Robert Tyree transforms the dance studio room into a circus-like kids’ classroom or gym, navigating the obstacle course of a fitness routine. This is what it appears like at first. He is dressed the part, in short blue gym shorts and a red tank-top. His blond hair is combed neatly to one side. He is tall and lean with a physique of a runner, and the paleness of his skin accentuates every strain and line of muscle. His presence in the small room, especially when his limbs are out-stretched, each leg and arm covering a few feet of space, somehow gives the studio room extra dimension.
This is (Un)Made Leg #4, one of six installments in a solo relay series presented by Performance Works Northwest and originally performed by its co-founder, Linda Austin. Two performers last night, Tyree and Nancy Ellis, traversed the room of scattered objects in two solos as part of an evolving production of renewed, experimental probings of the original version. It is entertaining, inquisitive, and leaves you as prone to laughter as much as it thrusts you into a potentially limitless stream of questions and ideas about the interactions taking place.
The concept doesn’t feel daunting or weighty, maybe because the performance feels like it occurs in its own universe, the movements and behavior of Tyree and Ellis are free of a certain pressure or need for consequences outside of the immediate effects the performers have on the objects.
Objects are placed throughout the room. There is a ladder against the back wall and a stand-alone set of three steps at the middle. There is some sort of little porcelain statue, it looks like a lawn ornament of a mermaid or a fairy. There are two foam pillows in the shape of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Ellis and Tyree interact with these and many other objects, rearrange them or use them in ways which don’t shock in this context but would be absurd and futile outside of it. I can’t tell if there is a need for order or to construct an understanding of the places and functions of the objects, but it is compelling to watch the investigation underway at the hands of the performers.
Tyree begins with a headlamp strapped around his waist, so that in the dark room he looks like a night time bicyclist, riding in place with his headlight aimed right at you. He begins to lift his long legs in a rigid, wide stomping stance and in keeping with the headlamp, this looks like a biker’s pedaling motion. He circles the room continuing the cryptic workout.
He holds a handful of batteries a few feet above a tiny bird’s nest he’s placed on the floor. While hovering over the nest, his legs are outstretched and he begins to do a set of lunges. You can see his muscles flex and stiffen; this is a strenuous exercise. As if on cue, like hearing a horse race’s commencing gun shot or a referee’s whistle, he releases his clasped hands and the batteries fall to the floor, only a few making it into the nest.
Lighting shifts throughout the performance, the room is bright at times, at others an enveloping darkness is interrupted solely by a smart phone flashlight. Ellis and Tyree experiment with the visual effects of the ladder’s shadow on the wall in the singular light they each wear across their torsos. I especially enjoyed Ellis’ movement of the ladder, as she swayed from side to side, backing away from the ladder. The shadow projected gave the impression of the ladder swaying with her. It was as if they were coyly courting the other.
Sounds change too. For the most part, a ticking clock fades in and out of the background. Tyree’s actions seem almost unaffected by it, or undetermined by it, whereas Ellis sets her pace to the ticking, altering it herself to suit the exercise she conducts with each object. Ellis takes on the look of a child in her performance, like a little girl seeing things for the first time. She is enchanting this way, and she has a way with the audience which keeps their attention as she shuffles around. It’s as if we were all curious to see how she’d respond to a clock, a nest, a ball because we hoped it would spark memories of our first encounters with such things.
Adding to the ticking are the occasional times we hear each of their voices. I remember Tyree’s speaking parts the most. Perched on a stool, Tyree’s feet move in circles along the periphery of the stool recalling a near-death experience he had as a nine-year old boy. Just before getting on the stool, he sang one line four times in a voice that cracked and wavered but by the fourth time, had found a steady, solid tone,
We Are All Going To Die.
He tells a story of being far from shore on a sandbar off the coast of Australia with his boogie board, his parents far back on the beach, when a rip current caused the water to recede from the shore and go back out to sea. He could remember seeing it rush over his feet and could remember feeling “freaked out.” While his hands are reaching up to the spotlight on the ceiling, all the light in the room contained there, he never tells us how he made it back to the beach but instead ends the story saying he saw a face below him in the water.
The face materializes as a poster, the next object he finds in the room. And the lights go back on as he dismounts the stool. We are back in the well-lit little universe where I wondered about whether or not the story was true and about the boogie board. Ellis and Tyree are thwarted by some of the objects, puzzled and thrown off course throughout their solos while others leave them in awe. If Tyree’s story is true, I wonder if the boogie board led him back to the shore, or if he left it in order to make it back safely.
This installment of (Un)Made Solo Relay will run tonight and the fourth installment will run next month.