Emergency evacuation drills, though necessary, are a pain: they seem to always happen when we least expect it and interrupt us when we’re at our most productive. At SIGNAL gallery, the procedure becomes a delight, with artist Madeline Hollander transforming what we’ve all rehearsed with irritation into a mesmerizing performance.
Simply titled “DRILL,” the piece covers the gallery’s entire main space and builds on various evacuation route floor plans from movie theaters, museums, airplanes, and other public spaces. During performances, two to seven dancers (Kayla Farrish, Jeremy Pheiffer, Katie Gaydos, Asami Tomida, Andrew Champlin, Marielis Garcia, and Hollander herself) follow specific, rigid trajectories, just as the arrows of escape path diagrams turn at sharp angles, crossing hallways to the closest exits. But here, escape is not a priority, and the performances are durational: lasting five hours each, they turn something designed to be as quick as possible into a drawn-out scene that reveals unexpected poetry in finely calculated instructions.
Hollander has staged the most fun-filled safety drill I’ve ever witnessed. Wearing silver, fire-retardant headgear that gives them a kooky, galactic appearance, the performers dance beneath three inflated airplane evacuation slides, two of which hang from the ceiling like blimps. The props are the only blatant allusions to danger, but other suggestions of crisis emerge in the choreography itself, as the dancers combine emergency hand signals with more graceful gestures. Accompanied by an original score provided by $3.33 — the project of electronic music producer Celia Hollander, Madeline’s sister — they twirl, lunge, hop, and pivot as they trace the room, making fanning motions with their arms, crossing them, or extending them as if in warning. The score by $3.33 often incorporates the loud but soothing drone of an airplane’s engines and, at times, the geometry of the performers’s bodies and movements resembles the shape of those flying machines, too, or the blades of a propeller. But any original safety meaning any signal may be intended to connote is lost within Hollander’s fine blending of elegant ballerina and stiff, ground marshaller choreography, which captivates through sheer repetition. We’re always impatient for real-life drills to end — and while I watched this animated one for just 30 minutes, I could easily have stayed for hours.
“Drill” is an impressive display of endurance: performers each take the floor for three-hour blocks, allowing themselves short breaks within those periods. That intensity, coupled with their alertness and discipline, evokes another type of drill — that of military men-in-training. Like evacuation rehearsals, these training exercises are orderly preparations for dangerous situations, diligently studied and memorized by countless individuals. The seemingly endless pacing of the stony-faced but lively group at SIGNAL delivers an overall sense of calmness, but the attention to synchronicity also expresses our obsession with structure and efficiency — while subtly poking fun at it.