Review: New site-specific work "Take" takes Visceral Dance Chicago off the beaten path


“Take,” a new, full-length work by artistic director Nick Pupillo for Visceral Dance Chicago, took me off the beaten path of what a dance performance often is, and I don’t just mean figuratively. Literally, “off the beaten path” means that the work is site specific, taking place in a venue called “The Space,” a converted warehouse with a white brick façade and freshly painted black garage door, bookended by an auto mechanic shop and a tiny restaurant. Figuratively, “off the beaten path” means that there are moments of audience engagement not typical to your average concert experience that are done incredibly well. The momentum in “Take” is sustained by a mostly “four on the floor” series of strung-together, electro-indie tracks by such musicians as Trent Reznor, Sigur Ros and Atticus Rós, with sound design by Johnny Nevin.

I am led inside a rectangular, concrete room where every speaking voice is amplified. (I heard whispers in my ears that I’m sure were coming from across the room.) Irregular quadrilaterals are projected on the walls. The chairs are set up along all four sides, the ones across the width of the room opposite me appearing no bigger than a thumbnail. For a stage, the size of “The Space” is immense. As curious whispers threaten to become a deafening roar, the lights fade a little, then a lot, and then we are plunged into near-absolute blackness. A figure appears.

She is dressed in a black leotard and matching high socks, bathed in a triangle of white light so bright that it blurs the vision. As my eyes adjust, other figures emerge from all four corners of the room, all in different arrangements of black clothing. They position themselves like pillars, suddenly bursting into a flurry of arms and kicking legs, building up energy until their right arms shoot up in a flamenco pose that makes me want to yell, “Olé!” They are constantly snapped back into stoic forms, but you see behind their eyes that they are longing to move. There are other times where the dancers take up clear ballet positions—arms in port de bras, legs in arabesque—only for the shoulder blades to hyperextend, the leg to kick wildly, the arms to flail and grab at the air, essentially breaking all the rules of ballet form. This is not poor technique, but a choreographic choice, and in a piece that has automatons struggling to break free from some unseen system of resistance, well… the mind can wander.

Despite the invigorating energy in the dancing, “Take” starts off feeling enclosed and cramped. This is due to the eerie lighting design by David Goodman-Edberg, who used powerful white lights to carve out shapes from within the darkness. Each light-induced spatial isolation creates different scenarios in my mind: A trio of two men and a woman carouse down a deserted hallway after a late night on the town. Three prisoners wriggle and writhe over each other’s bodies, trapped in a square dungeon barely big enough for two. A man and a woman are trapped in an even smaller box, but this time their desires are carnal and forbidden, performed in secret and with shame. What makes these scenarios appear grim and surreal is the confined lighting combined with the music, a melancholic mixture of mechanical thumping and faintly human chanting that matches the feel of a dystopian cyberpunk movie like “Blade Runner” or “Ghost in the Shell.”

Another movie comparison can be found in the use of special effects, or optical illusions, and perspective. Pupillo and Visceral succeed where Hollywood movie directors sometimes fail. What does $300 million get you in a sci-fi robot action movie? A closeup of Optimus Prime’s giant metal elbow for two hours—the cool stuff is presented at a distance too close to really see everything that is happening. Instead, Pupillo arranges his showpieces at a distance.  At the farthest distance from the audience, the company creates a long, heaving creature made of many swiveling heads, arms and legs. This nightmarish human-arthropod claims a victim and rolls her back and forth along its undulating body. What makes this effect special in this instance is how far away it is. They are performing this maneuver in front of those chairs opposite me, that I described as thumbnail size, so the dancers are not much larger. The entire scene is visible in my field of vision. Nothing is missed. The effect would have been impressive in a 200-seat black box theater, or at a larger venue. Here, at eye level, this monstrosity threatens to come for you, too! 

At several points the audience is invited to interact with the performance by standing up, walking a few steps and…that’s it. We weren’t asked to do anything else, and it was great. Violinist Nicole Watson weaves in and out of the crowd, singling out individual audience members with an accented trill and a short lunge toward them. Later, we are invited to move about, and view dancers being lifted to walk on the walls, like exhibits in a museum for humans. If an audience member refuses to rise, the dancer bows and moves on, giving no more than coy and inquisitive glances to passersby. When the dancers clapped along with the music. Some of the standing audience members clapped, too. I chose not to clap, and no one tried to convince me otherwise, or gave me a pouting lower lip of disappointment. I was allowed to experience the work as I saw fit and that felt great. 

It's hard to believe that their last performance, “SpringNine,” was only a month and a half ago. Visceral’s bio states that the company is known for their “daring athleticism,” and this show proves it, because I would not have dared to think that such a turnover was possible, given the high quality of the performance at both productions. And on a concrete floor, no less. But dare they do, and I’m glad that they did. “Take” successfully demonstrates the talent and versatility of Visceral Dance Chicago and the bottomless well of creativity found in choreographer Nick Pupillo. More than that, “Take” feels like it skipped the whole “back to normal” phase and went right to the “what is normal, anyway?” phase, adding a sense of prescience to the work.

--- Additional performances of “Take” will be held on May 20-21 at 8pm and on May 22 at 2pm at The Space, 3031 N Rockwell St. For ticket and event info, please check out the event link below.