Choreographer Ralph Lemon likes to toy with an audience’s perceptions. He does that to intriguing ends in his “4Walls,” a work onstage at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
As seen Friday night, the piece conquers its audience by dividing them between two rooms.
In one room, a dancer — either Gesel Mason or Darrell Jones — violently and tirelessly flails and flops about. In the other room, two screens show footage of five dancers, basically performing the same acts of relentless and exhaustive flying and falling. The dancers huff and giggle, letting their head swing around, as if delirious, while their arms twirl and their legs spastically buckle beneath them.
There is no music — just the pounding of bones and muscles crashing to the floor and panting. The heaving is inevitable, as these dancers do not stop during this hour-long presentation.
The audience is fully invested, mainly because as they watch the film or the live dancer, they are always curious to know what is happening in the next room. People mill around between rooms. No one can seem to settle on one. Occasionally, there is a rush from one room to another at the sound of an unknown thud or the bark of a dog — part of an infrequent soundtrack that would insinuate itself.
It’s not clear if Lemon wants to tap into our weak attention spans, but it works. If you are bored in one room, just slip into the next — kind of like toggling between windows on a computer.
Lemon also embraces the audience, seated on the floor and on stools, by having the dancers inhabit their space. When winded, the dancers step off to the side with the onlookers — stripping off a layer of clothing or pacing back and forth to restore their breath.
Both Mason and Jones amaze with their stamina. They are feisty soldiers who willingly bruise themselves for our attention and their art. The elegant Jones is particularly aggressive as he crashes to the floor at the end of a series of cartwheels turned on his head.
Interestingly too is the repetition, which never falls into monotony; rather, it adds a ritualistic sensibility to the dance. The dancers appear as if possessed by an corrupt spirit that they can only eliminate by quaking. And there is no diverging from this path. The tremble and tossing go on and on.
The films, by Shoko Yamahata and Mike Taylor, are also startling. In close-up shots of feet, torsos and heads, viewers can feel the weight and rush of the actual scenes. And like the dance, which tumbles and staggers, the camera roils, too.
Both are tantalizing.
At the end of the dance, Jones simply walks out. There is no curtain call signaling the dance is over. The audience shifts on its feet for a few minutes. One asks an usher if it’s over, and when she indicates it is, a bewildered crowd slowly shuffles out without applause. While unsure of what just happened, most were fascinated to be part of it.
“4Walls” will be repeated at 4 p.m. today at EMPAC.