Here’s a question for you. A total stranger passes you a tray. On it, underneath some ivy fronds and half buried in soil, are tiny, stoppered vials full of a liquid you can’t identify. Quick: do you take one and drink it?
Under other circumstances I’d recommend that you decline, but if you’re at “Hippodrome” — the latest production by gloATL, at the Goat Farm Arts Center through March 25 — I suggest giving it a try. During the performance, such a tray is quietly passed, and those in the audience daring enough to take one of the vials and drink its contents may do so. It’s far from the only intriguing part of a singular evening where bits of daring and curiosity are asked for and consistently rewarded.
“Hippodrome” is a major collaborative work orchestrated by choreographer and gloATL founder Lauri Stallings. It includes movement by members of her company; a large-scale visual installation by Atlanta artist Gyun Hur; music from contemporary ensemble Sonic Generator performing with four opera soloists; and perhaps most curiously of all, smells and tastes by a team of chefs led by Darren Carr of Atlanta restaurant Top FLR, including those strange little vials. It’s an aspect of the production that will become more elaborate at its final performance on Monday, March 25, where the show will be paired with a meal specifically designed to accompany it.
The work takes its title from the name of the oval racetracks of ancient Greece, enormous public gathering places that were probably among the first such spaces in the Western world where both sexes and all classes, from pauper to king, could congregate to watch horse and chariot races. The horse, chariot and charioteer were, I imagine, the ancient equivalent of jet fighter, movie star, Porsche and iPad all rolled into one. Horses were powerful symbols of mankind’s ingenious dominion over nature, and the chariot was a mind-blowing technological innovation. But competition and parades of prowess aren’t the order of the day at this new hippodrome, but rather contemplation about civilization’s public gathering spaces and our experiences within them.
The hippodrome for this performance is a large wooden oval structure built inside the late-Victorian-era industrial brick Goodson Yard warehouse at the Goat Farm. The audience sits on risers and peers down into a large pitlike dance floor rimmed by an oval track of live grass. One mirrored embankment is planted with flowers, and, shredded into a fine dusting of pigment on the floor and left whole in a large pit dug into the performance space, are the silk flowers often seen in Hur’s work.
The performance begins in silence with a single dancer crawling slowly into the hippodrome. She makes her way slowly around the track and eventually toward the center of the floor. The musicians, set off to one side, begin to play the somber, pain-drenched, aching first strains of Arvo Pärt’s “Stabat Mater,” and the dancer seemingly struggles to stand. Is she meant to be a horse? A person? Is this a sort of birth? A death? It’s difficult to say — perhaps it’s all of these things or none of them — but that atmosphere of mythic symbol and ancient ritual sticks.
The dancer is soon joined by others, and the section, titled “Communication,” picks up pace. The first part, with its rapid-fire, unceasing ensemble movements, is a challenging one because it so thoroughly resists providing individual mental pictures or resting places for contemplation. There is no frontality, no stillness, no macro lens. The level of detail and intricacy here is astounding, practically baroque (I caught interesting things happening in dancers’ fingers, lips and backs), but it takes time to adjust to this world. Oddly, this opening strikes a challenging note of untidy fragmentation, and at times it’s hard to discern the connection between dance and movement.
At a certain point, however, the dancers assemble in each of the four corners of the space and lift one among their number, a ceremonial act that signals a shift. A dancer seems to discover the shredded flowers — she lifts handfuls of them and lets them pour through her hands — and here is where “Hippodrome” starts to gather its sense of drama.
Seven pieces by Pärt are played in all — musicians and singers alike eventually wander through the space — and it’s the sound of the piano that seems to both slow things down and stitch them together so that we can both see a whole and take our time to examine individual parts. A duet proceeds between the beautifully paired dancers Jimmy Joyner and Virginia Coleman to Pärt’s piano piece “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka,” a dance tinged with eroticism, loss, plaintiveness and a sense of human weight and physicality.
Moves are here, as they are throughout, large, ambitious, fleshy and meaty, but the limbs often have an intriguing rubbery pliancy when they meet the ground. The piano provides a sort of openness that allows for quiet exploration, the unhurried wandering of the mind from one vignette to another. One should reasonably come to any show looking for such a space, and this turned out to be mine, though there are many other possibilities. In a section titled “Loss,” a dancer is drawn into the pit, submerged in silk flowers and then pulled out again; two dancers on their hands and knees do an equine sort of exploration and embrace with their necks; and a dancer lies prostrate in front of the mirror. At some point, you notice the looping bits of string plastered to the dancers’ heads, suggesting the strange incised hair on Greek statuary or perhaps the wrinkles and folds of the brain, the mind made naked and visible for the public.
Midway through the performance on opening night, the tray was passed. I uncorked a vial, sniffed it and took a careful sip. I was glad my neighbor had sipped from hers, and gladder still when we clinked our little vials together in a wordless toast before swigging the whole down.