Passing Through the Silver Screen: Johannes Wieland’s roadkill


Ryan Mason and Eva Mohn in roadkill. Photo courtesy Johannes Wieland, choreographer.

Dance Theater Workshop
July 8-11, 2010

By David St.-Lascaux

While the lights were still up, the stage was set, or rather littered, mostly with brown leaves and unidentifiable detritus. Also with Eva and Ryan, the “stars” and dancers of Johannes Wieland’s oneiric roadkill. Parked upstage at right, their bodies formed contorted analogs to the downstage gnarled tree branch floating midair (source, no doubt of the strewn erstfoliage). Upstage backwall left, the empty concrete tarmac on the black-and-white floor-to-ceiling movie screen. Lights down, the firefly landing strip (headlights, perhaps, or flickering souls?) glimmered intermittently as the two-dimensional incarnations of Ryan and Eva appeared onscreen (later titles proclaimed with disarming humor “Ryan Mason as Ryan” and “Eva Mohn as Eva”); Ryan diegetically lip-synced Dean Martin crooning 1952’s “You Belong to Me.” Thus roadkill slipped into focus, and gear.

Like so much modern dance, roadkill was a multimedia combination of movement, video and music. The big screen, which Wieland described as a “bigger than life… projection surface” for the “four participants,” was the dominant device – a brilliant narrative and attention-maintaining presence. The audience was periodically torn between the screen and the stage: when the onscreen actors were dormant or absent, one found oneself wondering when they would reanimate/return; when present, they had the intended, annoying hypnotic effect of television personalities: vapid yet inexplicably riveting. The screen, in fact, was both cinematic and televisionary in its effects – Eva and Ryan benign versions of Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) Mickey and Mallory (the dancers’ idea of “fun-gun” fun to be finger pistol gunslingers cavorting to lilting, clip-clop, clichéd country music). The television connection was even stronger: Eva and Ryan personifying mindless, strutting MTV Ameritrash, lights on, leering, lewdly, no one home.

The big screen had another function, easily, if unfortunately lost: its 2-D choreography was on a parodistic par with that taking place on stage, leaving to the imagination what a role reversal might effect – if the screen performers came to life, if the humans were able to go “Through the Looking Glass.” And the certain knowledge that the 2-D phantoms will survive the organic originals.

The surreality of the interactions between absent and present (or real and canned) dancers/actors was amplified by pervasive dream imagery: Ryan, hallucinatory, with his head in Eva’s oversized purse, a screen surface meandering fly, pocketsful of crumpled paper passed in furtive movements, disjointed surtitle declamations (“You may have noticed that I’m not here myself”), decorticated dancing.

roadkill was also a dancers’ dance performance of subtlety and nuance. From their static opening positions the dancers built over the course of the evening to ever-more tortuous, agitated positions and movements – a perfect and continuous progression. About three-quarters in, Ryan delivered a center-stage solo of anatomical complexity, evoking rippling muscle magma, Tanguy’s “Infinite Divisibility” (1942) or Ernst’s L’Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme (1937), the high point of the performance. This is to take nothing away from the strikingly photo- and choreogenic Eva, whose corporal and kinetic appeal strobed and sparkled in arresting modulation. Related, although tertiary, the “runway” leitmotif pun bears mention: the ever-fashionable, model-ready sunglassed onscreen stars struck repeated poses, pranced and walked off screen, abstracted film grain swingers from Antonioni’s  Blowup (1966), Warhol’s flatline “superstars,” or an in-store clothing video loop.

Beyond being a journey into the subconscious, the plot of roadkill was unclear. Was it the posthumous musings of lost souls? Existential fog? Anomie enacted? Reptilian cerebration? Mohn and Mason as the metaphoric dead? The evidence was meted out in cryptic conversation (including an indistinct electronic megaphone exchange) in three combinations: that between the real, physical Eva and Ryan; between their cinematic doubles, amplified by the drily humorous titles; and in the unilateral, mocking exhortations and imprecations of the larger-than-life cinematic gods talking down to their pathetic, mortal-coiled incarnations.

The collaborative synthesis of roadkill produced a taut Gestalt effect. While audiences have come to expect tightly “choreographed” multimedia performances, the interaction between dancers and film, Ben Frost’s transparent, mood-electrifying sound score, and James Clotfelter’s natural lighting defined this art achieved. The acting performances in roadkill, unique among dance/theater recently observed, reflected well on the dramaturgical talents of Thorsten Teubl.

roadkill closed with a clever coda, da capo al fine: Eva lip-syncing Patsy Cline reprising “You Belong to Me.” Then Eva flipped to rewind, singing and moving backwards, as if back to the beginning – of performance and life (would you if you could?). The effect (turns out this song sounds about the same in forward and reverse) was climactic: One left roadkill on a high, mesmerized by the tidal pull of the subconscious and the primal sway of dance in the hands of a delving choreographer and in-the-rapture-zone-kinetic dancers. As the final surtitle read, “Let’s just stay here.”

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