there together is enough.”

Relentless, the desire for order manifest in this piece: the uncompromising linearity of the grid, the meticulous precision of movement and light and sound. Nothing, it seems, is left to chance. Still, there is the uncontrollable mystery, the mess of flesh and blood in live performance, the breathing audience, the community of individuals together in a given space, for a given time. In its single hour, ECLIPSE makes legible that mystery.

Thomas Bartscherer teaches in literature, philosophy, and classics at Bard College and is the director of Bard's Language and Thinking Program.

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