Dance review: Kidd Pivot meditates on Free Will

A man and his puppet in “Dark Matters”/Courtesy of Kidd Pivot

For a  moment during the first gripping half of Kidd Pivot’s “Dark Matters,” presented by White Bird, I flashed on the following thought. The increasingly demonic stick puppet seeking to control its creator is really my computer. And the five darkly clad and anonymous puppet masters handling the sticks represent the legions of programmers and webmasters who gradually seize command of my life. Thank goodness I keep the scissors in a safe place.

Oops. I don’t want to spoil “Dark Matters” for anyone, because it does have a specific narrative in that first half before becoming more abstract, though even more powerful, in the second.  Choreographer Crystal Pite’s creation is a brilliant piece of dance theater, beautifully and dramatically lit (by lighting designer Robert Sondergaard) and designed (by set designer Jay Gower Taylor) with a pulsating sound track (by composer Owen Belton). And I wouldn’t want to do anything that would take away any of the joy of discovery you might find there.

That means, after I tell you that the dancing itself is at least as accomplished as the rest of the elements, you might want to stop right here! I’m not going to give away anything, really, because each moment is so full of possible meaning that I couldn’t possibly exhaust it. But I do intend to speculate a little as I describe “Dark Matters,” and I know some people would rather go into it with a clean slate.

****

“Dark Matters” starts like “Pinocchio”!  A man (dancer Peter Chu) bends over a table and builds, through several black-outs, a puppet. The puppet is manipulated by the rest of the company, all masked and darkly dressed. One critic referred to them as ninjas, but when I wasn’t thinking of them as computer programmers, I thought of them simply as an anonymous force, maybe “they,” or the stuff we can’t detect in the universe, the dark matter of the title, which astro-physicists figure makes up as much as three-quarters of the matter in the universe.

They are expert at manipulating this puppet (bunraku-style, with strings and sticks) it must be said, and the “dance” between Chu and this increasingly possessive and demanding little guy is fascinating to watch, even as it becomes violent. Especially as it becomes violent. Still, though perhaps we can predict that this little experiment in puppetry is going to come to a bad end (the dark music is a clue), the coup de theatre at the end of the act is startling.

So, what is all of this about? Pite gives us a clue in the form of excerpts from Voltaire’s “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,”  including this one:

What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.

We don’t know ourselves, and so we are at the mercy of the universe, even of our own creations. And Pite drives home the point: The Voltaire is repeated many times.

Kidd Pivot’s “Dark Matters,” Act Two/Courtesy Kidd Pivot

****

The puppet is put away for Act Two, though one of the anonymous handlers remains in costume. She mixes in the dancing of the other five, pushing and pulling, creating a force field, maybe. This choreographed section is fabulous, a whipsaw of motion that takes the dancers to the edge of balance and then freezes them for a moment before sending them back into the fray. Solos, duets and group dancing, all have some relationship to that puppet in Act One, the angle of the ankle, the herky-jerky movement, the endurance.

Herky-jerky, maybe, but also fluid, because Pite asks her dancers to figure out a way to escape the constraints of normal ligaments and joints — or at least create the illusion of such an escape. You won’t find rotations more watery than some of these.

Spasm of movement, collapse, spasm of movement, freeze frame. The image that stands out for me? The anonymous masked dancer starts a movement phrase that looks faintly Javanese to me, with elbows high and fingers splayed, and one of the dancers immediately picks it up, and the two dance in unison, as though the masked dancer had complete control of the other dancer.

The physical demands on the dancers somehow seem “imposed,” which is the great accomplishment of “Dark Matters.” They aren’t dancing. They are being danced. And by extension, we ourselves are being danced. Now, this isn’t the place for a meditation on Free Will or the limits of human agency, but what “Dark Matters” describes what that looks like, the human  blowing in the cosmic wind. And it’s quite beautiful to see, if also a little scary, depending upon your own view of these things.

How does Voltaire end his poem? It’s not in the performance of “Dark Matters,” but he ends it with a story about the final prayer of dying caliph, who bows before his Maker:

“I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin.”
He might have added one thing further—hope.

The universe, that “immensity” outside of us, doesn’t possess our own weaknesses (evil and ignorance, distress and sin). But it also doesn’t  possess something else: The hope that somehow we can fashion something better from our circumstances.

So, how does Pite dance “hope” at the end of “Dark Matters”? Quite beautifully, of course.

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