The Goodale Theater became a lot more intimate this past weekend when the audience was seated on stage for Morgan Thorson's "Still Life for the Cowles Center." Chairs were arranged in the round for the intense performance, which brought viewers close to the action but also involved them in a more active way than typical shows in that space.
Thorson staged an earlier version of "Still Life" back in 2015 at the Weisman Art Museum, where it was presented more like an installation than a performance. Dancers performed in a gallery over the course of five hours, while viewers could come in and out as they pleased, watching the endurance practice break down in entropy. Not so for the Cowles version, where the audience was asked to play the role of witness as a revolution unfolded on stage.
Thorson gave her performers the tools of rebellion. She deconstructed her own power as choreographer as they disrupted the patterns of choreography. The arch of the piece unraveled from its tightly wound and sometimes arbitrary structure into chaos and ultimately freedom of the performers.
Lines are one example of a structural formation that the dancers frequently went back to in the piece. They began in a line, summoned by a voice-over prompt, eventually moving back and forth on the stage as one unit before breaking out of it. Throughout the piece, they returned to the line, as if it were base zero for their interconnected unit.
For much of the piece, the dancers didn't seem like they were having much fun. As they gesticulated, galloped, skipped and lunged, they looked as if they were prisoners or puppets being controlled by some outside force. Once in a while everyone broke out of the structure, revolting in spastic frenzy.
The revolutionary moments increased as the piece progressed, propelled by Sxip Shirey's unrelenting score, which wove in jazzy upbeat music, plucky unearthly tunes, swamp sounds, swelling strings and pervasive percussion.
The breakouts by the performers from the rigidity took different forms. They employed quiet screams, and loud ones; they simulated throwing up, and they jerked and exploded from the choreography. As they broke free, their expressions turned from exhaustion to glee. By the end, the performers found the most effective form of resistance to be their stillness. Their ability to look around them and at the audience, almost in accusation, became their act of silent protest.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.