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The Wall as Dancer

By July 24, 20142014 Designing Dance

I keep thinking about the wall currently set up on the Schaeffer Theatre stage for the upcoming performances of “Come, and Back Again” by David Dorfman Dance. Filled with curated “pots and pans of civilization” as my thesis mentor Sam Ball used to say, this wall, created by Brooklyn-based sculptor Jonah Emerson-Bell, is our lives. We accumulate and accumulate and accumulate. Things become complex. Relationships become complex. Life becomes complex. We have a choice: Keep everything the way it is, or simplify, “Clean it up” as Dorfman says, “Or not.”

Amazing that this wall, inert as it is, becomes a dancer as well, tied to the choreography and setting a tone for the entire work. Like our own accumulations, the wall, according to Dorfman, is a “bunch of junk that is extremely profound.” It tells a story rich in layered meanings that will ultimately unfold with the dancers, musicians, and other design elements in performance.

Another consideration of the wall as a design element is its personality. Toned white, all the individual elements become a whole. Dorfman talked about each dancer having a unique signature that becomes an important building block in choreographic process. These signatures inform phrases and become strengths in the work, even as all the dancers function collectively to express the larger choreographic idea.

The wall has many individual signatures—everyday signatures. Each item has a story, a role to play. At the same time, the composition and treatment of these elements imbue the wall with a higher purpose. The larger wall becomes animate and expressive as it comments on the evolving dance. When treated with projection and light, and counterpart of shadow, it breathes with the dance. No matter where you sit in the house, the dynamic gestures of the dancers will always be backed by this presence. And like the hidden pictures in a Highlights magazine collage, you will find yourself seeing something you didn’t see before, and work this image back into the meaning of the dance.

I realize Dorfman intentionally held back in the Show & Tell, he said as much. So in performance with complete choreography, music, projection, costume, and light we will fully experience Emerson-Bell’s contribution to Dorfman’s larger vision in “Come, and Back Again.”

This post was written by Jim Thurston. Jim is a professional designer and educator who researches the relationship between choreography and design for the stage. He is the chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Colby College and is delighted to collaborate with artists and scholars at the Bates Dance Festival.