FACT/SF's 'death' Is Stunning, Sly, And Filled With Sorrow

Everything begins provisionally. Perhaps in all our lives, but absolutely in death, choreographer Charles Slender-White’s sly, beautiful, immersive dance receiving its world premiere at CounterPulse for his company FACT/SF. The piece begins off-handedly. A few friendly ushers lead us up some stairs to the top of the theater’s risers where a small picture box theater has been constructed—it’s as if the world before us has narrowed, focused in on one fragile moment.

Given the title you couldn’t help but think of a trip to heaven, but that’s a mistake of perception, of climbing stairs and finding yourself in the rafters looking down. death politely brushes aside those easy clichés of the afterlife. This is not going to be about our experience, our feelings, or our fears.

Slender-White enters in the outfit of the evening—a slight black dress and black socks. Awkwardly carrying a life-size translucent mold of a body, something the company calls an XO, he tries to dance with it and speak to us. The opening feels off, mistimed—the stage is squeaky and a bit too small for man and prop to give a proper performance.

Only in hindsight do you realize how tricky and apt this all is.

So What We Get Is A Proposition

Slender-White puts his XO to the side, kneels on the edge of this not quite dancer-scaled stage, and presents us with a number of propositions that boil down to this: “What if ghosts were real … and if we could bring back the dead, is that something that they would want?” If you’re pronoun wary, you’ll catch that it’s they and not us.

One of the pleasures of this foray into what the dead might feel is how death teases us away, moment-by-moment, from thinking about ourselves to thinking about our friends, the dead, and what a struggle life is for them. So as the dancers float across the stage, a foot disappearing on one end as a hand appears at the opposite one, we watch. And then one by one we are called away.

The call is a gentle whisper, a simple “will you follow me” so as to not interrupt the show. Though it’s hard to miss your fellow audience members being led away. And we are led, down the stairs we ascended, and then further down into the bowels of CounterPulse and the primary shock of the evening: birth.

At First I Didn’t Know What I Was Watching

In a narrow, curtained room that seems to go on forever—there’s a desk at the far end, just before the vanishing point. You sit on a chair in front of a basin of water. Before you and only you is a praying dancer, not moving. This is disquieting, though it’s quiet, and then that dancer shoves her face in the water and makes a jarring, shriek of a cry.

She stands and stares at you. I was so glad when this confrontation was over that I think I blacked out for a moment, because in the blink of an eye she was sitting at the desk, washing it, contemplating an egg, and I think still staring at me.

I was beginning to understand that death was not about my death when an usher tapped me on the shoulder, told me to get up, and follow the signs (white paper taped to the wall with arrows: hilarious, though not at the time). She said someone would meet me at the end.

Even though I knew that someone was going to meet me at the end, I jumped when I saw her—that’s the kind of immersive force the piece was beginning to exert. The Bay Area is full of conceptual art, where I guess the concept is the art: here the concept is operative and alive, which is a much rougher game.

By the time you reach the CounterPulse stage and take a seat, death has you in the proper state of mind … to watch a dance.

Every Action Is A Contradiction Of What We’re Seeing

Everything that follows feels as if the dead have returned to the living and how difficult this might be for them. No longer constrained in a picture box set, the dancers let loose—to the limits that the newly born can.

Slender-White’s choreography is fluid and whippet fast, yet the company often moves in something approaching slow motion. When they fall, there’s something wrong about the way their bodies rest against the ground. Simple knee bends seem an affront to gravity, an act of resistance. Over and over their arms point in one direction, as they look back behind them.

It all has the odd dissymmetry of fresh road kill, but formal and beautiful—road kill as the God Apollo might have imagined it.

Even something as basic as the number of dancers on stage is unsettling as they keep on exiting and returning through a back curtained wall lined with metronomes on the floor. The click, click, click of mechanical time suggests that everything must eventually end, but it doesn’t. The dancers (not the dance) just keep on expanding into new realms of disorder, a never-ending cosmic astonishment of failed understanding.

When a club-remix of Ida Coor’s “Let me Think about It” bursts through the somber soundscape to spur a trio of dancers to some spirited and syncopated action, the effect ends with them standing in front of us and staring. Even in absolute order, they have no idea what’s happening.

And that’s the slippery, awful power of death; every moment is a failure of the body and the soul to find coherence. In the most sorrowful vignette of the evening, the full troupe lines up some chairs in a lazy mock up of a classroom, and tries to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing with this unexpected life, a life by the way that we have kind of granted them. They repeatedly fall to the ground, rising up each time with increasing speed, and shaking their heads no. You couldn’t ask for more.

4 Final Thoughts

We should be careful what we wish for others.

Architecture matters, especially when it’s made to dance.

As I write about this, I want to see death all over again.

And you should, too.

‘death’ runs through October 13 at CounterPulse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.