khecari, the retreat @ indian boundary park field house, 19 november 2016.
Khecari, The Retreat. Photo: Dan Merlo.
We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep. — Prospero, The Tempest
Dance in the theater often aspires to dreamlike states, so Khecari asks why not cut to the quick and dance during dreamtime? In The Retreat, held at the Indian Boundary Park Field House, with its Tudor-style, Native American inflected summer-camp cabin decor, Khecari co-directors Julia Rae Antonick and Jonathan Meyer and their collaborators create an overnight durational performance. It is a decadent affair, but decadence with a purpose, which is to create cozy setting for cutting through to something stripped-down and elemental—that drowsy state at the edge of sleep, the moment when daytime exchanges keys with the dark and stranger bits of information and awareness intersect with the known and familiar.
The Retreat is part of Teem, a set of ongoing movement-driven art experiences, what Khecari’s program notes describe as a series of “sleepovers and takeovers, do-overs and makeovers” (the exquisitely designed program comes in the form of a ticket sleeve, the kind you get at the airport check-in counter). The work is set up as a series of descending steps into the wee hours. When audiences enter the Field House, they are greeted by the dancers, who are dressed in Jeff Hancock’s ragamuffin, loose-fitting, tattered white and gray costumes. They are the “Rangers” for the evening, both performing and, like the best ushers ever, navigating the audience through the night’s offerings.
Audiences have three choices for The Retreat. The first is to attend a conventional evening-length performance, if you call conventional a dance that begins with everyone handing over their cell phones for safekeeping, taking off their shoes, getting some coffee, tea, and snacks, and entering a white-shrouded space lit by bare lightbulbs hanging from twisting wires on homemade chandeliers while listening to the equal-parts soothing and haunting electro-acoustic soundscape created live by Joe St. Charles. The second option is to stay for an extended performance that ends with a midnight snack. Or, for the full experience of The Retreat, attendees bring their pajamas for an overnight event that includes “Hypnagogic” and “Hypnopompic” workshops (those are the fancy words for the state just before and after sleep), a period of “Nesting” in fabric cocoons provided by the dance company, a sequence of “Crepuscular Stirrings,” and a morning performance with coffee and breakfast.
If you think as a concept The Retreat sounds faintly ridiculous, you are right. It’s a Rococo, psychedelic, peyote vision quest kind of dance. Theatrical performance as a visit to a spa in the desert. A weekend camping trip in the mountains with a bag of psilocybin mushrooms. A stay at the Esalen Institute. It’s dance as New Age lifestyle fantasy. And it’s a serious investment of time and energy into experiencing art that most people are not willing to make. But The Retreat is also—decisively so—a treat. Khecari asks you to go all the way with them into the night and away from daytime reality and normality. The company beckons you—and in the end radically accepts you—into an alternative universe to which they have opened a door. Even in the evening-length portion, which is all I was able to attend, there is more going on than just a breaking of the fourth wall between performer and audience; instead, Khecari seems intent on finding a way across the boundary between the diurnal and the nocturnal. The company finds a place which is eerily disorienting and yet profoundly familiar.
The Retreat uses dance to ask what we can discover in the fading blur before sleep, in the shadowy corners of the quiet hours after midnight, in the snapping to consciousness from a dream, or in the emergence of thought into the dawn. These are typically understood as times of stillness, of the non-performative, of being “off duty.” What if they were to become active opportunities for movement, for theatrical investigation, for art and life intertwined in a mix of drifting off and tuning in?
Khecari, The Retreat.
The evening-length performance condenses these more durational explorations into concentrated form: flights of imagination, downward reaches into the muck of subconscious thought, coruscations and heightened perceptions, solos becoming group dances, group dances dissipating into silence, a sense of vast terrains gestured to by one wrist flick, close quarters navigated with a back arch, caves and caverns, canyons and empty plains, the wind through a pinhole, innermost warmth felt and a cold breeze sweeping across the high ranges.
The piece begins with a long duet between Meyer and Antonick. They break off into extended solos, then dance around each other, sometimes touching but mostly in their own respective explorations of self moving. Both explore small gyrations and miniature corkscrew spirals of motion, full of stops, self-considerations, and then sudden explosions of spinning, twisting, and almost violent turns. They get up on their toes and collapse, lurch and faint, and run at sharp angles across the room, performing in the round to audience members on chairs and white clumps of fabric. Some viewers are attentive, others already start to doze off during the initial evening-length performance (permission granted to do so explicitly by the “Rangers” prior to the start of the event). Then Meyer and Antonick fade away. He gets covered up by fabric thrown over him by dancer Chih-Hsien Lin. She crawls into the fireplace, itself draped with fabric.
