Thursday night at Velocity an audience of extremely hip-looking people, including Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal (!), filed in to watch the world premiere of Lavinia Vago's first solo show, NOESIS X. Vago split the bill with Szalt, an LA dance company led by Stephanie Zaletel, who presented 2018's moon&. The show runs through Feb. 24.
NOESIS X began before it started. As audience members milled about sipping natural wines and pocketing free samples of "body cleansing slabs" from Aesop, Vago stood a little off center on a mostly bare stage, frozen in a sort of tortured warrior pose. She was naked as the metal chair beside her, or the little cactus in the corner. She tried to stand completely still under the bright house lights, but her leg would shake from the effort of maintaining the pose. A journal dangled down from the rafters. I only flipped through a few pages, but the entries I saw were pretty bleak. "I know nothing," one line read. "Humor is a way of dealing with unbearable reality," another read. That was more or less the mood of the show.
Two big alarm clocks were set up toward the back of the stage, one counting down to zero from 30 minutes and the other counting up from zero to 30 minutes. The show began when both clocks reached their terminus, suggesting that the next half hour or so would happen in a place outside of time.
Tech cut the house lights and brought up a big central light hanging center stage, transforming the space into an interrogation room. Some light doom music from "Berlin-based sound artist and composer" Harald Stojan kicked in as Vago put on a maroon blazer, socks, and some pants and started to move around the stage in a circle.
Vago is a dancer in dance artist Kate Wallich's group, and the couple of times I've seen her perform she always stood out for her slinky, fluid movements. But in this performance she moved like a broken puppet—jagged, but still somehow effortless-looking, as if someone were pulling her strings.
The whole time she looked like she was straining to prevent a mental breakdown, trying to balance a thousand swirling contingencies while staying upright, occasionally laughing and smiling like someone trying to endure a tremendous amount of pain. As the music turned from a doomy drone into a cloud of metal wasps hitting a razor fan, she busted out of her rhythm and appeared to have a spectacular breakdown, a kind of mesmerizing, controlled seizure. But the seizure brought no relief. Though she seemed to break out of her panicked cycle, the control she gained only created more confusion, and she descended into a blue period.
Though the whole show is kind of harrowing and grim, the level of endurance and skill Vago displayed in NOESIS X knocked me out. And there was some thin wire of hope in watching her fight her demons for 30 minutes and come out the other end sad but ultimately unbroken.
To borrow a line from the great Larry Mizell Jr., Szalt's moon& had too many tabs open. The piece used the 8 phases of the moon as its narrative structure, and there were 8 sections, but any other lunar themes were hard to detect.
What I saw was a smorgasbord of dance tropes. In the first section, six women dancers wearing gauzy white outfits swam around in blue light in a sort of self-serious fashion. Then, suddenly, one of the dancers dropped to the floor. The house lights went up and the dance turned into a hilarious, self-referential satire of physical therapy talk, and more broadly a satire of the impossible demands made on women's bodies. If the show ended after that moment, I would have given it a standing ovation and told everyone to see it. But then it kept going. For an entire month.
The dancers cycled through familiar contemporary modes. In the next section, the dancers became extremely physical, shoulder-tackling each other and pantomiming peeing on the ground. Then the dancers looked like cogs in a broken machine. Then there was a soft, amber-light, calm-down section. The final sections more or less picked up some elements from the previous sections, with the notable exception of a standout solo of a dancer running around in circles, completely lost, speaking a language I didn't understand. The intensity of her movements and the urgency of her performance jarred me in a way that most of moon& did not.