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Obsessive Rituals 

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KAREN MCMAHON AND BOB EISEN

at Randolph Street Gallery

May 1 and 2

When we first see Karen McMahon she's buried under a mound of dirt. It covers her like a blanket, with a few patches of skin showing through. She slowly lifts her head, as if waking; she moves her arms and legs, freeing them. When she lifts her torso, we realize that she's nude. The moment of shock changes into a fascination with the slow ripples of her torso. When she crawls on her stomach out of the pile, our deepest impression is of the pure "objectness" of the dirt and her body.

McMahon's crawl forward on her hands and knees evolves to a loping animal walk on hands and feet. She seems feral, a wild child. She crawls to a pile of rocks and perches on them, making her torso into a muscular hollowed-out form. Only then does McMahon pull her hair away and show us her face, and in that moment she becomes human, though still wild.

"Husk," the opening section of McMahon's solo Trilogy, has a very strong impact. In fact the Randolph Street Gallery audience withheld its applause until Trilogy was over, not wanting to break the spell. (Even the noise I made turning a page in my notebook seemed too loud and ordinary.) In the other sections McMahon wears a pair of loose, black nylon pants but remains bare-chested and smudged with dirt: partial nudity seems a good compromise between the audience's anxiety and desire, as well as between the performer's commitment and her modesty.

The second section, "Between Blue Rock," is filled with repetitions of violent movement, such as McMahon swinging her arm like an ax. These obsessive rituals are suddenly interrupted by moments when she catches herself, digging an elbow out to the side or grasping her left arm in her right hand, the left hand in a fist. These moments of stillness and reflection give way to more angry movement. McMahon still seems like an animal, or a disturbed adolescent, fanatically focusing on who knows what. "Between Blue Rock" finally relaxes into a set of arm movements, including the twining limbs of Indian dance and long arcs of the arm and torso. These movements echo the arm gestures in McMahon's moments of peace, suggesting that her character has finally reached a state of acceptance. But the resolution seems artificial, like a Hollywood happy ending.

McMahon must have realized that the obsessive rituals of "Between Blue Rock" could not be dismissed so easily, because the rituals are revived and given center stage in the final section, "Lapse." The movements are still animallike scuttling on hands and feet and angry motions of the torso; each movement is performed exactly four times. The way McMahon resolves these obsessive rituals is both beautiful and sad. When the lights are down we hear her scurrying to perform a task, then the inexplicable sound of rain falling. As the lights come up, we see a sheet of rain falling onto her completely nude body. She is face down, and as still as a corpse. Suddenly we notice that the "rain" is really white sand, which piles up around her. There is no movement but the motion of the falling sand. When the sand finally runs out, the dance is over.

McMahon maintains a delicate balance between the dance's story of obsession and suicide and its physicality--the dirt, rain, and stones. In the lovely final image she refuses to tilt the balance, to say that the story is more important than the objects or vice versa. Her deep feeling for voiceless objects gives her dance an eloquent voice.

The combination of nudity, physicality, aggression, and animality in Trilogy creates a profoundly sexual aura. For many people, sexuality is the last remaining avenue to their animal natures, to an uncivilized self that exists for itself--in other words, to Freud's id. The uncivilized self, which acts for itself and not for society, is the source of much of a healthy person's vitality. Dance, always tacitly allied with sexuality, is another avenue to a person's animal nature. McMahon combines these elements with an honesty I have not seen before.

I've seen Bob Eisen's Event #2 four times, and did not expect to write about it again. But the performance at the Randolph Street Gallery was wonderful--funny, accomplished, excruciatingly slow, chaotic and cohesive at different times. Event #2 is a work of chance; the dancers have rehearsed certain basic phrases, but their order is determined by pulling numbers from a hat before each performance. That gives the dance an edge of danger, a sense of improvisation that makes the dancers a little more alive.

This performance was studded with lovely moments, such as Anthony Gongora's virtuosic version of the basic movement phrase at the beginning of the dance; Chris M. Kerber's occasional lightning-fast movement; Sheldon B. Smith staring off into space as he traced the outline of his head; at different times, Dan Prindle and Abby Kanter hanging from a trapeze for minutes at a time, then suddenly dropping and flipping into other dancers' arms; clanking sounds in the basement; the free-form lighting.

Event #2 is a long piece that demands a great deal from the dancers. As I watched, I was struck by how many of Eisen's pieces seem to be about endurance. Eisen often drives dancers to the point of physical exhaustion. Event #2 seems to be about psychological endurance: how much nonstructure can an audience endure? How can dancers keep from becoming bored with a dance? The dance's aleatory structures force improvisation and innovation, which last Friday brought the dance alive for me again.

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