By ELIZABETH WHELAN
Two Love Stories, presented by Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest Sunday night, was far from the romantic walk in the park you’d expect from its title. Marissa Rae Niederhauser, Berlin-based dancer and choreographer, cuts down the back alleys and into the dark corners of the game we all play. The game called love.
She plunges to the depths of heartbreak, in all of its repetitive and nauseating layers, and by the end of Two Love Stories, a surface level conversation about relationships isn’t even a remote possibility. The work meticulously opened up every door that pain might hide behind—and journeyed deep into the recesses of the heart, unearthing the unspoken part of love.
The first piece, Teething, was hauntingly intimate. With the main lights off, lit merely by a sitting lamp and a flashlight, Niederhauser let the audience into her very personal and relatable narrative. She told the story of grief through the lens of romantic devastation. The repetitive movements mimicked the record that sat just feet from the audience, skipping over and over while leading Niederhauser into a soundscape trance. In its singular nature, the solo was already challenging the title of the piece. Instead of lacking the presence of the supposed partner, Teething held space for the emptiness that can be found in love, or love lost.
Niederhauser was in no rush to impress the audience with any flashy moves. Her body language read clearly, and the simplistic nature of her choreography left room to explore the emotive capabilities of stillness, movement and repetition. The piece evolved, leading into a mysterious, dystopian strip tease that was more menacing than provocative. As an organ blared, Niederhauser swung her hips side to side with increasing feminine power. But, the plaid skirt that recalled a school uniform sat just under her waist and wound an adolescent purity into the piece.
A more mature love followed Teething, placing the audience directly in the throes of that impossible part of the relationship when leaving is just as hard as staying. M/f Duet is Niederhauser’s newest creation to date. Her work as a dancer and choreographer has taken her around the world, from Australia (Teething, 2015) to Berlin, and back in the States to Massachusetts, New York and Seattle. M/f Duet features Niederhauser alongside improvisational dancer Aaron Swartzman.
M/f Duet displayed the power dynamic present in many male/female relationships. Using film to ease the audience into what became highly charged, physically gruelling partnering, Niederhauser began standing a few yards away from Swartzman. The projection onto the back wall flashed through clips of previous rehearsals. Each frame became a space for Niederhauser’s body to be thrown within. The pair stood still all the while, as if frozen in time or stuck in the rut of one another.
Once the film clicked off and the two approached one another, the work transformed into a relentless obsession with an increasingly physical and violent relationship. Though it seemed to be one long repetitive action of Swartzman tossing Niederhauser’s body around in the space, there wasn’t a moment when the viewer’s attention wandered. We were caught up in this horrifying drama.
Visibly exhausted, the pair crawled to one another, panting on the floor as the lights dimmed to an intimate darkness. Their tired bodies rested in submission, releasing any residual energy to the demise of their love. Helplessly, they took turns dragging themselves away from the other in a few feeble attempts to be released of this painful cycle. Ending with no sense of completion or solution, the final blackout left the audience whirling in the duo’s hopeless addiction to a broken love.
I had the pleasure of asking Marissa some questions about her artistic process, this piece, and her thoughts on life and dance. You can read her answers below:
How did your dance partnership with Swartzman come about? What sparked the collaboration?
I have known Aaron for years. I lived in Seattle previously, where we worked together a couple of times. When I got invited to bring this dance to the PWNW I knew I needed to find someone with great partnering skills, adept at improvisation but also with a visibly masculine presence. It has to be a partner who seems stronger than I.
This piece has had a strange history. During its creation I lost my original partner due to illness (he went into hospital for a prolonged stay) and had to work solo while I desperately auditioned other men. Then, in performance—for various reasons of geography and finances—I’ve had to continue replacing the male partner. This has forced me to come up with a clear directorial language around the emotional environment of the piece while having to remain flexible about movement specifics. For example Aaron and I were only able to have three rehearsals. Thankfully, he is such a pro—open, focused, fun to work with—so it was no problem.
I found this process itself to be such an interesting parallel to how many of us are experiencing love in the modern age. Many of today’s relationships have a limited shelf life. We are quite often bringing our history to a new lover, learning the new rules and communal language of the new partner while at the same time finding ourselves repeating these same patterns that were the problem with the last lover. This is how the video element came to be. After I lost my first partner, I briefly considered doing a solo with video projections of duets. I kept it even when I found a partner, because it demonstrates the idea that our personal relationship problems are bigger than ourselves.
Particularly in hetero relationships, [there is a brokenness in] how men and women interact. Making art continues to surprise me in that it always creates unplanned synchronicities that teach me more about the topic than any other way of processing an idea could.
When you go to the drawing board for a new piece, do you always pull from your own life for content/subject matter, or do you ever take inspiration from others’ experiences? Do you ever hesitate to recycle the more vulnerable parts of your life into your art?
Both. Definitely the seed for an idea always comes from something in my life. Usually something painful, because these are the things that get stuck in my head and that I need art in order to exorcise them. However an idea doesn’t stop with this seed moment. A dance grows over months (sometimes years), so my personal stories become supplemented with others’ stories. Sometimes I do research into a topic relating my story to historical stories or figures in mythology or classical literature.
Sometimes current events influence a piece, like now with M/f Duet, it started as a catharsis of my various personal heartbreaks and traumas from my romantic life, but the dance first was performed in Berlin the week #metoo broke and audience response was powerful. A dance piece is not finished when it opens; it is in process and still becoming with each performance. Now, when I perform it, I feel fueled by the righteous fury of a whole community of women. This sense of purpose gives me a lot of confidence and physical stamina.
When my vulnerable moment(s) can be turned into something that may have positive impact on our social discussion, then I think it is something I feel empowered to tell publicly. Even if it is sometimes uncomfortable to show the sadness I’ve lived through, I think there is a bigger story I’m telling that is about the sadness many of us live through. I trust that the audience will be savvy enough to see the work in a bigger way than a mere biography, and I hope it creates a space for self-reflection as they see the commonality in our stories.
Watching a dance or another kind of art can be a different way to process—a more direct route to empathy because it doesn’t put us on the defence they way that words can.
Can you comment on the title of the piece?
I want to play with the audience’s expectation…perhaps one might expect something telling a story with a happy ending of love fulfilled, but both stories tell of love that is broken. Which I think is really reflective of the world. Sadly, many people have a broken way of romantic interaction. In reality there are far more broken love stories than fulfilled healthy love stories. The world is in need of much healing. Maybe dance can be a part of that?
In your blog, you speak a lot about dance being a lens or filter to your understanding of the world around you. Does the creation and performance of works like Two Love Stories bring you a degree of clarity that is transferable to life when it is “finished?”
Yes. For one thing it is a way for me to process through stuck emotions, but dance and the human body always are a source of illumination.
Particularly the partner work in M/f Duet. Working with many men on the same material helps me understand more about both the trance of masculine aggression as well as it’s cohort, the trance of female passivity. About how nuanced and entrenched this trance is in how we relate to one another and also how exhausting and destructive it is to both parties. I hope I have presented the work clearly enough that the audience will be provided space to meditate along the same lines.