Another Tree Dance

by Julia Lee Barclay · October 5, 2013

Playwrights on New Plays #7: Julia Lee Barclay-Morton looks at Karinne Keithley Syers new work at The Chocolate Factory

To appreciate this performance, it is important to understand that it has been created in relationship to the writing of creator/performer Karinne Keithley Syers' doctoral dissertation on Ralph Waldo Emerson.  While she had hoped that dissertation would be completed and this performance a return to making, instead she is still working on the dissertation and the performance, according to the program, "bears an occult relation" to it.

Another Tree Dance is non-linear and non-narrative so there is no need to know about Emerson to enjoy this piece, the relationship between all of the elements: phrases sung, said, shown and articulated through movement, drawings, namings, dances, costumes, gorgeous lighting, slides, audio, songs and aphorisms is similar to that of accretion of meaning when one reads and rereads a dense text.

This is not - from me - a criticism, because I have a lot of sympathy with this way of working and enjoyed the density of the material, its mysteries and the way that Syers allows the audience to connect any dots we may care to connect rather than doing it for us.

The piece is divided into two parts and for reasons I cannot precisely name (though if I had to guess it is because in the first part she was laying down the 'terminology' that she would then animate in the second part), I enjoyed the second half more. I suspect without her slow and deliberate laying of the visual/textual/ gestural/audio/lighting table in the first half, the second half would not have resonated as it did.

I wrote down some of the many lines, aphorisms, phrases & songs from the evening, but I don't think alone they are useful.  Everything relates to everything else in this piece (an Emersonian theme) so I am not going to attempt to take apart the components, as that would seem like an act of violence somehow.

I do, however, want to give a shout out to the magnificent lighting design by Kathy Couch and scenic design of Luke Hegel-Cantarella.  The aesthetics of this performance were at once low tech and pristine, evocative and precise.  This is perfect for Syers whose movement and voice are the same.  She has an easy presence with her audience, neither ingratiating nor off-putting.  She simply invites us into her world in a refreshingly detached way.  By detached I don't mean uncaring, simply that she isn't forcing us to feel or think a certain way about it or her.

At times I drifted off into personal associations; at times I was riveted by a repetition in Syers' movement, the relation of color to text, or her astonishing slow motion movement upstage in the second half wherein the slight collapse of her ankle repeated with each step made me feel the way a dream does in which you cannot move or those moments in life that feel like quick sand.

At the end of the performance, we are handed a deck of cards, the titles and Tarot-like images of which we see she had shown us on slides (from an old school projector) early in the performance.  On the back are her written interpretations of Emerson in relation to these image/titles.  I do wish in some ways those ideas had been integrated a little more overtly in the performance, especially her relationship to them.  However, I appreciate the desire to work with more associative links.

The show has ended, but if you see she is performing again and if you like your performance layered, smart, aesthetically beautiful and non-manipulative, I suggest you go and see what she comes up with next.





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