What’s in a light — a spark, a shot, a shiver? What’s in a touch —a pulse, a pain, a passion? In Anna Sperber’s “Ruptured Horizon,” four performers — Michael Ingle, Alice MacDonald, Omagbitse Omagbemi, and Rebecca Warner — probe these questions by asking what’s in a dancer. Clad in muted grey and white, they enter Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center one by one, as if summoned. They stand under the studio’s skylights at dusk. They move to the haunting, hypnotic drone of a violin.
Sperber is interested in how light, both natural and artificial, can shape a scene. She has arranged the dance so that it takes place at sunset and, in part, under a skylight in the studio. She treats the rest of the studio space with artificial light and, at times, natural darkness. But her latest piece quickly becomes a work about how touch can transform a space.
In the opening sequence, the dancers stake out their spaces in the studio. They touch their surroundings with conviction, curiosity, and confusion. Omagbemi takes to a patch of sky-lit floor like a panther, then poses like a mountain: strong, sturdy, commanding, her arms fixed above her head. MacDonald enters the room, but soon retreats. She writhes against the far wall, creating the swoosh of a waterfall with her slithering back. She fuses with the environment, but is also in friction with it. Ingle, in turn, swerves across the space. His curls clipped back with a bobby pin, he pauses and locks his eyes on the violinist, staring at her with a vacant but also deeply invested gaze. Warner rounds out the group, looking bird-like and confused: will she deign to move beyond the doorpost?
As the performance progresses, floor lights flood the space with baby blue, then amber. A spotlight strikes a square column with magenta. The room, with one side lit by the day’s final rays of natural light, the other lit by an artificial glow, is briefly in balance. The dancers’ moods swing in time with these lighting experiments. As the room becomes warmer, the dancers warm up to each other. They touch the walls, the floors, the columns, yes, but also one another.
When Ingle, strung upside down on a studio pole, becomes blue in the face, MacDonald coaxes Ingle out of his stunned state. When MacDonald, clad in a neon smock, lays down on the right side of the studio, Ingle attends to MacDonald’s apron, laying it flat in front of her so that her head appears to lie on a platter. He, too, lies down and pulls her red hair over his head, burrowing in it as if it were a wig or a blanket. When he leaves, she dances out his absence. Did she want him to touch her?
Warner and Ingle also dance in step — the only formal duet in the evening. They become bolder in their interactions with one another. They lock their limbs in a sensual embrace until their self-consciousness shakes them out of it.
Each of these moments teases out tensions and attractions among the dancers. It also teases out the degree to which each dancer — really, each character — is unsettled in his or her body. Ingle, who flits around the room, freezes up when faced with his own physicality. He reaches out to a mirror and paws at his reflected hand, as if it were a foreign object. Later, he clenches this hand, which shakes persistently and deliberately, to his chest, as if to calm (or suppress?) an animal energy.
Warner, too, seems constrained in her own skin. She slams the back walls and presses her forehead and palms against them (for stability amidst despair? restraint amidst drive?). She bounces up and down on the pads of her feet, as if stuck in a ritual. She moves in sync with Ingle. And, finally, she sleeps.
Where does Omagbemi fit into this scene? She dances on her own. She does not reach for the walls. She does not give way to another’s touch. In these moments, she seems to model stability, restraint, and control. But her stoicism has an edge to it: she is, it seems, lonely.
At first glance, subtle changes in light seem to control the mood of “Ruptured Horizon.” But ultimately it is the dancers, not the light, that propel the evening. MacDonald thrashes in front of orange lights that should be soothing. Warner and Ingle share an intimate touch under harsh floodlights. Omagbemi holds her ground under both the studio skylights and the room’s dark recesses. Though the light tinted their movements, the dancers claimed their space, and when the house lights came up, I hadn’t even realized that the sun had set.
Anna Sperber’s “Ruptured Horizon” continues at the Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center through June 13.