In this opening stretch of The Retreat, there is something slightly frothy, like a potion being mixed, starting to brew. It’s murky, a turbid, roiling of clouds glimpsed in the pot, starting to leak over the edges, a horizon of magic, with spores, fungus, and algae spawning in the dampness. This strange mood perhaps comes from Meyer and Antonick’s paradoxical delivery of awkward movements with a powerful athleticism. There is force, but it’s covered with muck. Swamp creatures as swamis. The two dancers are disturbed, but they are also, even when in full-tilt motion, falling ever deeper into trancelike states. This has the effect of feeling like dance as fermentation, as a stirring up of primal chemical-emotional processes. We descend into a medium of something like meditative agitation, arising from what seems to be an interest in holding on to the idea of letting go.
Then all is still. Slowly from the edges, three other dancers begin a synchronized sequencing of steps, pacing around the floor. They take their time still one, then another break away into solos. After a period of the dancers sitting in dim light, suddenly a frenzy of motion. Now with five dancers moving together and then breaking off into solos, aware of each other but each individualized and alone. One of the best moments find them spinning in circles on the floor, pulling their legs up into themselves and pushing them out propulsively. Curling inward to spring out again, generating circles to make progress, returning from whence they first spun out. Meyer and Anionic return to the fray occasionally. The dancers move out into space, sometimes leaping, sometimes interacting with each other as if by accident, sometimes falling to the floor to arch their backs, sometimes lowering themselves fully down.
They move around the room, coordinated somehow yet each dancer also quite concentrated on interior matters. They are not zombie-like at all, but rather sharply attuned to something so deep within themselves that they seem to reach beyond the performance itself. And yet their energy of seeking something within starts to suffuse the room itself. Maybe something that was already there, just forgotten, now remembered, first faintly, then with an ever-growing presence that culminates in a collective swaying motion into which the dancers slowly arrive, occasionally breaking out again into solos and duets, then returning again, as if in a migratory pattern. Standing and shifting side to side with arms out, arranged in a group, they looked like magnificent trees in the wind, gently undulating back and forth, pushed and pulled in their upper bodies yet thoroughly rooted to the ground through their torsos and feet.
This sense of achieving a new state of being, balanced yet in motion, not so much moving away in retreat, but toward something, advancing, concluded the evening-length work. Leaving The Retreat, I longed to stay for more. Where were they headed? What would come next? Where were they going? The commitment of the work is not that it offers refuge, although it does do that, but rather that it enters into an investigation of what we take to be familiar, but is in fact among the stranger things humans (and many animals) do, which is to sleep. Indian Boundary Field House became a kind of transit point, a way station, a staging ground, for the interplay of self-controlled choice and free-flowing dream play, of a letting go into something far realer than anything the daytime could possibly illuminate. There might be nightmares there, but also discoveries, resuscitations, new understandings, perhaps even restitution.
Indian Boundary Park is a fitting place for seeking transformations in the half light since it is itself located on haunted historical ground. A longtime spot of trading among Native American groups, Indian Boundary Park marks the northernmost point of the line made in the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis, which led to an official policy of ethnic cleansing of Native American populations in the region. It is a place of memory and loss, and also of preservation and survival. There are ghosts here, maybe only now reachable through dreams.
Suddenly, the decadent setup of The Retreat made perfect sense. The surface pretentiousness was ritualistic in nature, a context and necessary strategy for creating a structure, even a bit of formality, so that risks and chances could be taken. Khecari developed an intricate framework, an edifice for the pursuit of something simple: how to breach the line between wakefulness and sleep, how to do so with an uncertain mix of intimacy and publicness, how to integrate movement and restfulness, how to dance where much dance wishes to go, into the mind, part of the body, to penetrate dreams and shine a light there, move among the stillness, bring back a memory of what lurks there to the light.
The embellishments of costumed dancers renamed as Rangers, the funkified shrouded interior of the Field House, the providing of food and drink, the detailed program packaged in a ticket sleeve that gets hole punched with your particular viewing choice, the careful sequencing of audience activities and expectations—it was all ornate to the extreme. But it was never precious (well, except for dancer Precious Jennings, but hey, that is her name not her dance style). The intense, sometimes overdone preparation was crucial, functioning as a kind of incantation, a soothing spell to allow for the pursuit of energies and knowledge far more raw and unadorned. We all get tired, we all need to close our eyes. “To sleep, perchance to dream” can be something fearful. But also, sometimes, if you are ready to see it, prepped and groggy all at once, something lustrous dances behind your lids. That’s what Khecari was after.
Leaving The Retreat, I felt as though I was the one actually withdrawing from the action, back to the limits of the conventional, away from a realm where truths emerge as bodies go to rest and become aware again of themselves in the darkest hours. Outside, I walked through a huge pile of yellow and red leaves that had covered the sidewalk across from Indian Boundary Park. I wondered if a hole into an underground tunnel back to The Retreat might be hidden beneath them.