June 03, 2021

Visible Limits

“I’m so detached tonight,” says Dean. He has his performance hair on, slicked back and jet black; performance eyebrows, penciled; performance cheekbones, reddened; performance lips, gaudy. His dark eyes flicker in the half-light of the wings. 

“I mean, more than usual,” he adds, when Zoe says nothing. Liz and Peter make their first entrance. 

“I’m realizing how much I hate this work,” Dean continues, prodding Zoe for a response. Zoe isn’t sure if he means R.’s dances or dance in general, but Zoe is pretty sure it’s the former. His nasal voice is full of private pathos. He feels destined for greater things. He persists, trying to draw Zoe out. “I mean, don’t you ask yourself, why?” Zoe smiles and shakes her head. She doesn’t want to be having this conversation.

The pointillist music begins. Its sonic opalescence pulses into the house, which is a jewel box with brocade seats, gold leaf on the walls, gilded carton-pierre sculptures, and four balconies. Above the highest balcony, around the perimeter of the domed ceiling, is a painting of another balcony, out-sized, through which clouds and blue sky are visible. Above the faux-balcony, gods watch over the art. From the center of the ceiling hangs a chandelier of gilded bronze and Venetian crystals.  

“Stop,” Zoe says, with a small smile. “You’re infecting me.” Their entrance is coming up and she wants to focus. 

“Sorry, sorry,” Dean says, fatigue in his voice. Dean has always been steadily employed as a modern dancer, so he takes it for granted in a way that Zoe doesn’t. Zoe is still tickled by being able to tell people, “I’m going to work,” when that means getting paid to flush her body with oxygen in R.’s SoHo loft. She had considered framing her first paycheck from R. 

She’s ignoring Dean so she can count the music, which comes in indistinguishable fours. If she loses track, there are few landmarks to re-orient her in the dance’s time. It’s the first dance on the program. Her calves feel tight. She shakes them out without taking her eyes off the stage. She wants to save energy for the next piece.  

Zoe and Dean are waiting stage left in the most downstage wing. Dean asks Zoe what count they’re on and she tells him. Then they’re on in the blur and whirl. 

The audience watches them through a projection of a film of the same dance being performed five years ago by the original cast. The film blows up the bodies of the original cast so that they occupy the entire vertical height of the proscenium. Behind these oversized ghosts, Zoe and the rest of the ensemble appear small.  

The film is both shadow and forecast. It refracts the dance while amplifying its coherence. Sometimes the film stops and fades out while the live dancers keep going. At other times, the live dancing appears and disappears through a persistent past, like echoes in a quarry. At the beginning, the live dancing is synchronized with the video. But that alignment falters at some point — Zoe never sees where — which emphasizes the poignancy of the archive. Zoe wonders whether this slippage is intentional or unavoidable. 

The film moves the audience around the dance. Sometimes, the film floats above Zoe’s head, creating an elevated field of kinetic supertitles. Sometimes the film lowers so that Zoe shares the floor with ghosts.  

There is no story in the dance, only repetition as change. Again and again, Zoe and Dean cross the stage in unison, slightly staggered from each other, with Peter always in front. As they cross the stage, they must maintain the precise space between them in both the lateral and sagittal planes. They are one of five pairs of dancers, fairly indistinguishable to the audience, who perpetually advance and loop back in space, change directions, pass and weave, all the while maintaining parallel or perpendicular relationships as R.’s form commands. R.’s palette is limited; she creates through subdivision, permutation, change of direction, and overlap. 

When the dance premiered, critics said that it was not dance at all. It was too repetitive. It was too much about stamina and precision. Audiences walked out. Now, it is a recognized masterpiece. This is the enviable arc of an artistic career: to be denounced, then vindicated. 

About twenty minutes in, there is a clearing in the form of a solo. This was once R.’s role, but is now Kate’s. Watching and panting in the wings, Zoe feels the aesthetic relief of a solitary figure in space. The form, now compressed into a single body, remains relentless: again and again, Kate does a set of chainé turns along a straight line down the center of the stage directly toward the audience, beginning each pass with R.’s signature toss of the hand, as if she’s a bullfighter goading the audience to pierce a membrane.    

For Zoe, the stage is not a leaking frame, but a pressurized enclosure. She must contain her dancing in the narrow corridor between Dean and Nina, hurtling by at intervals, and the edge of the stage, which is walled in by a scrim that moves if brushed even slightly. The dark recesses of the wings and the jolting stage lights trade places so quickly that the floor tilts. The form of the dance rotates and Zoe’s body is constantly rotating within it, so sometimes she loses track of where the audience sits. Zoe feels remiss that she’s attending to too many variables to emote in the audience’s direction. Her body unspools its stored commands about what her legs should be doing, how much space she should keep between her and Dean, when to pass Peter and Nina—and the dance abruptly ends. She’s relieved not to have fucked anything up.

During intermission, the tech crew dismantles the world of the completed dance and builds the world of the next. They remove the scrim capping the front of the stage and change the thin sheets of plastic gels over the lights. Some of the gels are named after famous lighting designers, like Tipton blue and Fisher Fuchsia. Each gel blocks elements of white light in a subtractive process. A Roscolux 27 Medium Red allows only red elements to pass through and absorbs blue and green. R.’s dances are starkly lit without much color. 

