the end/the beginning
Jun 23, 2023
New York Live Arts
Written and Directed by: Hannah Cullen
Created in collaboration with the Cast
Performed by: Hannah Cullen, Robyn Ayers, Nadia Halim, Maggie Joy, Matilda Mackey
Original Score: sad about you
Video Design: Zack Lobel
Camera Operator: Samantha Chapa
If the end of the world as we know it has already happened, is currently happening, and will happen again, might our time be better spent focusing on what we’d like to begin? In program notes, Artistic Director Hannah Cullen poses this question. In her latest evening length work, the end/the beginning, she contemplates her answer.
The performance has already begun as the audience enters the theater. With single pointed focus, the dancers enter and exit the stage, replacing each other on a small square of white marley laid over the otherwise all-black floor. In slow motion, they walk in place, imperceptibly shifting weight from foot to foot. Each dancer takes turns preserving these repetitive boxer-like movements until someone comes to relieve them. When the stage lights come up and the music becomes more driving, the dancers begin to reinstate each other at a faster rate. Their gestures become urgent and their movements bigger, as if they are cogs in a machine working together toward a common goal. They slide, reach, turn and support one another in leans and lifts, yet the small white box confines them. Undeterred, the performers diligently repeat their movement patterns.
Cullen is the first to break. Her request for rest is met with annoyance- the other dancers want to keep working. She walks offstage, abandoning her place as the anchor in their line and leaves Nadia Halim to support herself in a precarious hinge. After a long pause in which there is no sign of Cullen, the remaining dancers also decide to take a break. But when Cullen re-enters refreshed and ready to work, everyone is gone. Beginning the sequence again, alone this time, Cullen has time to question her purpose. Is there more to life than this repetitive structure? A composite of movement, narrative and film, the end/the beginning offers multiple perspectives through which to view crisis.
For these five performers, strategy has been an unrelenting commitment to business as usual, believing that annihilation is inevitable so why change? For Cullen, another option emerges. Stepping outside the small white square, Cullen has time to slow down, observe her surroundings and think. Halim finds Cullen in the midst of her contemplation and is easily drawn into its pleasures. Together, they engage in a soft duet. While their movement style is similar to that of the group, there is an ease in their execution. They languidly support each other, in no rush to complete the complex choreography. In contrast to their surrender, dancers Robyn Ayers, Maggie Joy and Matilda Mackey try even harder to avoid change and maintain the status quo, employing slight variations in direction and level to maintain the propulsive structure. The attitude of ‘do more, be more, be better’ prevails and in the dancers’ desperation to maintain appearances, audiences are reminded of their own fears when exploring new territory.
Camera woman Samantha Chapa follows the dancers and projects their movements on a screen at the back of the stage, allowing audiences varying yet simultaneous viewpoints into the choreography. With this comes the opportunity to ponder possibilities the dancers cannot see. As the performers question whether potential is enough reason to risk fracture and start anew, Chapa’s video work allows spectators to arrive at their own conclusions. For Ayers and Mackey, possibility is enough. They join Cullen and Halim outside the white square in sweeping meditative movements, like a wave caressing the shore leaving bits of sand in its wake. The choreography accumulates, each dancer joining in and becoming part of larger patterns. Breathy and weighted, their movements are expansive yet fluid. Cullen’s choreographic style gives the impression that each dancer has the ability to drift across the stage like seaweed, but can also choose their own path with precision and purpose.
Cullen may have been the instigator in this coup, but the dancers connect and become one. All except Maggie Joy. Still in the white box, Joy refuses to quit. Dancing with maniacal determination, she rejects advancement for safety. “I didn’t choose this” she says to Cullen as they stand facing each other. “Not at first. But now?” Cullen replies. As the lights fade on this unanswered question, audiences are left to consider their own responses. Faced with the choice between stagnation and change, what would we choose?