In choreographer and director Jenn Freeman‘s recent work, “…it’s time…” at the 14th Street Y, time plays many roles. It is an ominous fate, a dying entity, a player of childish games. In these many variances, time is either the controlling force of how the music and dance operates within a framework or entirely ignored.
*All photos by Maria Baranova
Walking into the upstairs black box theater at the Y on September 20th, I first noticed the cast of five dancers in costumes by designer Mondo Morales- bright yellow turtlenecks, yellow bellbottom pants- moving casually around the sides of the stage. The black walls and yellow costumes are further contrasted by the cherry red metal folding chairs evenly placed in a line under a glowing digital clock on the upstage wall, the red numbers counting down even before the show begins. There is something of a comic book feel to the primary colors, the boldness of the costumes, sets, and the lighting from Philip Trevino.
The performance begins as the dancers begin to walk on the stage, nervously pausing to look at the solo drummer, Price McGuffey, behind his kit in a small shadowy box overhead. In a composition by Dani Markham, currently on tour with Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), McGuffey beats out a solitary strike every ten or so seconds. The piece opens like moments between thunder, trying to spot a pattern and predict when the next crash would come. The feeling is one of anticipation, as if trying to prepare, both terrifying and exciting.
After this introductory sequence, the piece is off and running. The dancers dash downstage and back up toward the beating drums and the ticking clock. As the time on the clock continues to mechanically dissolve, time operates differently in various sections of Freeman’s work. In some sections, the dancers behave like children, playing musical chairs, one sneaky dancer dissembling one chair after the next while the rest have hands over their eyes. She sneers, ‘too late!’ to each who abides by the rule of this game, whose chair she has taken.
In another movement, the dancers employ strong contemporary dance vocabulary that sweeps and travels, juxtaposed by humorously sitting on the upstage chairs, looking sharply at imagined watches, twitching, staccato like the seconds on the clock. They are forced to stand by each other’s hands as they ask, “is it time?” “is it now?” “should I go now?” It seems as if they want to run from something by staying still in their seats, but are propelled forward by the demands of both time and the others around them.
The relationship of movement to the concept of time is interesting in the work. A particularly striking section had the dancers begin in unison, their movement sharp, followed by a lingering suspension until another sharp move jolts their shape and focus. They spit into two groups, then the pattern becomes a canon. There is something interesting about the fragmenting of time even when everyone is doing the same thing.
The relationships between the performers themselves also seems to change in each iteration of these time-operated worlds. As a trio is dancing fully in a triangle downstage, switching spots, with lots of side-to-side movement, the other two are suddenly standing tall, very close, on the same chair in the back. I didn’t even notice how they got up there, my attention fully on the dancers closest to the audience, who were moving bigger. The piece calls concepts of distraction and attention into focus, with clever use of sound and staging.
The dancer’s use of relationship, time, and space seems specific to each in featured moments. There are a few moments when the environment seems to obey the whims of the dancers; a clap that changes the lighting, the sounds, the movement. These are the moments that happen onstage and so rarely in real life. Most of the time, it seems our physical bodies are at the mercy of the time-constructed framework that does not care about our wishes or schedules.
While much of the movement vocabulary was sharp and punchy, dancer Matt Luck was fluid in daring level changes from even atop his chair to the floor, akin to being caught in dangerous yet hypnotic ocean waves. It really bothered me that when he repeatedly seemed blown by wind from his standing position on his chair to falling on the floor, the female dancer seated next to him always checked the chair and held it stationary after he fell rather than looking at him. I have the feeling this was a ‘secure-the-prop’ choice as oppose to a moment of emotional provocation, but it made me very sad nonetheless. Who hasn’t felt like the person on the floor when everyone else is checking the chair?
Dancer Christopher Ralph brought a particularly enjoyable sass and audience-engagement to the performance. In solo work, he utilized that often ignored high backwards direction on the Laban A-scale that made it seem as if some invisible force was pulling him back. Coupled with his bright, confident presence, this movement was a testament to indominable spirit. With expansive port de bras and powerful jump, his dancing seemed to stare down obstacles, laughing at and even inviting challenges.
A surprising section was the short acapella singing of Cyndi Lauper’s, ‘Time after time’. For this, the lighting became atmospherically very dark, spotlights shining brightly on their animated, exaggerated faces. The dancers covered their yellow costumes with long black robes, like judges, and stood close together on their chairs. This colorless section was one of the funniest of the already comedic work, perhaps because of the juxtaposition of the serious-seeming costume and hilarity of song choice and exaggerated drama. They looked like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, but were clearly inviting us to laugh at them in the way that it is fun to see very serious people being silly.
Something that will stick with me from this piece is the use of the color. Red, in the chairs makes me think of stillness, contrasted by the ever-moving clock numbers. Between the cold placidity and the entropy of time, I’m not sure which scares me more. Against the bright childish yellows, and surrounding black of the walls and those serious robes, there is something that suggests a hopeful sense of fun. The work creates non-linear stories of different worlds using the choreographic and design tools of movement and time, questioning their role as a gift or a curse in each. In this humorous, poignant, and powerful piece, time is an impossible thing to beat. We can only laugh at it.
Overall, “…it’s time…” is like thunder; hard to predict, electrifying, mysterious. The use of time itself is either a playground or an ever narrowing door. I kept wondering what would happen when the clock hit zero, the dancers out of time. The piece ends with a fit of laughter, the dancers in a giggling tickle fight pile. I kept wondering when they would stop laughing and notice that the show was supposed to be over.
It is a very beautiful and hopeful idea to me, at least, that when the clock runs out, we won’t even notice because we are all too busy laughing.