Vanessa Justice Dance in FLATLAND, photo by Ian Douglas
FLATLAND is a curious name for such a richly textured work that draws on many forms and mediums – movement, film, and animation – for inspiration. Last Thursday, the evening-length piece by Vanessa Justice premiered at the Joyce SoHo, where Justice is currently a Residency Artist. Chilling effects, such as audio excerpts from the 1977 film “Eraserhead” and black and white video projections of the piece’s three women (Maggie Bennett, Kendra Portier, and Alli Ruszkowski) wove their way through FLATLAND, and although many moments were hauntingly striking, Justice never connected the dots to deliver a satisfying whole.
Situated in a hazy, eerily lit space, the three dancers created multidimensional images by interacting with their surroundings and each other. They picked up free-standing stage lights and replaced them center stage in order to create shadows on the white walls, which later served as the dancers’ partners as they built upon its two-dimensionality by engaging with their own shadows. Harrowing video projections of the women set against the sound of wind – perhaps during a storm – were ominous, and later on, the dancers’ pulsating head-throwing and fast breathing pushed them to the edge of anxiety and exhaustion. FLATLAND was not a comforting place. Its atmosphere was cold and disturbing, and its three characters seemed tense and tormented. At one point, they spoke robotically and insincerely to the audience, stating their wish for the audience to be comfortable and relaxed. They even invited one lucky audience member to take a seat in a plush, blue-green chair near the front of the stage (a young girl eagerly accepted the offer).
In spite of its myriad layers and the variety of texts and sources of inspiration, the work felt fragmented and its dancers too fragile and psychologically damaged to ever reveal the essence of their mysteriousness. Transitions from one moment to the next seemed arbitrary, and although Justice noted in the program that she wanted the audience to have “plenty of room for varying responses and interpretations”, there was not enough structure and substantive content to create a meaningful interpretation. Throughout the piece, repetitions of an excerpt from “Eraserhead” revealed a man saying, “I thought I heard a stranger”. By the end of the work, it seemed that FLATLAND was in fact the stranger, for it was just as elusive and perplexing as when it began.