Oregon Cultural Trust

Dance Review: “The History of Empires”

An exhilarating, if unconventional, look at the rise and fall of empires – historical, contemporary, urban, political, and even our own personal domains - through dance theater.

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After a storied career with Dance Theater of Harlem and Feld Ballet, Marcus McGregor returned to the stage after a 15-year hiatus to appear in "The History of Empires." Photo: Maria Baranova.
After a storied career with Dance Theater of Harlem and Feld Ballet, Marcus McGregor returned to the stage after a 15-year hiatus to appear in “The History of Empires.” Photo: Maria Baranova.

This past weekend, Boom Arts wrapped up their season with The History of Empires, a work of “cheerfully nihilistic dance/theater” by Dan Safer, head of the company Witness Relocation. I attended a matinee on May 19 bringing with me many  presuppositions about the show based on its title: I imagined it might chronicle the exploits of colonial and imperialist empires through historical frames of reference…

What I encountered, however, was a collagist, esoteric journey rendered through dancing and theatrics of the show’s co-choreographer Marcus McGregor and co-creator Daniel Pettrow, as well as poetic text by Chuck Mee, which was read in a voiceover. It offered seasoned reflection on the nature of empires, circumnavigating many buzzwords of contemporary critical discourse in favor of associative anecdotes. In this way, The History of Empires successfully plunged into the heart of the moral complexity of life.

The afternoon began with a prologue of Mee’s text, read in a voiceover by Kevin Mambo and played into the void of an empty stage. The stage floor was covered in linoleum and backed with a freestanding white door and wall, like a room out of time. The voiceover spoke in a rambling fashion, expressing fears of loneliness, before advising the audience to silence their phones as the performance commenced.

McGregor danced, sometimes belabored, as if against the weight of the heavy text that played over his dancing. Photo: Maria Baranova.
McGregor danced, sometimes belabored, as if against the weight of the heavy text that played over his dancing. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Next, a sad violin song by Christian Frederickson – the show’s composer – filled the vacant space. As the melancholic violin played on, a forlorn being entered from far offstage, dressed head to toe in a ghillie suit and dragging a ball and chain. The being collapsed tiredly, and a person wearing a hazmat suit – dancer Rikkia Pereira – entered the space briefly to deposit a metal chair. Pereria, whose character was listed as “Hazmat Suit” on the program, looked disapprovingly at the being and dragged it offstage. I found myself inclined to think this a bit absurd, and other audience members giggled in seeming agreement. I wondered: was Hazmat Suit cleaning up the embodied dregs of an empire? 

Next entered Marcus McGregor, a tall, slight dancer wearing dress pants, a tank top, and an elegant sheer pink robe. He held a bouquet of blue flowers, which he deposited onstage before exchanging his robe for a button down shirt. I had read in the program that this performance marked McGregor’s return to the stage after a 15-year hiatus, after a career dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Feld Ballet. With exacting lines and upper carriage, McGregor moved about the stage with graceful comportment. 

Marcus McGregor (left) and Daniel Pettrow in "The History of Empires." Photo: Maria Baranova.
Marcus McGregor (left) and Daniel Pettrow in “The History of Empires.” Photo: Maria Baranova.

The voiceover, meanwhile, told a story about a man who killed a tortoise, an important metaphor for the death of empires in this performance: This tortoise was described as a creature like the earth that could live on a while longer after its heart was removed. Here, The History of Empires began to reveal itself as a tale of abject life and death. 

Images of animals, dogs, turtles and foxes played in fragmented projections on the back wall, as McGregor danced, sometimes belabored, as if against the weight of the heavy text that played over his dancing. The voiceover narrated stories of animal behavior: a wolf that would feed on a dead carcass, vomit and feed again; a noble elephant grieving its dead kin. These and other nightmarish descriptions would intrude on McGregor as he moved about, stories of explosions, interrogations and executions, all indicative of crumbling empires. “Wake up,” whispered a voice, and the space reset with the ring of a phone and flicker of a stage light. At one point, McGregor carried three skeletons out from the door onto the side of the stage. I found this unsettling and intriguing at once, without clear logic, which led me to believe I might be in the purgatory of someone’s psyche as they struggled against the weight of a disturbing history. 

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McGregor bashed a piñata in the shape of a silver moon, and the voiceover spoke with graphic intensity about the many ways to kill a rat until McGregor cried, “Stop, stop stop!” I noticed some children in the audience and felt curious about how they were fairing with all this sensitive content. Suddenly, McGregor put his head in a bucket of water and screamed.

A relatively quiet moment between McGregor (left) and Pettrow in "The History of Empires." Photo by Maria Baranova.
A relatively quiet moment between McGregor (left) and Pettrow in “The History of Empires.” Photo by Maria Baranova.

In the second act of the performance, the scene shifted drastically: Pettrow joined McGregor onstage outfitted in a funny green medieval costume and helped McGregor get dressed in a similar golden costume. The two donned tall paper crows, becoming caricatures of emperors. Pettrow narrated much of this act. He spoke about how no empire could last forever and that all empires will be brought down by themselves. 

McGregor and Pettrow worked together to move props onto the stage, a long table and a candelabra. They struck a pose, sitting side-by-side, like a scene from a painting of old. Hazmat Suit peered over the top of the wall behind them during this still moment and unfurled a sign that read in large purple calligraphy, “The History of Empires.” This sign introduced what Pettrow and McGregor would proceed to enact. 

McGregor (left) appeared to subdue, suffocated, coddled and then emulated Pettrow’s vacant physicality, a seeming reference to how empires are regurgitated into the future after they fall. Photo: Maria Baranova.
McGregor (left) appeared to subdue, suffocated, coddled and then emulated Pettrow’s vacant physicality, a seeming reference to how empires are regurgitated into the future after they fall. Photo: Maria Baranova.

They danced out a tale of affection and animosity through poses and gestures. Their veering relationship conjured race relations with McGregor’s presence as a Black dancer and Pettrow’s presence as a white dancer. The two engaged in physical struggle. McGregor appeared to subdue, suffocated, coddled and then emulated Pettrow’s vacant physicality, a seeming reference to how empires are regurgitated into the future after they fall. Pettrow became animate again, recovering from his faux death, and the two joined in a pleasant picnic onstage to conclude the performance. I left the theater with a glimmer of joy in spite of all the grim content I had just witnessed, in large part due to that final picnic scene. If I took away anything from The History of Empires, it was that harmful human-made empires may rise and fall forever, but the picnic of other possibilities produced in their wake will always be too tantalizing to leave unattended.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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