In “Public Love,” chroegrapher Morgan Thorson’s new collaboration with Alan Sparhawk from the Duluth band Low, it takes nearly 15 minutes for the curtain to fully open. Dancers were already moving when the curtain lifted to reveal the Walker Art Center stage at Thursday’s premiere. The show features performers dancing and scooting out of view, only to have the curtain open a little more, then close slightly, then open a little more, and so on.
There’s also a scrim, hovering above the stage like a veil. After the curtain finally finishes its long journey, the scrim also lifts to reveal dancers in stark, full lighting. The audience sees Sparhawk hunched over a small table, creating a live sound score filled with thumping bass notes — with occasional scratches and hints of melody. (The sound design also incorporates a Prince song and a karaoke version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”)
Throughout the Walker-commissioned show, the audience is reminded of the privilege of watching such an intimate performance. For instance, one section features dancers (five women and one man) entering with piles of clothes by costume designer Trevor Bowen. The dancers each sit alone, folding the clothes, eventually disrobing to try on different pieces. The moment recollects paintings by Edgar Degas and other historic artists that epitomize “the male gaze,” offering the viewer a sneak peek at a private moment.
Mary Shabatura’s lighting adds an element of surveillance. At one point, a spotlight corners dancer Allie Hankins against the wall, as if she were an escaped convict. While the performers don’t break the fourth wall — that imaginary barrier through which an audience sees into the artists’ world — the design mechanisms never let viewers feel passive, either.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of touching, which only gets more extreme as the show progresses. We don’t hear the performers chatting about consent, but there seem to be nonverbal cues given via eye contact. The audience gets to watch the push and pull between movers as they come together and grow apart. Viewers can see trust grow between performers, with those initial hesitant touches eventually becoming fully entwined bodies.
The piece is trying to say something about love, but the message is unclear. In one significant section, a giant parachute-like piece of material is inflated to create something beautiful — only to be crushed with lofting sandbags, suggesting destruction.
As for the bond that is demonstrated between performers, the audience can only watch from afar.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based critic and arts journalist.