Syniva Whitney on Taja Will’s Gospels of Oblivion

The dancers begin the performance standing at 3 microphones on stands to the far right side of the stage. They might be the back up singers for some mega pop star at a sold out stadium. Visions of reflected light, they are completely sequined in red, blue and silver and engaged in a dance of tremors. The sound of their sequined bodies is a lush waterfall, a torrential rattling amplified by the microphones.

In the future will our attire be something we choose based on the way our clothing feels to our own skin? Will we shop like what we wear is a musical instrument? It’s my first time seeing a performance at the Pillsbury House Theater. The house is full, the crowd attentive and enthusiastic. I’ve come to see Taja Will’s new work Gospels of Oblivion “set in the era Oblivion, the time immediately before humans become extinct.” Does anyone have a mirror anymore here at the end of things? The question jumps to mind  because the dancers look lovely but they seem enthralled by the possibilities of their sequined T-shirts, miniskirts, cardigans, shorts and sweaters and not very concerned with fashion trends. They are not preening or posturing for the audience even though they dazzle. The dancers’ movements indicate a luxurious sometimes manic focus on the atmosphere created by their bodies shivering and shaking. The trio is standing tall in front of their mics like they might sing at any moment (shimmies, shakes, a few lunges with the stands like Steven Tyler) yet the facial expressions are hard to read. They stay in their shaking diagonal formation. Microphones continue to pick up the unique sound of a multitude of plastic sequins bouncing and clicking against each other.

The trio begins a rhythmic sequence of gestures. Still standing, they dance in unison. This phrase is centered in the upper body and arms. They are politicians giving public addresses: focused hand gestures, heads turning, arms and hands deliberating. In its repetition a few gestures stick with me…the dancers have one arm raised, one hand grasps in a circular motion in front of the mouth as if the breath was solid and could be pulled out of the body, their mouths stretch wide open, the two fisted movement made famous by the infamous Shake Weight appears. This dance walks them downstage towards the audience and in front of the mic stands. But then they return to the microphones…they speak, they sing. The text and the movement at this point did not stick with me. I was still lost in the initial dance of the sequin ocean. The more conventional cadences of their voices at the microphones takes me to a poetry reading like space. I miss the absurdity of the politician’s dance.

They scramble and spread out in the space. One dancer, Tim Rheborg, abruptly makes their way with a traveling phrase that feels grounded in the legs and breath made up of exuberant lines and jumps to a strip of AstroTurf placed at a diagonal at the left side of the stage. Eventually a chattaranga brings their body into a pressed horizontal union with that strip of synthetic grass. Tim finds a moment of stillness that forebodes a problem with this object as though it is an urgent puzzle piece, a solo for the lost outdoors perhaps. Another dancer, Taja Will herself, proceeds to light the duet between Tim and the AstroTurf using a detached work light on a stand. Here again is an implication of a queerer future. The emcee introduced this as a piece made by a queer, Latina artist. Is the dancer now admitting she is also the director lighting sections of Tim’s body following him engaged in actions she has designed for herself to view onstage? In the future are these beings the directors and makers of their own media? Is this a cult that worships the Almighty Sequin and must see it move and reflect light? Tim reverently carries around a cup they all drink from ceremoniously. The third dancer, Kathleen Pender, remains away from the action engaged in movement still connected to the rustle of sequins, the shivering body. Do the end times require people to dance for their water and air?

Now the dancers take up the bare stage between the mics and the AstroTurf. They begin slowly turning in their own orbits then falling to the floor and slowly rolling into one clump together in the middle of the stage as though pulled by an unseen force. They press against each other while remaining on the floor in a pile…they tenderly touch each other’s hair, gentle kisses happen. Are they lovers? Friends? Maybe monogamy is a distant mythology to these three?

The trio sings their own national anthem (the emcee let us in on the title before they began) called “Are You Still Breathing?” sung acapella while facing each other in a circle in front of the microphones. They sing passionately to each other. Harmonies highlight their operatic voices. This anthem put me in mind of a monk like chant influenced by an arrangement of the American gospel song “Wade in the Water”, the phrase “are you still  breathing” this song’s only text.

Along with the live vocal elements at play, Laurie Anderson’s “Superman” and other recorded music served as a previously recorded soundtrack to this piece. I was distracted by the lyrics, not sure what influence Anderson’s work may have had on the works creation. This song definitely informed my interpretation of what I call the CPR trio that followed. One dancer collapses to the ground, another dancer watches while one gives the passed out one melodramatic and fake resuscitation. These gestures are melodramatic but impotent, mimed as though performing this as a ritual in a crowded football arena. The “passed out” dancer’s diaphragm comically expands as breath is “forced” into them by the hovering mouth of a sequined savior. Then the heart is pumped back to life while the bystander dancer’s hands  gesture above their chest implying the life force might be seen outside of the body. The old Superman movies from the 1980s, all poppy colors, idealism, silliness and hero worship come to mind. This CPR trio involves that still unanswered question “are you still breathing?”. They all ask the question, switching roles until they’ve had a chance to be victim, rescuer and witness. I can’t help but think the answer is “I don’t know!” given the serious looks on the performers faces as they ask each other over an over again without any obvious change in emotional outcome. They can’t be brought back to life because they were never dead. I get the sinking feeling that in this oblivious future everyone’s forgotten how things work: CPR, microphones, human communication. I’m not sure these individuals know they are about to become extinct. They are lost in the leftovers of a civilization they heard about through the grapevine but never actually experienced themselves.

I want more information about this strange land. Was the artist after more of a serious or ritualistic tone or was this a campy send up of a dystopian possibility… a Femme  Mad Max meets high fashion superheroes? I don’t desire clarity from this work as much as I desire more time to take in the captivating dance of the sequin ocean, the strange melding of political gestures and unknown sign language, the heartfelt anthem brought into being by three very creative and capable performers.
image Taja Will’s Gospels of Oblivion / Late Night Series / Pillsbury House Theater / November 14, 2015

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