Dystopian, Brothers Grimm-inspired ‘Water Will’ a contrarian take on free will that everyone should see

I thought it smelled like cotton candy, but the people behind me said it was more like overbaked cookies, a slightly burnt smell. The entire Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art was shrouded in fog as guests entered Friday for the opening of Ligia Lewis’ “Water Will (in Melody).” Heavy puffs of theatrical fog are what filled the theater with that slightly sweet, slightly acerbic smell, and made the handrails more necessary than usual as we descended into an abyss that we couldn’t quite see.

Greenish light, directed out at the audience, and subtle sounds of the forest—crickets, owls, and the like—further solidify the theater's distorted, mysterious, murky vibe, a harbinger for what’s to come in “Water Will.”

Rife with powerful images and bewitching tableaux created through superhuman distortions that Lewis, Titilayo Adebayo, Dani Brown and Susanne Sachsse create with their faces and bodies, “Water Will” is loosely derived from the Brothers Grimm's 117th fairy tale: “The Willful Child.” The macabre ethos of the world presented here, created in careful coordination (with collaborators Catalina Fernández and S. McKenna) between sound, light, costume, and live mixing , echoes that evoked by much of the Brothers Grimm catlog. It is sometimes as whimsical and ludicrous, too.

Had “Water Will” been captured on film, it might have read similarly to the semi-mainstream, semi-art film, semi-cult classics of directors like M. Night Shyamalan or David Lynch. It didn’t, in part because it’s less linear, more transparent, more confrontational, and more important.

Dani Brown appears first, after the veil of fog hiding our view of the stage begins to lift. She’s dimly illuminated by a row of footlights, which flicker like a fluorescent tube that needs replacing. Over a white body suit, she wears clear, vinyl, overall shorts, bobby socks and noisy patent leather oxfords. Her high ponytail, supplemented by a voluminous hair piece, spins curls down her back that bounce as she paces to and fro, arms extended as if pushing a wheelbarrow. She whispers the fable of “The Willful Child,” then contorts the text as her body, likewise, twists upon itself, her face and limbs drawn into shapes synonymous with the possessed, the undead, banshees. These anamorphoses would reappear again and again, though never in quite the same way.

A curtain behind Brown is drawn up into swags on each side, revealing a climbing rope and, in time, the rest of this powerful cast. On the back wall, a projection announces “Part 1,” and knocking sounds, providing a heavy pulse that resonates through the dancers’ bodies, and mine, is overlaid by heavenly choral music. It is Adebayo who now spends the most time at the front, in an exquisite blend of hip-hop and mime, opening her mouth with the singers, to only suppress her own voice with a swallowing gesture, or some other indication of retreat. Hers is one of a handful of caricatures represented amongst the cast: the strong, but stifled, apologetic woman; the docile beauty queen; the pretty, flaky one. It’s not that the four women on stage adopt one of these and stick to it; rather, their personas are a mysterious blend of each of these, mixed with moments of radical ferocity and overt sexual agency. 

In “The Willful Child,” the child disobeys her mother, an affront to God which leads to her death. Despite her will to survive, twice extending her arm from beneath the ground, it’s her mother who tamps her down. “Water Will,” it seems, aims to poke holes in American idealism, proposing that people, particularly women, ultimately have little agency in defining their destinies.

But it’s also about race. Third in a tryptic of works musing on the colors of the American flag, “Water Will” is the “white” chapter. White, in this context, symbolizes purity and innocence; in Western concert dance, it has long been associated with virginal maidens, sylphs and femininity. What, then, does blackness symbolize in this country, or in dance?

I think it’s important for me to hold back spoilers, keep some of the more breathtaking images scattered throughout this hour-long work to myself, and simply encourage everyone to see it. That’s not to say every moment is riveting—sporadically, “Water Will” gets trapped within itself and becomes a bit of a slog. But the more I reflect on it, that actually makes certain points along the journey resonate more deeply. The beauty in this work is that it will land differently with each person who sees it—you might think it smells cotton candy, or you might think it smells like burnt cookies—and that is, most likely, the point. The hard work of plodding through "Water Will (in Melody)" and squinting to see what lies beyond that fog makes its sensory rewards that much more gratifying.


"Water Will (in Melody)" continues through Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Tickets are $30, available by clicking the event page below.