I must admit, I was scared walking in. The warehouse was dark, and I got lost. I called for directions, and someone shined a cell phone light to show me the path to the front door. I walked in and was asked to sign a document to ensure I would not sue the company if I tripped and fell over the string that would be present through the performance.
I’ll repeat — I was scared at first. But wow, “Visitor Parking” — presented earlier this month at Gardenship Art in Kearny — was an incredible evening. I’m so glad I drove through the dreary night, in the rain, to see this performance. mignolo dance pulled it off again — a multimedia experience about mental illness and mental health.
To begin, one dancer (Charly Santagado, also the co-choreographer), sitting inside an archway similar to a manger, moved to a complex poem (“Visits to St. Elizabeths” by Elizabeth Bishop) about a person, or mankind, speaking of a “house of Bedlam.” She repeated the first line after every stanza, moving with precision through neck tics and odd twisting movements, with a solemn but determined face.
The poem unfolded with descriptions of a cranky man, a busy man, a tedious man, a wretched man. The movements resembled sign language for the deaf or hard-of-hearing (mignolo dance calls this “movement language in progress” Movenglish); the motions and the words wrapped around each other, clearly depicting the sense of disarray and distress this person was feeling.
Suddenly, a film was projected above her, and audience members looked up to see what was happening. A woman in a green dress was tearing apart the walls of a room. The walls’ material was silver foil, and the crackling noise and the music together created a dramatic sense of being out of control. Then, somehow, we realized this woman was right behind us. We turned 180 degrees to see the room being torn apart, the woman in a fit of rage and agony, surrounded by string. She was screaming. She cuffed her ears as the music got louder and faster.
This was just the beginning of a 70-minute performance in which the audience was asked to actively participate, moving to different places in the drama. Some audience members were reticent and some were clearly absorbed in the experience. A refrain of the performance was the interaction between a therapist and the woman in green — the patient — sitting in chairs across from each other. When they “spoke” (pre-recorded text), their movements connected with the words and they had a “discussion,” in movement, many times during the night.
“How was your week?” the therapist asked. “The same, but not exactly the same,” said the patient. The conversation, over time, showed the intensity level rising for both therapist and patient.
The patient took the therapist down to what she called “the basement,” an area that appeared to represent a mental institution, where individuals portrayed their intense personal traumas through repetition. One person was counting on an abacus; another was working on puzzles without any success, holding them upside down or putting her arms through the rungs. She splashed herself in a metal tub like the ones used years ago to wash clothing; the patient took the tub and dumped the water on her. Chaos ensued.
Three cars in the warehouse and seemed merely to be part of the background. But an audience member noticed someone in one of the cars. The whole audience turned. The person in the car watched as a figure on a mattress with a black fitted sheet writhed and finally escaped through the holes in the sheet.
The three cars had dancers in them; they climbed out of the windows and looked at the audience. “Visits to St. Elizabeths” was repeated in a whisper with music behind it as three dancers in black dresses acted as ghosts or spirits of the patient. They performed separate dances, and one helped another to sit next to the therapist, seeming to indicate that the therapist was part of this world as envisioned by the patient. The dancers stuck their tongues out as the patient untangled herself from strings she wrapped herself within to join them.
There was an extended period in which the choreography was positioned in and around the three cars. One dancer hit her head against the horn; lights of another car came on as the dancers used the vehicles as props in unconventional ways. People came out of windows feet first, they were on the hoods and through the sunroofs, they were interacting chaotically and then, suddenly, not interacting. It was painful to watch how disturbed these people looked, yet the sense of urgency was similar to what one sees on a highway when traffic is backed up — angry, unhappy drivers and their passengers. Only more so.
When the patient and therapist talked again, their movements were wilder and less restrained, though the words were similar. As the dancers started to merge together, it was clear that the therapist was in their world. She was guiding them; they were all together, and guitar strings sound in the background as the music emulated the camaraderie. Each dancer was lifted individually by the group as they all leaned in together and became cohesive and synchronized to help each other. The group was simulating growth, and community, and offered a very memorable end to a piece that seemed very sad at its start.
But it wasn’t over. There was a tunnel with silver foil being pointed to by several dancers. They asked audience members to step into the tunnel while a disembodied voice said it was dangerous, and we should not enter under any circumstances. We entered anyway.
There we stood, in a circular room of silver foil, looking at each other. How terribly poetic. One audience member turned to me afterward and said, “It’s a teaching. It really touched me.”
For me, it was a powerful, emotionally riveting experience. I was impressed with the depth of the presentation: the use of video, the implementation of many created sets inside a warehouse, the multidimensionality of the movements the dancers used, and the words and music that worked seamlessly with it to create an understanding.
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