Karen Sherman's "Soft Goods," at Walker Art Center, takes the setting of a tech rehearsal for a dance performance and transforms it into something truly moving. The stars of the show are real-life stagehands and technicians, backstage workers who give marvelous performances that illuminate their inner lives and struggles.
The piece has a wonderful sense of humor. The stagehands banter about the sexiness of Steely Dan. They have a comical argument about the best way to coil cable and geek out about gear. There are funny bits illustrating the divide between the dancers and technicians (they circle one another and do combat, for instance).
Sherman has expertly crafted the rhythm of the show. One minute everyone on stage is moving about, performing their assigned tasks to prepare for the rehearsal (folding curtains, using wrenches, coiling cables, gabbing away). The next moment there is a sole person on stage, standing in silence. These moments reveal a growing sense of loneliness for the technicians in their work.
The show's lighting design enriches these silent moments, creating dramatic images that signify loss and death. In one such moment, Christian Gaylord, the Walker's actual crew chief, is raised toward a spotlight in a Genie lift. Before he reaches it, though, the spotlight suddenly turns off, and he continues to ascend in darkness, as if vanishing into the next life.
Sadly, the show's original lighting designer, Carrie Wood, who is credited among the lighting designers, died in the process of creating the show. The tremendous achievement of the design's end result is surely a testament to her contribution.
The dancers don't dance full out, for the most part. (We hear Sherman's voice telling them when they can "mark" the movements or perform them fully as if in a performance.) We see them screw up, talk through bits that aren't working and play out their insecurities. But there is an undercurrent of despair brewing among the stagehands, and the dancers' movements seem banal in comparison. Deliberately so.
Still, there are certain elements of the dance that mirror, very obliquely, the themes explored by the overall piece. One of the more obvious examples is when the dancers don their costumes. They wear garbage bags, which is funny because it's so stereotypically performance art, but at the same time the audience hears the sound of empty beer bottles being tossed out after they've been consumed to numb the pain.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.