At 11:16pm on Saturday night, someone is chopping wood in Long Island City. It’s maybe not firewood. It sounds more like planks being snapped hard by a heel. I think of those blue NYPD barricades. How they used to be abandoned all over the city streets. Important things not being cared about. The useful made useless.
A hard heel slamming down is what every dance in the Chocolate Factory inevitably faces even as it tries to avoid. The softest surfaces (besides people) are the brick walls with their slight crumble and the window glass. The floor and ceiling are thick concrete. The whole building feels like an anvil. It is beautiful and very small and you are never far away from the wall or the floor or the ceiling. To dance at the Chocolate Factory is a delicious privilege and its harrowing features make this especially so. Dancing there, your body winces in advance of what you know you must do. Watching dance there is a particular, friendly agony; you know before it completes how much a move will pain the dancer. Awe and empathy roll in waves.
The woodchopper finishes and lets loose a curling howl of victory. I realize now that he’s probably drunk. But he starts up again—with the wood, that is—and I realize I’ve misread his howl as a sign of completion. He’s not done. He’s splitting those boards, tossing them into a pile, the crack of the planks landing sound like the idea of gunshots (as opposed to actual ones). They echo off of all this concrete and brick. Every neighbor shares the sound. He’s making a pile that he will turn into something else. Repetition. The useless made useful.
Morgan Thorson’s YOU at the Chocolate Factory is a hard, glorious, heroic thing. Five omnipotent bodies in far too small a space, their shoes burning friction on marley, wearing costumes that look suffocating and right. Their composure (the dancers, not the costumes but okay, the costumes, too) is unequaled. Morgan has worked hard to free their faces into ease. I know they don’t all feel that way during the dance but their terror and troubleshooting never show. My god, these people are pros. But that is one of Morgan’s singular skills. Her punishing rehearsal schedules pay off. These dancers dance their parts like a record needle riding its groove: utterly assured of the course but not without the risk of one wrong move scratching a permanent alteration.
Morgan, more than anyone I know, can adapt any dance to any space. A lot of choreographers think they are good at this or at least capable. But once you have seen how Morgan does this most everyone and everything else looks inadequate. I myself am not good at it but I’ve gotten better over the years and that’s really only due to working with Morgan. I can’t even name what I’ve learned, what the skill is, what I’m seeing, but I have somehow managed, from being inside her dances, to have huffed enough of those fumes to have changed the chemistry of my brain a little. It’s not that I even succeed at achieving it in my own work; it’s that Morgan’s dances have taught me how to see dances and re-see dances and see where they can be improved. Or where they have achieved.
What I see in YOU, and which I am not yet sure I know how to name or describe, is the repeated building of structures that instead of dissolving or being dismantled simply find their legs and go, making room for the next one. Detroit has been on my mind lately and I kept thinking of a Packard assembly line. A simple if elaborate system that created a big, heavy, humming machine, and once that one was done it was sent on down the line and out into the world, where its substantial and complete self rolled through life while another version of the same heavy, humming machine was assembled in its wake. In YOU, it seems to me, Morgan builds similar structures over and over, with a similar approach and process, even. In another dance and in the hands of another artist, this might become tedious. One might think this was all she knew how to do. But that is not the case with YOU or with Morgan. One knows that these are major machines that bear replication and that they are not the same, even in the ways that they are. It is fascinating and mysterious. I don’t know what it is, entirely, but it’s a trustworthy, solid thing and because of that I can see its finely grained parts and the ones that could snap, like a plank, like a bone, but don’t.
YOU, of all of Morgan’s dances, serves also as a listening party or a music recital. It is her Pet Sounds, a seductive mix of soundscore sound, aural landscape, text, and The Hits. When I saw the show in Mpls and in rehearsal here in LIC last week, the music was loud, like a bright light of sound—much like the jarring snapped-on floodlight effect of the brilliant Lenore Doxsee’s opening cue. It was loud enough that my blood coursed in its rhythm and I couldn’t hear the work of the dancers’ bodies until I was meant to in the silences that followed. Tonight at the Chocolate Factory, the level was a bit too low (at my own show in this same space a few weeks ago, I found I had to reset volume levels frequently so I suspect a similar, no-fault technical quirk here). The volume wasn’t problematic per se but those few points below the sweet spot do make a difference. There is a supercharge in the room when the sound is at its ideal level, it lifts the energy up off of the unforgiving floor, buoys the dancers and leaves you in a whirl. Plus, so many of Morgan’s music choices are the kinds of tracks that you want to hear loud, that you dance to at a club or a party and think, fuck! I love this song…. Forgetmenots.
