What better time to dive headlong into the weirdness of witchcraft than Halloween, which capitalizes on weird. And what better dance event to celebrate it than Nejla Yatkin’s “The Other Witch,” her solo multi-media performance work, presented virtually and sponsored by a grant from Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s Lab Award. Produced in collaboration with The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago’s “Dance Buffet” series, “The Other Witch” aired in three installments over three weekends, concluding Friday.
Originally slated to be performed live in its entirety as part of the Columbia College Chicago Dance Center series, “The Other Witch” was launched virtually as a video tryptic. The three installments were filmed on the Dance Center’s stage.
On Oct. 27, an audience of dance die-hards met together virtually for the first installment, “The Hidden One.” After introductions from Columbia College dance presenting series director Ellen Chenoweth, Yatkin led us in a live meditative breathing experience, at once uniting her audience in the same space, casting her own spell on the evening and bringing a collective receptivity to the mood of the moment.
She then read part of fantasy fiction writer Paul Edwin Zimmer’s 1981 poem, “The Wheel of Life.” An incantation of sorts, the poem posits the duality of “the wheel,” to which we are inescapably bound and at the same time empowered by self determination to transcend: “And the Sage said, Lo, that which binds you to the wheel is of your own making…” As a footnote to the performance, the poem suggests a model for the struggle between fate and self-determinism that Yatkin poses in the work.
The audience was then directed to a link of the pre-recorded video transmission of Yatkin’s solo performance of “The Other Witch.”
Yatkin’s witch, like that of her inspiration, Mary Wigman’s original “Hexentanz” (1934), refers back not to the Wizard of Oz’s cackling icon of witchiness, but to a more primordial and mysterious—if perhaps equally misunderstood—woman the likes of Lilith and her descendants.
Shamanism and the role of the witch as a transformative agent representing the afflicted, addressing their suffering and providing the means for their emotional and physical catharsis are central to both Yatkin’s and Wigman’s witches. “The Other Witch” refers both to Wigman’s revolutionary dance work, “Hexentanz” (The Witch), as well as to the label of “other” that many independent, outspoken women have suffered throughout history. Highlighting the nuanced stigmatizing of strong women as witch/sexual predator/temptress/enigmatic social outsider, Yatkin uses movement, sound, music, and spoken text to weave “The Other Witch’s” web of magic as she casts her spells and exorcises her demons. Jordan Ross’s suggestive costuming reveals Natkin’s undulating spine and hips, a bare leg extending into the darkness. Anna Wooden’s sequined, faceless full-skull mask adds to the duality of Yatkin’s witch as both a creature of nature and woman obscured.
Not having seen the work live, I cannot compare the merits of the two, but there is no doubt that the magical qualities of Yatkin’s conceptualization and composer Shamou’s entrancing sound effects and musical score are fundamental to its structural strength and artistic impact, whether live or virtual. My guess is that what the technology brought to the whole only enhanced what was already implicit in the work, but that enhancement was truly delicious.
Videographer/editor Enki Andrews’ video technology offered Yatkin some exciting creative possibilities that live stage performance could not replicate, such as multiple images, tilting camera angles, focus that drifts from crystalline to blurred, changing vantage points, and the editing hand of a master painter/sculptor to create an enthralling moving canvas. Jordan Ross’ dominatrix costuming showed just enough skin to be suggestive at key moments. A voluminous tulle skirt could slip blow the pelvis, be gathered up in a wad, and then used as a cocoon to conceal its inhabitant. Jacob Snodgrass’s discrete lighting creates a fog of illusion with apertures into a world of magic and mystery.
The overall design of the work’s elements moves from segmentation to wholeness, coalescing above all in self-discovery and empowerment.
Exploring a rich movement tapestry of disembodied arms, legs and spine, Yatkin’s witch is at once human and arachnid, faceless, hatching, it would seem, from an egg of billowy fabric that serves simultaneously as set, prop and costume.
“The Other Witch” is a shadowy figure, always and foremost enigmatic and unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous. Who knows? Will she bite? Mask designer Anna Wooden’s black sequined mask is a full-skull helmet that conceals the witch’s human face in parts one and two and suggests a spider-like creature, while it is a distinctly human hand that emerges from the voluminous folds of fabric. Arms and hands unfold like independent animals, fingers groping, arms seeking prey almost plant-like entwining the space in the darkness. An eerie humming voice and percussion effects complement the undulation of isolated shoulders and torso, abstractions of spine. Is she laying eggs? Casting a spell? Seeking her prey? What is the mask and what does it conceal? Only in part three do we see the humanness of flowing hair and glimpses of a face, full body movement and an integration of forms coalescing into spinning, twirling, arching freedom and wholeness.
Yatkin, whose work delves deeply into the confluence of art and nature, created “The Other Witch” in part as a response to German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman’s solo 1935 work, “Hexentaz,” and in part as a statement of our times.
A feminist ahead of her time, Wigman was a dance innovator whose work and ideas dared to challenge accepted aesthetics and time-honored rules governing women’s bodies, their sexuality and their place in society. Her work has had a profound influence on contemporary dance throughout the 20th century and right up to the present moment.
Implicit in Wigman’s work is the sense of the witch representing “otherness” in society, one who doesn’t fit in, who defies norms and is socially isolated, but who is also an exorcist of society’s ills.
Growing up in cosmopolitan West Berlin, Germany, the child of Turkish peasant immigrants, Yatkin has experienced “otherness” her whole life. Torn between her family’s traditional lifestyle and beliefs and the social, intellectual, and artistic richness of Berlin, she grew up on a personal and cultural island between two opposing forces.
Adaptation and resilience are the hallmarks of Chicago’s pandemic dance season, inventing itself by fits and starts as the COVID-19 nightmare continues to play out on a politically-charged national stage. Throughout the past weeks, we have found ourselves waking up each day to a wild mix of normal and unimaginable. “The Other Witch” couldn’t be a more fitting embodiment of our times.