If you’ve ever had a bad night at a bar, you’d appreciate Invertigo Dance Theatre’s Reeling, a show that busts open a night of meeting, drinking, dancing and karaoke to reveal desperate desires for connection. While eight lonely hearts mingle at the onstage bar (complete with musicians who show up late and a counter that too many people turn into a stage) their longings are thwarted by fears, jealousies, violence and insecurities sometimes amplified, sometimes masked, by the ever-growing influence of alcohol. Invertigo director Laura Karlin tosses in just enough accurately ridiculous elements of the party scene – a drunk guy who threatens to jump from the scaffolding, another who does frantic pushups to win back his flirt of a girlfriend, a cell phone conversation that obnoxiously interrupts the tender opening duet set to Najeeb Sabour’s gorgeous cello – to make us laugh at these not-so-exaggerated portraits of ourselves all the while.
From that rudely intrusive initial phone call, planted in the audience and so convincing that the people in front of me start to mutter obscenities, develops a disembodied dance of cell phone users. With awesome skill, and without breaking contact with their tiny silver appendages or missing a beat in their animated conversations, eight men and women climb over and around each other, making sudden, clinging shifts in orientation before moving on to the next human obstacle. They receive driving directions, plan to meet later in the evening, give those awful play-by-play accounts of their whereabouts, and even text with their invisible partners, whilst engaging acrobatically but mechanically with the people they encounter along the way. Everyone finally arrives at the bar, and the gymnastic agility they display in technologically mediated conversation disappears when faced with direct human contact.
Although cell phones mostly drop out of sight for the remainder of the night, mental, emotional and physical absence continues to threaten relationships. Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh is too busy hitting on, and developing strategies for hitting on, a cute girl in the front row to perform her duet with Nick Factoran, so he continues on his own and comically tries to fill the physical holes with explanation: “This is me lifting you.” Scooping with his arms and looking up at the space where Ebrahimzadeh is supposed to be, he scoots sideways ridiculously alone. SaraAnne Fahey (the flirt) cozies up to Jermaine Johnson while obviously eyeing Factoran across the room. When couples pair off for slow dances every now and then, a few bar hoppers peer over their partners’ shoulders and scan the crowd for their true objects of desire – almost always elsewhere. And after daydream sequences of bold, heartfelt action, like Courtney Ozovek’s karaoke fantasy with Ebrahimzadeh, we feel even more acutely the absence of such action from reality; Ozovek retreats in embarrassment from the countertop stage without singing a note.
Invertigo company members flesh out endearing, compelling and unique characters over the course of the evening, but their individual stories grow perhaps most poignant when they fall into traps and tendencies we all recognize and dread. A recorded voice narrates the predictable form of a first conversation while Factoran and his crush, bartender Chelsea Asman, physicalize their exchange. Standing rather awkwardly side-by-side, he initiates the interaction with a gesture toward her, and the unseen commentator labels it “statement.” She responds with a guarded nod toward him in “agreement.” Encouraged, he waves his arms grandly in an “overly confident statement” and she takes a step back in “disagreement.” They progress through “awkward silence,” “panicked bullshit explanation,” and “relieved laughter” until, with regal flying tour jeté, he makes a “grossly exaggerated statement” and she follows up with an “accidental double entendre” that lands her between his legs. Finally, the interchange devolves into a barrage of “insults” as the two hurl themselves into diving rolls finally halted by her definitive “insult complete with literary allusion and long-term scatological implications.”
Although we get to know barkeep Asman through spoken and physical interactions like the ones above, Karlin further develops the Reeling characters through full-bodied, abstract movement. Asman, because she’s the boss, has to display all of the restraint and decisiveness that the others lack, and when dancers together break into tight upright turns, quick drops to their haunches and extreme arches, her power, attack and control separate her, as always, from the group. Likewise, Jessica LeCheminant retains her shy, gentle approach and loose giddiness when she joins the others, protesting, giggling, “I don’t really dance,” and catching on to the steps with tentative, awkward delight. Consistency of character blends the performers’ pedestrian activity into their dancing, and when Ebrahimzadeh flirts with Elena of the front row and Asman serves drinks to lucky of-age viewers sitting house left, boundaries between dance and life grow even fainter. With this confusion, Karlin leads us to associate dance interactions – who’s touching whom and how – with all the meaning and significance we attach to real-world physical situations.
Such blurring happens more and more as the booze continues to flow, order breaks down, desperation and frustration build, and reality fades into dream sequences – like the one LeCheminant initiates by humming a few bars of “Don’t You Want Me Baby” as she sidles up next to Jeremy Hahn. A dance of attraction and curiosity quickly morphs into violence as Hahn pushes LeCheminant down again and again, and her breathing grows loud and labored. She retaliates when she can, and he reveals familiar abusive tendencies by switching suddenly to gentle caresses and back to rough shoves until we finally return to reality. But this time the violence bleeds into the group, and it’s impossible to forget where we’ve been or to return to the place we were before. A mixed-up, slowed down, weightless new world emerges – where musician Toby Karlin coaxes ethereal music out of wineglasses, and arms, legs and torsos swim in a high shaft of light, reaching for something that will satisfy.
Reeling’s two week run at the Odyssey Theatre has ended, but check out Invertigo’s website http://www.invertigodance.org/ for future events.