In the pre-show seating shuffle of audience members scrambling for seats in the 360-configuration of a sold-out St. Mark's Church, each of the five performers in Deborah Hay's "O,O" entered one by one and stood, shifting slightly, eyeing the audience and raising their hands slowly in tentative reaches toward each other, the audience, the floor, the ceiling. Three were in black, two in white, and all wearing heavy shoes, an unusual choice for dance. Once all five were gathered on stage, continuing this slow, focused pace, the audience gradually grew silent, despite the fact that the box office was still open and ushers were still seating patrons. The room changed and everyone acknowledged it, as if the performance space asserted its architectural truth as a church.
As the last of the audience took seats, the tension was palpable. The viewers were focused, waiting, as the performers continued to move as if through water. Almost at once, but not quite, they raised their hands above their heads and began to sing, "You are my only one, you are my only one, you are my one, my one my only one." The effect of near unison was eerie, and amazingly, the addition of vocalization did not break the tension, but rather increased it. The light footfalls of the performers on the wooden stage created a soft, percussion accompaniment.
A series of often humorous, slightly self-mocking sections followed, punctuated by blackouts, building concentric circles of movement and ideas that sometimes referenced other dance forms such as ballroom, club, and tap. These layers built subtly, shaped by the deft performances of five of contemporary dance's most interesting and adept performers. Choreographers in their own right, Jeanine During, Neil Greenberg, Miguel Gutierrez, Juliette Mapp, and Vicky Schick created an articulate ensemble of distinct individuals that added greatly to the impact of the piece.
In the penultimate blackout, we heard shoes running, and voices gasping in fear. When the lights returned, the five performers were frozen, mid-escape. Pulling away from each other, yet caught, as if something had exploded in the middle of their circle, they seemed to pull each other along and hold each other back at the same time. Each face was contorted in a scream of panic and anguish. After a moment of this still image, Gutierrez began to sing a deeply sorrowful tune in gibberish, a "language" employed throughout the piece. The others joined, lip-syncing along, all maintaining their dramatic position and facial mask. The overwrought nature of the song as it began contrasted with the lighter tone employed through the bulk of the performance, made this section initially very funny. As it continued however, the laughter stopped, the pain became real, recognizable, and the initial tension of the work returned. As the song ended the performers began shifting from their frozen positions. Durning ceremoniously covered her face with a black scarf and remained motionless as the others painstakingly stepped away to broaden the circle, while the lights faded tenderly, lingering as the audience held its collective breath, waiting for the inevitable darkness. - Sarah Maxfield
Deborah Hayâ€™s "O,O" is now closed after running January 26-29.
Ms. Maxfield is the co-founder and artistic director of Red Metal Mailbox, a New-York based company dedicated to creating investigative works of theater by linking original text with a highly physical aesthetic. In addition to directing and performing with RMM, Sarah works a day job in arts administration and occasionally writes about performance.