YOU has a section that may be my favorite ever in a dance. Or maybe it has more than one of those. Or maybe I say that too much, have too many favorites in too many dances. But the hand-holding during Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty”, the dramatic, full-throated, giddy indulgence of it, how full-on the dancers are with it, the incredible red velvet costumes, Morgan’s and Evy’s hair whipping, their faces almost colliding, Max’s sweat flying, Emma’s hand ghosting for a partner, Jessica’s cool, pleasured consummation with the curtain…I could watch this section for hours. It is over way too soon. But I have that feeling throughout the piece—a magnetic, serendipitous meetup during the opening walking, a flicker of syncopated turns, a time-out from unison head-snapping—my breath catches repeatedly at these magic moments that are then gone in an instant. You know it’s right that they go, but it still breaks your heart. Yet they make room for the next ones. Another machine rolls out off the line.
Photo: Madeline Best
These dancers do everything right. Jessica Cressey, who can dance circles around anyone (yes, literally, of course, but don’t be silly that’s not what I mean here) is at the apogee of her relaxed restraint in this piece. You can’t help watching her, waiting for her to do something. Her lifetime of dancing is so perfectly calibrated in her entire presence. She knows what to do and what not to do. Someone recently suggested that she is my spirit animal. But she belongs to only herself. I learn so much from watching her dance. Max Wirsing who actually probably can do almost anything in any field, has become, truly, an outrageously limitless dancer. He has exquisite command over his body and his form, the latter of which is so important in Morgan’s work even as it isn’t something she directly emphasizes. He and Jessica have danced together a lot in her work over the years and they are so well-matched. (I remember a section in an early version of Spaceholder Festival in which Max and Jessica danced a long, looping, circular phrase. Kristin Van Loon and I did something else; I can barely remember what now because I always felt that that section (“Periphery”) was really about what Max and Jessica were doing. And rightly so. I loved watching them. Morgan’s choreography was gorgeous and the two of them danced it so very beautifully, winding up the space. Sxip Shirey’s music in that section was haunting, majestic, even. KVL and I were increasingly relegated to the sidelines, which was kind of okay with us. I got to watch more and anyway, that section was sort of an ass-kicker. We worked on it for days and weeks and eventually the whole thing was cut. I think it was a relief to everyone else but I missed watching Max and Jessica dance that material. I hope Morgan revives it in a future piece and that they dance it. They are perfect together.)
Max and Morgan dance together often in this piece too and it is thrilling to watch. Where Jessica stays cool and precise against Max’s muscular attack, Morgan comes churning at him, locking in to him with her fearlessness and spinning out in a coiled, sharp-edged heat. She is at home in dangerous dancing and all these moves, they are her bread and butter—one leg flinging over the other and yanking the torso around in a twist, elbows pumping pneumatic codes, all sorts of flares and cannonballs declaring themselves all over this dance. Morgan loves spatial patterns and is a master at them. To see her in their tides, after several years of her sitting out of her dances, is a pleasure and relief.
Evy Muench and Emma Barber are by no means any less potent or necessary here. I don’t know them very well whereas I have worked intimately with the other three for many years and seen them from within and without. Evy has such assuredness onstage and there is something to the set of her face that is inviting and calming. Her performance face (we all have one) is strikingly at ease. I trust her when I watch her. And I can see, from all I know of Morgan’s phrasework, that Evy is very sharp, an incredibly intelligent dancer. She is an interesting bridge, in some ways, between Max and Jessica, both of with whom she dances. She is cool like Jessica and intense like Max. But she is her own thing, to be certain. Emma is remarkable for the massive power she holds in her dancing—she is very suited to Morgan’s material in this way as it is borne from Morgan’s own powerful dancing. She has stomp and ferocity along with agility, all of which I think of as trademark Morgan. But also, she’s not demanding. There’s a rather lovely…not passivity but bystander quality to her in this piece. Like she’s watching in a way that doesn’t need us. But we need her there doing it. It’s ever so slightly menacing but then it isn’t.
Long Island City, despite the glittering high-rises, has not yet entirely killed off its industrial heart. But even here the frontier party has to end at some point: the woodchopper has finally grown weary and conceded to the midnight hour. Dance, as usual, has outlasted everyone.
by Morgan Thorson
Chocolate Factory Theater, LIC NY
June 18-21, 2014