Last weekend, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke both held grand openings for new venues—Current ArtSpace & Studio and the von der Heyden Studio Theater at the Rubenstein Arts Center, respectively—whose long, unwieldy names bely their virtues of smallness and efficiency. (Current ArtSpace & Studio, everyone will obviously just call Current, and Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald is already shortening Rubenstein Arts Center to The Ruby in his remarks, which is pleasing. But what are we going to do about von der Heyden Studio Theater? The Vondy?)
Current consists of adjoining rehearsal and performance spaces, with big glass walls looking out onto downtown Franklin Street. The von der Heyden (I was kidding about The Vondy, let's not let that stick) is a more traditional black box theater nestled in the center of The Ruby, Duke's new multidisciplinary arts center near the Nasher, which encourages crosspollination between dance, theater, film, and visual art students. Both venues opened with shows that served as proof of concept for the small, sleek, adaptable spaces, which both respond to evolving artist and audience demands for intimacy and connectivity.
At Current, Carolina Performing Arts presented Paul Dresher Ensemble's Sound Maze, an installation of huge, one-of-a-kind mechanical instruments that, seen through the glass wall, practically begs passersby to come in. (Visit our arts blog for an interview and video.) Meanwhile, Duke Performances broke in the von der Heyden with Meeting, a mind-blowing performance by Australian dance artists Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe and an army of tiny robots that couldn't have been staged as effectively anywhere else in Durham.
On Saturday night, after a reported three thousand people poured through The Ruby for its grand opening, a much smaller crowd filled the von der Heyden to capacity. Tiered seating flanked by two small balconies swept down toward a dark, open floor space where sixty-four wooden boxes, each equipped with an arm-like pencil, waited in a druidic ring. Into this mechanical Stonehenge—the only set element and sound source in the entire piece—stepped Hamilton, the choreographer and director, and Macindoe, the sound and instrument designer.
All around them, the robots began to tap out a sparse, fitful pattern on the floor. The dancers responded with quick jerks, shifting from stiff pose to stiff pose, as if the pencil taps shot jolts of power through their rusty gears. Their movements evoked—what else?—a deconstructed version of the street dance style known as The Robot. For the first ten minutes or so, I thought, there's no way this is going to hold up for an hour. But I had no idea what was coming.
The scattered clicks coursing through the robots built into rococo polyrhythms that, at various times, evoked everything from the global funk of Talking Heads to the machined glitches of Autechre, and the movement vocabulary elaborated itself apace. The precise, accelerating clockwork of Hamilton and Macindoe's physical rapport fused them into one being. They traded lightning-fast gestures that were nevertheless controlled and composed, as though the two men were flickering figures in a frieze. I kept thinking up silly names for their moves: The Funky Air Traffic Controller, the Postmodern Hand Jive. That means I was having fun.
The dancers' close interplay was especially spectacular during a long central set piece in which they recited long strings of digits in tandem. How they even memorized them is beyond me, let alone how they were able to overlay them in such leafy, sonorous patterns while performing intricate choreography. At this midpoint in the piece, a transposition of natures that has been covertly developing all along becomes clear. The humans have turned into inerrant machines spouting numbers, while the robots have started to seem rather human, with personalities. They're smug little bastards, tapping their pencils impatiently, like, come on, step it up.
Meeting easily could have been a mere technical expo and gotten by just fine. What makes it more than a dazzling curiosity is the emotional and narrative arc its creators inscribe through the limited scenario. From its peak of virtuosity, the piece then descends into rudimentary and ritualistic realms, the movements melting, the robots hissing out something monastic and forested. The ring that binds the dancers is broken down, the relationship complicated. At the end, of man and machine, only one remains on stage.
After the show, I asked Greenwald where he would have placed Meeting if the von der Heyden didn't exist. How would it have worked differently in, say, Sheafer Lab Theater? Would it have worked?
"We would not have [presented it]," Greenwald said. Sheafer, tucked away in a student center on campus, would have cramped the piece with its shallower stage depth, and the old black box feels like it belongs to the Duke Theater Studies department more than to the public—a different story than The Ruby, which is off-campus, easy to park at, and invitingly lit and open.
"While we might have been able to offer the piece in Reynolds, I felt that offering it unamplified and for an audience of roughly one hundred and fifty was the best way to show the piece," Greenwald said. If the von der Heyden brings us more shows like this, we don't even mind typing out its name. Unless y'all are down with The Vondy?