Raw Elements Show Real Potential for “Blk Ark: The Impossible Manifestation” at Steppenwolf


Part music concert, part art installation and part dance showcase, “Blk Ark: The Impossible Manifestation” (Work In Progress) by Cat Mahari tries to be many things, and succeeds in creating some memorable tunes and moments of poignant human interactions.

Performed in Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater, “Blk Ark” is a part of Work Around, a series featuring three dance artists with works in different stages of development. The other programs in the series are Tuli Bera’s “Bangali Meye” (Feb. 9 & 10) and Drew Lewis’ “Heavy Objects” (Feb. 11 & 12).

Mahari’s piece begins with six knotted ropes hanging ominously in the dark. Below them are shapes and patterns made from white tape—a 2-D box containing a splintering diagram of squares and rectangles, an abstract hopscotch grid, a large arrow pointing North. Off to the right, an electric bass player is surrounded by a menagerie of instruments and glowing, blinking devices.

To the soundtrack of digital percussion and a bending synth, two dancers—Mahari and another, uncredited—skip between panels of light. They pounce and recoil like boxers. The hanging ropes are the edges of a flipped-on-its-side vertical boxing ring. An underlying playfulness suggests a friendly challenge between young children. On the right side of the back wall a colorful, silent film of them speaking and dancing in different places—in a park, on a bus, at a bus stop—plays on a loop that never stops.
Mahari removes herself to the cluster of instruments. On trumpet, Mahari plays a chopped-up melody against the electronic soundtrack, reminiscent of later-era Miles Davis. Meanwhile, the other dancer swings across the ropes like Tarzan.

When the two dancers meet again, they are a hybridization of B-girl/B-boy and modern dance. Low on the ground, the dancers thread limb through limb, a crosshatch of legs and arms that rolls in between the ropes, woven by ascending chromatic synth chords and distorted, wiry riffs on the electric bass.
Near the end, both dancers drop down into a plank position. Like a conveyor belt of bodies, one quickly rolls to the side as the other pops up and over them. Repeat and repeat.

In between the dance segments are musical interludes, neo-soul mixed with jazz-hip hop fusion. The rhythms created by the bass player—also uncredited—will stick with you on your way home. Mahari takes the mic, and her voice is deep and rich, producing long, legato notes. Mahari drops into an explosive dance break mid song, then returns to the mic, somehow not out of breath!

The musical interludes come at a cost. They take the dancers away from the performance area, creating a lot of time where the stage is left bare. Dancer #2 scratches and beats rhythms on a turntable and drum machine, barely keeping up. Transitions from music to dance are clunky. The juxtaposition of music and dance seems more like an either/or than a synthesis. Sometimes the three musicians are in and out of phase with each other, like separate automobile turn signals going in and out of sync.

The design of the hanging ropes and their utilization, only teased at, is especially promising. Extra musicians and a technical coordinator might ease with transitions, and more dancers would definitely add a new dimension to Mahari’s music, which just begs to be danced to.

“Blk Ark: The Impossible Manifestation” has attractive raw elements ready to be refined.  Rough edges and all, the multi-talented Mahari has created an ambitious work with real potential.