A Stop in the Middle - Tahni Holt's Sensation/Disorientation by Jake Simonds

We walked into Reed’s Diver Studio Theatre, and the seats formed a circle with two rows--about as large a circle as you can comfortably fit in the space--with additional seating in the balcony. The six dancers were in a lump, a lethargic but alive pile of bodies crawling and falling over each other as we took our seats. The only other items on the bare stage was a red keyboard, and two large beige sacks tied not-quite-shut, with something gold shimmering out.

The dancers wore patterns. Each dancer sporting around a half-dozen bright patterns on patchwork outfits, it was like watching a strange, possessed quilt. But amid this quilt were isolated hands, feet, heads. Sometimes belonging to a discrete body, sometimes not.

For the first few minutes the dancers remained a single visual unit. An individual might break off momentarily, but they always remained in physical contact with the whole, which would soon envelop them again. When the mass did break up it was into three pairs, and the pairs began to move and share weight in a manner similar before, but gradually this sharing turned into something more violent, a kind of wrestling.

It was particularly arresting when, after the wrestling and the harsh monotone sound accompanying this action had raised to a climax, the sound cut out. And suddenly we also heard what before we only saw: the grunting, and breathing, and sounds of body against body, and body against floor.

I don’t trust my memory or enough to continue a literal retelling of any more of the dance, but after the pairs broke up we saw some gorgeous blending of fast and slow tempo, as well as some solos where one dancer would break from the other five. The next moment that arrested me was when the dancers began to manipulate their costumes.

There is something so powerful about stopping right in the middle of an action. A great example of this from the theatre world is in the final act of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, when General Vershinin has come to say goodbye to his love, Masha. Chekhov does not give us goodbye scene we crave--and expect--right away. Instead, we get a scene between Vershinin and Olga, as they wait for Masha to arrive from the house. It is a strange, haunting, beautiful scene. Pregnant with the action which has not happened, the circumstances for which they--and we--must wait.

Holt had her dancers stop midway thru shedding their big, flowing patchwork skirts. Underneath the skirts, the dancers wore gold leggings. These leggings matching the material in the mysterious beige sacks--along with those skirts, while beautiful, masking much of the dancer’s motions--told us, as an audience, that at some point the skirts would be cast off. But instead of simply casting off the skirts, the dancers next just wore them differently.

I guess the simplest way to say it is that the dancers assumed an almost downward-dog-like pose, and tossed the skirts over their torsos. Falling to the floor, the skirts now concealed their entire upper halves. And the resulting image was striking. In motion, the dancers no longer resembled humans. They looked almost insect-like, moving by jackknifing expansion and contraction.

The dance ended much busier than it began. After this section the skirts were discarded and left lying onstage, and then were accompanied by the contents of the beige sacks: a few dozen partially inflated gold mylar balloons. The balloons moved as the dancers moved, but also sometimes on their own. They squeaked under the dancers, bumped up against audience knees, elbows and heads, revealed the space’s very air currents. I loved the balloons. I loved their strange texture--partially inflated, they were pocked with sad craters and canyons--I loved the abundance of them, I loved how they complicated the audience’s exit from the space.

I feel a little bashful, writing so much on something I have so little background in. But as a theatre person who has long wished to see more dance, Sensation/Disorientation did not disappoint. Tahni Holt is a name I will keep my eye out for in the future, as should you.