Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
being Here . . . Samantha Speis, far left, and Alice Sheppard in this Marjani Fort? work at Danspace Project.
In the darkness the sound might be crying or laughter. Brightening lights reveal a woman sitting in a pile of feathers. She laughs hysterically. She hyperventilates. One fit subsides, only to be followed by another. Pain seems to rack her body, as if she were giving birth. She screams.
And that’s just the beginning of Marjani Fort?’s “being Here….”
This 50-minute dance, which had its premiere at Danspace Project on Thursday, takes a brave look at the ravages of mental illness and addiction. In scene after scene, six women shake and twitch. Samantha Speis’s intense, committed performance as the woman at the start is matched by similarly intense performances by the rest of the cast.
Each dancer manifests different symptoms. Autumn Scoggan gibbers, trapped in her vocal tics. Alice Sheppard pilots her wheelchair with aggression and melancholic grace. Jasmine Hearn’s sinuous elegance complicates the creepy menace of her leering.
And still a numbing sameness sets in. A spectator can absorb only so much crazed laughter. The redundancy is worst in a scene set in a subway car, where no fewer than three of the five passengers serially harass the others.
Scenes like that, from which most of us normally turn away, are what Ms. Fort? wants us to face. But what then?
As part of Everett Saunders’s score, the voice of Malcolm X advises learning the language of the oppressor, but does the responsibility for facilitating communication lie with the disturbed? The voice of Nina Simone singing “Don’t let me be misunderstood” is more apt. Ms. Fort?’s dance, imprecise in its social critique, inspires compassion without deepening understanding.
Though composed with care, “being Here…” keeps petering out or hitting a wall. Its greatest virtue is its realism. When Tendayi Kuumba sucks on her arm, the sound is close to revolting. When she crosses the floor in huge stomps, the brief shift to less literal expression has even greater impact. The dance could benefit from more of it.
The program note mentions healing, but “being Here…” doesn’t offer false hope. In her wheelchair Ms. Sheppard takes the giggling Rebecca Bliss for a ride, but their playful duet soon turns antagonistic, and Ms. Sheppard, resentful, runs over Ms. Bliss. When Ms. Speis covers the sputtering mouth of Ms. Scoggan, it’s horrifying but also satisfies a shameful desire to shut her up.
In the final moments each dancer points to herself, as if to say that healing begins in self-acceptance. A gesture from the beginning returns: a dancer’s head peeking out from behind her arms. There’s a person in there, underneath the symptoms. “being Here…” gives us a glimpse.
“being Here” continues through Saturday at Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street, East Village; (866) 811-4111, danspaceproject.org.
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