Zoe goes upstairs to the dressing room to change her costume and rub Tiger Balm Red on her calves. R.’s work, with its endless small jumps, is notorious for causing lower leg injuries. Zoe’s defense strategy is comprehensive: she ices her knees and her Achilles tendons; takes salt baths; applies arnica cream; sees bodyworkers skilled in esoteric modalities; does physical therapy and goes to the gym; eats an anti-inflammatory diet; gets enough sleep; takes vitamins; warms up diligently. She aggressively drinks water because she’s heard that seventy-five percent of lower leg injuries come from dehydration. 

But the logic of injury appears only in retrospect. Only on the physical therapist’s table do you realize that you sprained your sacrum because you’d been favoring your right leg for years because in high school you tripped over a garden hose in someone’s backyard because you were drunk because you were sad. The first week of their contract, in the middle of running a section of Allegro, Brittany stopped, gently shifted her weight to her right leg, put her hand on her left calf, slowly sank to the ground, and started crying. Ice was brought from R.’s kitchen; a doctor was called. Gary, Dean, and Peter carried Brittany downstairs to a waiting cab. She was out for six weeks and missed their French tour. Zoe had thought she was the strongest of all of them.  

Zoe shares a dressing room with Kate and Frankie. Kate is a woman in her late twenties with long, thick curly hair and pale white skin. She has a husky, easy laugh and tells filthy jokes. She is a former Miss Teen Dance Kansas City and takes crap from no one, especially on the matter of money. She has told Zoe that she will never leave New York and Zoe believes it. Kate has also told Zoe that at the audition, she thought Zoe was a snob, which they laugh about now.   

Frankie is R.’s rehearsal director and also a member of the ensemble. Frankie comes into the dressing room like a miniature rooster. She is petite, with beautifully fine features, Italian olive skin, large black eyes, and curly black hair that, like Zoe, she keeps cropped close to her head. Frankie  plays her role of rehearsal director with gusto. 

“How’s it going?” Frankie asks Zoe and Kate casually, although nothing about her clipped movements is casual. “Good,” Zoe says, smiling vaguely in Frankie’s direction. Zoe hangs out after shows with Frankie and Kate in Frankie’s hotel room while Frankie and Kate drink cheap wine and smoke. Zoe does not drink because it makes her feel disgusting, but she occasionally smokes. After their last show in Barcelona, Kate had dared Zoe to kiss Frankie and Zoe had. Frankie had pulled away and started laughing, saying, “She’s a bad kisser! Terrible!” Their agitated hilarity sloshed on top of the sensations, still ringing in Zoe, of Frankie’s small, delicate lips.

“I’m not a bad kisser,” Zoe insisted, offended but smiling.

“How do you know?” Frankie’s voice was flirtatious, but she was smiling at Kate. Triangulation was her forte.

“Because people have told me.” This was not true. 

“Well, maybe they were lying.”

The next day in rehearsal, Frankie told Stephen, then Peter, then Liz, that Zoe was a bad kisser. Not in a loud voice, but sideways leaning against a wall waiting for an entrance, or when Zoe was across the room, or when Zoe was dancing and Frankie was not. Moments when Zoe could only catch pieces of what Frankie was saying.

As soon as Kate leaves the dressing room to go to the bathroom, Frankie sits down next to Zoe, neatly crosses her legs, and, like a parent explaining to a babysitter how to administer medicine, says, “When you perform, I want you to think about how you can send your energy out into a larger space.” With a serious face, Zoe nods and says, “Ok, thanks,” because, as a dancer, you’re supposed to express gratitude for any feedback. Frankie gives a brisk, satisfied nod, chirps something about her hamstrings, and leaves. Kate comes back and starts to re-apply lipstick. “What was that all about?” Kate practically growls, stretching her lips to spread the stain. Zoe shakes her head, “Frankie’s just getting on her high horse,” she says. “Hmm,” murmurs Kate, blotting her lips with a tissue. “I know what that feels like.”  

Over the call box, the stage manager says, “Five minutes.” They take their places for the next dance, which is eight minutes of pure exertion. Liz says it’s like being shot out of a cannon into space in every direction. By the end of the piece, Zoe isn’t even sure she’s dancing. She’s just willing her ragged body through space.

They bow. Zoe feels spent, but she still has something left. The curtain rattles in and lands with a soft thud.  

“Fuck!” Frankie says loudly, clutching her right calf as she walks crookedly offstage.  “What?” Zoe asks. “Are you ok?”

“No,” Frankie says, with dramatic finality.  “No, I’m not ok.” She sits down decisively and begins to knead the back of her knee.

“Can I get you some ice? Do you need anything?” Frankie does not answer. A moment passes and Zoe feels like she should leave Frankie alone, so she does.

The dressing room smells like sweat and hair spray. Kate, half-naked, is taking her make up off.  Down the hall, Stephen says, “I have this dream that I wake up one morning and don’t have to limp to the bathroom.” 

In the hallway, Liz strips off her costume and adds it to the other damp mounds littering the floor. Company members wander in and out of the dressing rooms in stages of undress. Zoe sits there and mentally classifies the women’s tits. Frankie, Zoe: almost nonexistent; Liz, Kate: smallish, pointy, perky; Nina: medium-sized, with a hint of sag; Brittany: globular, buoyant. 

Frankie comes in, sits down, and stares at herself in the mirror. “Fuck,” she says to her reflection, as if no one else is in the room. Zoe and Kate exchange a glance in the mirror and Kate raises her plucked eyebrows. No one says anything. 




This is an excerpt from a longer work of fiction in progress.

Featured image: Dancers Megan Wright and Parker Murphy in rehearsal with Hope Mohr, circa 2014.
Photo by Hope Mohr. 

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