Love, fear and fury in Spectrum’s ‘(Im)PULSE’
By: Michael Upchurch
June 16, 2017
Spectrum Dance Theater’s new evening-length work, “(Im)PULSE,” opens at fever pitch and never lets up. It’s fueled by love, fear, fury and bewilderment. Mixing dance, text, music and video projections, it’s a breakneck production that features choreographer Donald Byrd at his edgiest.
Spectrum’s artistic director was prompted to create the piece by last year’s attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 patrons died and 58 were injured. But “Im(PULSE)” doesn’t recreate those horrors onstage. Instead, it’s built around a play for seven voices by Brian Quirk, with all seven of those voices coming out of one performer: actor Craig MacArthur in a wild tour de force.
It also draws heavily on a 1991 account of a New York City gay-bashing incident by artist/activist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992). Music, especially in the Wojnarowicz sequence, plays a key role, too, with a string quartet score wrapping itself note for note around the agitated cadence of the words.
Where does dance figure in this?
It’s the rhythmic amplification of every verbal tic and explosion in the texts. Spectrum’s dancers are both lithe and brutal in the way they wield their bodies. Paired contact between them is fleeting but powerful. Paul Giarratano and Fausto Rivera share an especially affecting moment when their steps toward intimacy are knocked askew by verbal abuse directed at them, unnerving Rivera particularly.
Dancer Blair Jolly Elliot channels pure anger in her handling of Wojnarowicz’s words. As for MacArthur, he’s like a man inhabited by seven battling personalities. Quirk’s text is based on a San Francisco ballet dancer’s account of being beaten so severely that he suffered brain damage and had to relearn how to speak, eat and walk. At Byrd’s request, Quirk heaped the voices of the dancer, his lover, his attackers, his medical providers and his family into a single roiling monologue.
There is, thankfully, some humor in Quirk’s text – for instance, when the ballet dancer reels off a list of his hates, some of them visceral, some of them trivial (he detests all squashes except pumpkins). MacArthur, even when hampered by occasional microphone troubles, never lost his sharp focus.
In passages where his brain-damaged character suffers seizures, the sound turns to static and Spectrum’s dancers become the seizure-stricken brain running amok. These recurring instances are a little too similar in their choreography (a groggy, slo-mo variation or two might add some interesting texture), but the connection of mind movement and body movement is inspired.
In a post-show discussion, Byrd said he believed that art in the 21st century ought to have an activist bent (“if not all the time, then a lot of the time”) and he revealed that a key impulse behind the show was to ask, “Why is hate this big old thing that people are okay with?”
“(Im)PULSE” can’t answer that question. But it wrestles with it urgently.
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