NATURE THEATER @ THE ICA
Do not go see Nature Theater of Oklahoma expecting to see a performance about trees.
In fact, do not go to one of their shows anticipating a night of pure dance, theater or comedy; the act is not that simple. What does the Nature Theater of Oklahoma actually do? After seeing them perform for the first time at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), I’m still not sure. What I do know is that what they are doing is like nothing I have seen before. It is fun. It is original. And it is good.
At show time on Friday, March 13th anyone holding a ticket for “Poetics: A Ballet Brut” was told to wait in the ICA lobby. When the audience was finally allowed upstairs, we were asked to sit on stadium-style folding chairs arranged on stage to look out towards the normal seating area.
This was the first hint that we were not about to see a traditional ballet.
The second hint that was came when a tall man wearing a tight silk-screened t-shirt, secondhand-looking trousers and a messenger bag walks on stage, jutted out one hip, crossed his arms and stared at the audience.
Thus the show began. What followed lived up to Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s rather literal description in the performance brochure: they make movement from everyday gestures, dance with the awkwardness of amateurs, and most of all, “strive to create an unsettling situation that demands total presence from everyone in the room.”
Founded by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, a husband and wife team who trained at Dartmouth College, Nature Theater of Oklahoma features four performers (three men, one woman) in “Poetics: A Ballet Brut,” each with distinct character and memorable moments. Dressed in street clothes, the dancers look like the odd characters we instinctively tend to avoid on public buses. One man wore ill-fitting cargo shorts, a white button-up, long socks pulled high and sipped on a Big Gulp cup during the opening number—seeming throughout the performance like a tourist lost in a foreign land: he doesn’t understand the language, but he’ll smile, nod, and try to please.
The music in “Ballet Brut” ranges from “”Dreamweaver” by Gary Wright to “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen, and the goofy earnestness of the dancers who leapt spun, and attempted grand pliés had the audience laughing throughout the performance. The first great moment comes during the “Endless Love” section of the performance when three dancers perform a faux ballet on swirling desk chairs only to have their moment interrupted by the fourth dancer walking back on stage, munching on an enormous slice of pizza. With his gut hanging out from his too tight t-shirt and a bemused smile beneath his handle-bar mustache - looking every bit the part of an embarrassing, beer-guzzling uncle - he then walks around to each cast member and has them take gigantic bites until the whole slice is gone. It was awkward to the point of forcing an uncomfortable chuckle, but drew deep-gut-laughter from what seemed like the entire audience.
“Poetics: A Ballet Brut” is, at times, painful to watch. You begin to cringe when they dancers lip-sync - just as you would for a tone-deaf friend who has just stood up to sing karaoke. The pauses between dances are slow and unsettling: they’re supposed to go directly from dance to dance right? The music should never stop. But ultimately awkward moments and toying with the audience’s expectations is all part of the experience.
The last number, performed to “Last Dance” by Donna Summers, is laugh-aloud-clap-spontaneously-wonderful. I will not give too much to away, but will only hint that it involves a tutu and disco lights.
Above all, humor defines Nature Theater of Oklahoma and it makes what they do, whatever it is, a success.
"Nature Theater of Oklahoma" is on view March 13 -15, 2009 at the ICA.
All images are courtesy of the artists and the ICA.