Choreographer/director Catherine Gasta, in a program note, describes her A Piece of Humanity as “a sketch of the human existence, from birth to childhood into education and working and on and on.” And if this “first incarnation” of the piece comes across on the whole as, well, sketchy, it also has among its several saving graces that of going on and on only intermittently.
How clever (and how damning-with faint-praise)! Now you’re going pick up on that metaphor? It’s her first production in NYC for crying out loud. Doesn’t she get a break?
From left to right:
Mi Sun Choi, Morgan Miller, Amy Jones, Michael Freeman, Joseph Brown, Michelle Silvani, Ebru Yonak, Halley Cianfarini, Raven Pease in Catherine Gasta's "A Piece of Humanity"
Beginning at the edges of the stage in a dispersed circle, the black clad cast moves towards an ovum of light on the floor like slow motion ninja spermatozoa. Here they mime repeated repulsions by an invisible kung fu until one breaks through.
The maculate conception that follows takes us through a sequence listed in the program as “Chromosones; Childhood to Working; Sedating; Electronic Devices; and War to Restart” over the course of the following 35 minutes. Along the way, Gasta alternates and sometimes integrates sophisticated choreographic arrangements involving the entire group with more individualized mimic characterizations.
The “Sedating” sequence, for instance combines a compositional quality reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch with the kind of miming that one might expect in a game of charades, depicting tippling, pot smoking, and semi-erotic spanking. “Electronic Devices” recalls the ovum bubble of the opening sequence by insulating individual characters from their fellows within force fields of mimed texting, computing and cell phone screaming. Despite their relatively brief duration, these scenes lacked dramatic or choreographic development beyond their introduction.
Russel Burton’s commissioned score seems to be driving things during these sections, often continuing a theme beyond the choreographer’s need or desire to embellish. I recognize this trap. When one runs out of time in a rehearsal process, imagination sometimes seems to vanish as one falls back on the supportive comfort of collaborators and the familiar.
Gasta revels in a strong instinct for shaping stage space through the use of collective movement. Her often exquisite designs for nine weave in and out of each other with a sense of seamless and continuous flow. She has also managed, in collaboration with her dancers, to create a glimmer of the kind of committed and disciplined ensemble technique necessary to the work’s ambitions.
Those ambitions, however, far outstrip her ability to deliver at this stage of the game. Gasta seeks to stretch and fuse her formidable and extensive training in dance, theater, specific mime and new pantomime to embrace a universal vision. She yearns to address human existence in all its wonder, complexity and contradiction from the microbiological and neurophysical to the technological and geopolitical. But she seems to lack the time and space to attend to the detail of her embroidery.
If Gasta, as director, has come a long way in instilling a sense of cohesion within her dancers’ body movement, she seems to have focused far less on their facial characterizations. These ranged widely among a cast diverse in shape, size, ethnicity and performance background and often seemed more like mugging than formal masking, setting them at odds with her choreographic accomplishment. In the performance I attended, Joseph JB-Ezee Brown and Amy Jones seemed to provide the most effortless models for an assimilation of the competing demands of Gasta’s physical and presentational elements.
I hope my friend Raven doesn’t end up disappointed that I didn’t also single her out here. Sometimes it feels awful to sit in this seat.
Gasta closes her long director’s note in the show’s program with a wish to develop the piece further. “I hope to add more people and create an overwhelming presence of people onstage that move together and at random as humanity does.” More attention to detail and development and a longer incubation period with a cast no larger than this might go farther toward realizing and refining a vision that, no matter how ambitious in its scope, already seems a bit overwhelmed.
Now comes the formal talk back. A row of chairs appears across the stage. We stare at them and they stare at us, and I feel sorry for everyone. Do we all wonder about the point of such exercises? They so often feel as stilted and awkwardly polite as a blind date. Finally its over, and the real give and take in spirited imbibing and exchange can begin.