The train whistle couldn’t have been more effective if it had been planned. Metal wheels rumbled loudly along the track outside Goodson Yard on the Goat Farm, a former industrial site in west Midtown. It set the tone for choreographer Lauri Stallings’ latest work with gloATL, “This Is a World.” The Friday evening performance was an early phase in the work’s development: in April, it will play again in Atlanta, followed by a formal premiere in May at the Duo Theatre in New York.
Until now, most of Stallings’ dance-centered performances with gloATL in Atlanta have been outdoor, site-specific works at ground level and were free to the public — attracting crowds so large that people complained of obstructed views. Most of the works involved migrating from one location to another — often across city blocks — forcing the audience to migrate, too. Others have dealt with migration as a theme, which, as Stallings states in her program, is “the global movement of our time.”
But “This Is a World” required tickets, provided chairs for the audience and was centered in one space — focused more on the arrival at the end of a migration, perhaps, in a home or in a nest. It should put to rest criticisms (loudest from Atlanta’s dance community) that gloATL’s appeal is based on a guest hip-hop showman or on huge public spectacle. While the rest of the audience doesn’t vanish from one’s perspective in “This Is a World,” the work is often visually quiet. It feels intimate, personal.
The century-old Goodson Yard was once part of a cotton mill and later was used for other kinds of manufacturing. Now it’s an empty shell. Vines grow up rusted iron bars on the windows, with some glass panes intact and others open to the elements. Porous brick walls, partly exposed and partly covered by layers of paint, rise toward a vaulted ceiling, a vast overhead space with a skeleton of soft wooden beams supporting the roof. (Performance photos by Thom Baker.)
It’s a tremendous space, fantastic for Stallings’ purpose, showing contrast between past and contemporary worlds. Bruce Harlan’s lighting — a light grid suspended from the rafters, columns of intense blue-violet light on the brick walls — shifted in blues, purples and golds and suggested the high-tech world we inhabit today.
In the opening set, a crystal vase filled with red roses defined the center while a lone dancer stood beside the vase in a pool of interwoven shards of light. Eleven women were dressed in sheer chiffon tunics of pewter-grey with bare legs; two men were fully covered in black suits. It was comforting to see dancers on a raised Marley floor instead of concrete.
Music, by Max Richter, Alva Noto, Arvo Pärt and others, seemed to blur lines between electronic soundscapes and natural environments. At times it was hard to tell whether the sounds were crickets, birds or man-made imitation with a peculiar intensity. When a soft piano melody juxtaposed with sounds of an AM radio searching for a signal, it somehow supported the dancers’ physicality. The concentrated power translated into emotional intensity.
Yet Stallings’ choreographic structures could have been more tightly woven and her meanings more clear. The essence was there: much of the movement vocabulary seemed to spring from a posture with the weight dropped, the pelvis dropped back to bring the spine into slight arch, creating a sense of grounded tension. Weight on balls of the feet — knees bent — makes it possible to change directions in quick succession, spread the chest open, flail the arms back, fling the legs outward without losing connection to the body center.
There’s more sense of three-dimensional shape and more exploration of the torso and less focus on mapping a pathway inside the body. In “Homeless Child,” a row of four women traveled slowly across the floor, while various parts of the torso — ribs, sides, shoulder blades — meandered through the space around the torso, as if dislocated from home, searching.
Stallings’ approach — she calls it an “interactive art installation” — calls for three-dimensional choreography to be viewed from all sides. It was satisfying to watch the dancers map out a fourth wall between us and them — making the stage a safer place to become more exposed. At one point, perhaps in response to audience complaints that they couldn’t see previous works, Stallings had a dancer stare at an audience member to ask the loaded question, “Would you like to see me from another angle?”
In this urban, post-industrial environment, it seemed that we were seeing people in desperate need of human contact and proximity. Several times, a single dancer would yearn for contact. Another would encounter that dancer and provide physical support, but before a meaningful encounter had a chance to develop, it would stop short, disappointingly.
Early on, dancer Mary Remy supported Nicole Johnson just as Johnson was about to fall backward — then Remy slipped out from under her. Later, Nicholas Goodly stood facing outward. Remy, beside him at a low level, began to squirm around his legs as if awkwardly seeking an embrace. In a cumbersome lift, he carried her. The next moment, he lifted her more comfortably. Blackout. Later, Remy, seated near the edge, watched Johnson standing near the vase of roses. Slowly, Johnson made her way toward Mary. But at the moment she was about to offer Remy the flowers, Remy turned away, severing that possibility. Johnson retreated, hobbling and vulnerable.
Only at the high-intensity resolution, with Johnson tunic-less and fully exposed, cleansed by a shower of rose petals, does another human being, Toni Doctor-Jenkins, arrive to help fill her need. Slowly unfolding yet seemingly inevitable, the scene contained some of the most emotionally potent and beautiful images gloATL has yet offered.
In a technology-driven world, a culture where channels of communication and travel are often predetermined, and where we can start and end relationships with the click of a mouse, “This Is a World” poses a question: How do we address the continuing need for human proximity? Perhaps, as the work evolves, we’ll find out the solution.