There’re no shortage of things in Linda Austin’s and Performance Works Northwest’s new ensemble work, A head of time, at Imago Theatre: 300 blankets, eight dancers, five small mobile TVs, several larger projections, a multitudinous sound score ranging from documentary sound to a funky take on “Staying Alive,” tongue-in-cheek humor, sorrow, and an abundance of ideas. At first, it could be called “50 Ways to Leave Your Blanket,” as the eight dancers, each in their own square of light making the stage into a giant patchwork quilt of sorts, fold and unfold their blankets, spread them out, roll themselves up, bury their heads, and otherwise express a range of emotions from childlike rebelliousness to fear. But as the show progresses, both the dance, the imagery, and the ideas get much more complex, bleeding into abstract, multimedia meditations on memory, letting go, and mortality (the show is dedicated to Austin’s sister and nephew, who both died last year).
Patchwork is of course an apt metaphor for the show, as it’s a series of non sequitur moments and elements that overlap and stitch together. The small TVs cycle through footage of Austin’s rehearsals and home video; the video projects large, beautiful, Chuck Close-esque portraits of people important to Austin talking in slow motion on a wall of blankets; and the documentary sound excerpts field recordings from the last year of Austin’s life, all of which infuses the show with the memories, people, and happenings of the year. The dances, too, hint at moments in a momentous year, though much more obliquely.
I must admit the first half, consisting mostly of dance with blankets for props, lagged for me. But just as I began to check the clock halfway through, four dancers produced a humorous moment with metal folding chairs, hammers, and a dialogue in Spanish that began a shift towards incorporating multimedia, props, and speech to greater effect, introducing emotion and humor and creating some startling, beautiful imagery.
One of the strongest themes explored all the awkwardness, yearning, and sadness of trying to fit into this world and make sense of it. The theme was most deliciously clear during a segment involving a stool and a microphone held by one dancer, where the others one by one assumed a pose on the stool and awkwardly spoke some confession into the microphone along the lines of: “Anybody who ever called somebody they really liked and didn’t know what to say so there was silence for a long time and then they hung up,” “Anybody who ever thought Elton John’s hit was ‘Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza,” and “Anybody who ever was so sad they couldn’t sleep.”
Other highlights included a clever, lo-fi play with technology in typical Austin fashion where she placed an iPhone over her mouth with a video of large lips singing along to
Boston’s Chicago’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” (like a modern day spin on Rocky Horror Picture Show’s opening), and the final, fabulous segment, which I don’t want to spoil beyond saying it gets full effect from a wall of blankets, white plastic body suits, and neon shorts.
While the dance itself isn’t as technically strong as other companies who have performed in town recently—the dancers channel their own idiosyncratic movement style into the phrases and never totally sync up, nor does it seem the point that they should—it would be a mischaracterization to even think of A head of time as simply a dance performance. Layering rich sound design by Seth Nehil and expert lighting by Jeff Forbes on top of the creative incorporation of video, both lo-fi and hi, the performance is a multimedia feast for the senses, where dance is but a part of a multifaceted journey.