By LIZ BYRON. Even as you walk into the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater, you feel yourself sinking into the eerie atmosphere of Wreck. Five musicians sit facing the empty stage, playing quiet but haunting music. You are directed to carefully make your way around the very edge of the stage (presumably to keep dirt off the surface for the barefoot performers, but this also serves to set up the floor as some sort of sacred space, some no-go zone) to sit on one of two sides of the theatre, so even as you wait for the performance to start, you are looking half the audience in the face. On three walls, the slightly blurry image of a boat’s wake is on repeat, hypnotizing you as you imagine yourself sitting on the boat and looking over the side at the endless water.
It’s an effective start (or pre-start) for a very ambient and consuming piece. Indeed, “piece” is the word, because the word “play” brings to mind a spoken performance with scenes and acts. Wreck, presented by Black Label Movement, is divided into several sections, but there is no dialogue. Only haunting music and a lot of physical movement. The cast of 13 “movers”, as the program calls them, manage to tell the entire story with their bodies. The story? 13 survivors are stuck in the hold of a fast-sinking ship, facing what must be imminent doom. Wreck is a local creaction; it was created by Carl Flink during his tenure as McKnight Choreography Fellow in 2012 — a fellowship with the Northrop program for Minnesota choreographers, and the creation of Wreck was funded by the University of Minnesota Institute for Advanced Study and the College of Liberal Arts. Black Label Movement is also local; a collective of dance artists, the company is dedicated to creating ” wildly physical, naturally virtuosic, and intellectually and emotionally engaging art”.
Make no mistake — this is “Art with a capital A”, as my dad says. This is not straightforward storytelling for entertainment; this is contemporary dance with a story whose general outline is evident to all but the most obtuse viewer, but the finer points of what’s happening may be lost to non-dance folk, unless you read the section titles (names like “Engine Room”, “Ashley’s Death”, and “Silkie” certainly help) beforehand. I don’t say this to sound condescending — I am not particularly familiar with contemporary dance and I’m not great at interpreting what it means when three people are running around in a circle. So, if 75 minutes of wordless dance/movement sounds bad to you no matter how good the dancers, this is probably not the show for you.
On the other hand, if you read “75 minutes of wordless dance/movement” and your reaction ranged anywhere from an eyebrow raised in intrigue to a shiver of excitement, do yourself a favour and go. Wreck is beautiful and hypnotic, even to a dance n00b like me. I was amazed as I watched the performers use their bodies to represent waves crashing against the ship, drowned bodies, fish, people fighting with each other.. at times I forgot I was watching people. Slow, flowing movements; frantic spasms; fluid twists and turns; gravity-defying leaps… these people do them all, and are able to go from one to the other in the blink of an eye. Particularly striking was the section “Three Men”, in which company members José Bueno, Patrick Jeffrey and Zack Teska perform in very tight quarters an intensely physical piece full of jumps and catches; maybe this is just because I’m used to seeing mostly women, or man-and-woman duos, but these three strong men fly through the air with equal parts strength and grace took my breath away. Another favourite was “Ashley’s Death”, in which Ashley Akpaka first writhes on the floor frantically, and then slows, finally succumbing to death, in a way so realistic that I forgot she was on the floor, so much did she look like she was floating, lifeless, in the depths.
I would be remiss if I didn’t come back to the musicians I mentioned earlier. Local composer Mary Ellen Childs wrote the chilling, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes jarring score that allows five musicians to transform into violent waves, deep water currents, a metal hull being crushed, and people gasping for air, to name just a few. The sound of the ship collapsing and being crushed is cringe-inducing — so unpleasant that I plugged my ears once or twice. This is high praise, though it may sound like a complaint; seldom does a score cause such a visceral reaction in me that I have to actually do anything about it.
So, if you like dance, like interpretive work, like haunting, tragic tales, or just feel like trying something a little different, jump into the depths and let yourself be immersed in the magic ambiance of Wreck. And marvel at the physical prowess that lets these 13 performers leap and run and writhe and dance for 75 minutes with minimal pausing, while you’re at it.
Wreck choreographed and directed by Carl Flink, with original music by Mary Ellen Childs, July 11-20, at the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Tickets $22-30 by calling 612-377-2224 (or group sales at 612-225-6244) or online at www.guthrietheater.org