In a culture dominated by blow-dried news anchors and photoshopped models, it can be hard for the average person to look into a mirror without flinching. Vanity and self-delusion will only go so far in helping each of us to single out the features that make us feel we “look good,” or at least acceptable, so we can walk out the front door each morning with head held high.
Choreographer Heidi Latsky’s “D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D” — which her company, Heidi Latsky Dance, presented on Dec. 7 at the Wilkins Theatre of Kean University in Union, as part of the Kean Stage series — isn’t likely to make anyone less self-conscious about his or her appearance, but this warm-hearted and inclusive spectacle does put things into perspective.
Shuffling into the theater through the back door, audience members find themselves onstage with the dancers. We can take a seat on the edges of the stage, or step down into the auditorium, but Latsky never turns out the lights — the first clue that her purpose, in “D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D.,” is to erase the boundary that usually separates viewers from performers. Here everyone remains in sight. And as we tiptoe around the dancers, who are scattered standing or lying in various attitudes, we hear a voice describe the characteristics of some people who are not present.
A man in his 20s, for instance, wears his hair in a “stylish bun” and sports a “sizable crotch,” the voice says, but his shoulder is in a cast and he’s missing some teeth. One woman in her 20s has “long lashes,” but another has “crooked legs turned in at the knee” and “uses a wheeled walker.” The voice is matter-of-fact in noticing and cataloguing a variety of eyes, lips, moles, tattoos, piercings and styles of movement from the luxurious to the halting.
The dancers, too, are a mixed bunch. Like most of us, each of them has some feature or quality that one can admire as conventionally beautiful — long, slender legs, for instance; muscular arms; or a dazzling grin. Yet a couple of them are in wheelchairs. One woman seems to be missing her fingers. A man cradles a twisted, frozen hand in his other hand. Politely, they refrain from staring at us. But what do we look like, to them?
Surely they notice our timidity, as we hide our quirks and that extra roll of post-Thanksgiving joy beneath sweaters and artfully arranged scarves. These dancers are more courageous. Three of them are posing on pedestals, and a team of costume designers has dressed them in white robes that part revealingly, with see-through plastic panels offering extra glimpses of flesh. Latsky describes the scene on stage as a “sculpture court,” referring to those historic works of art that glorify the human form. Everybody, she seems to say here, has a place among the heroes, in a pantheon that celebrates humanity’s diversity and the experience of living.
The scene onstage switches “on” gently, and the whole cast suddenly starts and shifts, as if becoming aware of a noise or other signal beyond the perimeter. A woman in a wheelchair makes a tour of the stage, with another woman lying curled across her lap. Then the dance proceeds episodically, highlighting this or that figure, some disabled and others merely imperfect, all talented in some way. With such a diverse collection of performers, large-scale group maneuvers are nearly impossible and so one focuses on details.
Although it must be said that Latsky’s choreography makes less of an impression in this “sculpture-court” setting than it did in the more conventionally arranged “Tryptich,” which her company presented in 2015, there is always something in “D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D.” to beguile the eye: a woman’s feet kicking fiercely to the sides in a jump; another woman’s arms swaying in a giant wave; feints and plunges; attacks and swoons. A young man whose legs end in stumps can still inch across the floor or walk on his knees. The woman without fingers can still caress her arms and turn her folded hands upward and downward. At one point, two women travel across the stage face-to-face with one walking backward, interrogating each other with gestures that seem to test the air between them.
At the post-performance discussion, the dancers regroup on stage in their street clothes, seeming remarkably happy. Given the chance to speak, audience members voice their relief from fear, and say that “D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D.” allowed them to experience a newfound sense of freedom.
Latsky discusses her own work as a form of democracy, redefining virtuosity and beauty, and as a response to the casual cruelty of our times. “This is my Resistance,” she says.