What ends do the repetition, unison and gestures performed by the almost 200 dancers, vocalists and community members in Vanessa Voskuil’s new work, The Student, serve? There were gorgeous, often-disturbing stage pictures, to be sure, during Thursday night’s performance at O’Shaughnessy. Floor-bound dancers wriggled themselves right off the stage like lemmings tumbling over a cliff. Two men—one extruding himself through painful contortions, another all extension and flow—bookended the masses. The ensemble sat in neat rows, each performer making frantic scribbling gestures, then scattering as a woman dove through them with a noose around her neck.
A German dance artist, Rudolf Laban, created the notion of “movement choirs” in the early 1900s. Using amateur and professional dancers, he choreographed these large masses of people sometimes as a form of personal or spiritual expression—until his work was co-opted by the Third Reich. I mention this because, only then, does that noose, the shifting swarming tableaux of hangings, the marching and the firing squad (with repeated gestures, en masse, of marching, cocking and shooting a rifle, with accompanying sound effects by artist/producer Jesse Whitney of A. Wolf & Her Claws) begin to make some sort of sense.
Or maybe not.
According to the program notes, the piece is ostensibly about learning, about the repetition that makes learning possible. Instead, the work gives rise to questions about the purposes of rote repetition, in unison, in large groups. Those purposes, historically, are usually to value and reinforce conformity over individuality, toward a single unified purpose, to forge a groupthink of totalitarian or otherwise dystopian varieties. There’s no denying a great deal of power can be found in hundreds of people moving simultaneously, but a dark underside seems at work here as well.
At the same time, a lot of verbal cogitation—thinking out loud about how, what and why you’re thinking—occurs in the work. With tremendous stamina and exactitude Paul Herwig and Chris Conry performed rapid-fire, repeating inquiries on: seeing, knowing and not knowing; the occurrence of now in space and time; whether the piece is ending or continuing. The effect is like drowning in the details of someone else’s obsessive-compulsive disorder or psychosis.
Other components of the piece included various choirs (Perpich Center for Arts Education Choral Ensemble, Hamline University Women’s Chorale, St. Catherine’s University Women’s Choir), which beautifully performed Janika Vandervelde’s religious choral music (with accompanying sonic booms and earthquake-aftershock rumblings). The performers, seemingly age 6 to 60, wore shirts, pants, skirts and tights in various neutrals, while Voskuil wore white. Was she the student or the teacher?
Amid the disparate parts—which also included church bells, Voskuil on camera as part of the audience–there was order: the quiet walking of performers backward down the aisles to the stage, later filing back out and forming a circle; lines of performers sinuously gliding across the stage. As a ritual of sorts, in which a teacher guides her willing acolytes, the work could be experienced as a meditation or endurance trial, in which many unknowns are threaded through.