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The Knockdown Center is a sprawling, compound-like factory in Maspeth, Queens, that’s been renovated into an industrial-chic venue striving to, according to the website, “create an adaptable environment that thinks beyond what ‘is.’” In that sense, The Wilder Papers, a semi-guided experiential dance event that took place there last week, was perfectly on trend. The Wilder Papers was crafted by veterans of Sleep No More — British theater company Punchdrunk’s epic, choose-your-own adventure dance/theater show that’s been playing in three Chelsea warehouses since 2011 — and that show’s influence on the work was abundantly clear. But rather than playing on existing narratives (Sleep No More is a Hitchcock/Shakespeare mash-up), The Wilder Papers focuses on the fictional characters of Julian Wilder, an inspired scientist working with sound and movement, and his wife, Dorienne Lee, a talented dancer who’s persuaded to leave her successful career, move to an abandoned factory in remote Queens (yes, the Knockdown Center) and assist her husband with his greatest invention: an “instrument for converting movement into sound, and dance into music.” Dorienne is attracted to the promise of unlimited creative freedom offered by the raw space. The pair spends a year or so working on The Machine, develop marital issues in the process, and the whole thing ends mysteriously with Julian dead of an inexplicable but fatal head wound and Dorienne found “weakened and near-catatonic.”
That, at least, is the story detailed on the program/synopsis handed to audience members after the show had ended. Without the benefit of after-the-fact explanation, it would be difficult to parse out any specific narrative — and I will be quick to say that is fine. If reading that piece of paper after the show had filled out and enriched the experience I’d just had, I would be on board; in fact, the idea of complementing an abstract, physical version of a narrative with a more literal, written one is lovely to me. As it happened, though, the whole story was big news.
One partial sentence in the description resonated with what I had seen: “Freed from her obligations to his instrument, Lee began work on a new project of her own, a dance-narrative about torture and longing … ” Choreographically, torture and longing came through loud and clear. The opening scene between the male and female leads (Austin Goodwin and Emily Terndrup) was sexy and overly dramatic; harsh backlighting silhouetted the dancers as they clutched at each other and performed sweeping, stretching movements on a powder-covered floor, giving the air and performers a smoky, misty cast. At times the two would move into a semi-unison, which did the most to portray a sense of the psychology of the different characters. A chorus-like group of female dancers at times served as witnesses, sometimes as audience guides. Once or twice an individual dancer broke away and led a few attentive followers to a smaller room for a more intimate performance, à la Sleep No More, but we still had no sense of how these characters or their movements were connected to the central relationship between Goodwin and Terndrup.
Each scene was scored by a solo musician (Julianna Barwick, Sarah Lipstate, Skyler Skjelset, and Hannah Epperson), chosen as collaborators for their multilayered and emotional sound and their ability to improvise. The music, played on amplified guitar, piano, and violin, often started out simply, gaining complexity through the use of loop and effects pedals. The resulting ambient aural landscape that might have been more effective in a venue with better acoustics, but any intended mysteriousness or nuance was lost in an opaque wall of sound. Notable exceptions were Hannah Epperson’s two violin pieces that opened and closed the show, which were more melodic and complemented Goodwin and Terndrup’s duets.
It was towards the end of the show that I sat up and took notice, when, in another large-scale scene, the semi-unison motif suddenly became much more specific: active duets involving violent, repetitive kicks, and beautifully choreographed changes in formation exploded out of the larger group showcasing the dancers’ considerable technical talent and providing a change of pace that finally got me curious about the arc of the story.
Spaces are loaded — with energy and with possibilities. The Knockdown Center, while its original character has been all but stripped away, is an incredibly exciting space for an art maker of any kind, simply because of its vastness and the sense of having no boundaries. The Wilder Papers sat back and tried to let the space do most of the work when there was a beautiful opportunity to mine it and develop it. Dance, after all, is the movement of bodies in space, and when you have basically an unlimited amount of it, it’s up to the choreographers and dancers to find exciting ways of splitting it up, emphasizing it, changing it. Instead, I felt like I was in an art museum, being led from room to room without any sense of surprise or exploration. And why paste a fictional narrative on a place that’s filled with real-life history and potential? What was supposed to be an “immersive” performance ended up restricting itself by rejecting obvious opportunities and adhering instead to an external idea of what this type of work is “supposed” to be.
The Wilder Papers took place at the Knockdown Center (52-19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth Queens), on June 4, at 8pm.