It’s hard not to be won over by Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s peculiar brand of dance theater. Last year, Poetics: a Ballet Brut was the talk of the festival with its simple premise: the easiest everyday gestures, delivered off the cuff, were woven together, repeated and amplified beyond even the audience’s wildest possible expectations. A spell was cast in the theater. I remember walking out of Lincoln Hall and suddenly, everywhere I looked everyone around me was participating in a massive dance, sharing some secret choreography inside us all.
No Dice also tries to spin straw into gold, taking hours of the ensemble’s taped telephone conversations, the mish-mash of their ordinary chat, and elevating this regular material to epic. Each of the performers has an earbud, presumably feeding them the tape recordings. They perform these words for us as they get them, turning them into the lines of dialog from the strangest play you’ve ever heard. And this is dinner theater so they dance a choreography that borrows all of its moves from bombastic melodrama. The actors leer at the audience and give each other freaked-out glances. They wear fake mustaches, shift constantly between odd accents and, literally, chew the scenery.
But to describe the project and to convey the experience is two very different things—the charm of Nature Theater is not in the meticulous conceptual work but the spontaneous playfulness of the performance. The amazing cast members bend everything they have into an aggressively physical delivery, like theatrical rock stars. While they are translating for us what they hear over their headphones, they are simultaneously trying to make sense of it all through the fistful of gestures and conceits they are allowed. It becomes as much a marathon as a piece of theater or dance.
At one point in the performance, I found myself ruminating on the worst piece of theater I had ever seen (with a running time of four hours, No Dice allows for, even encourages this introspection). It was an original work by a local author, produced by an unknown company that was never heard from again. The show had the same trappings as No Dice: the limited staging positions occupied serially by performers, the self-conscious mugging, the harsh lighting, the wigs and prop business. The only difference was a particularly self-important script that was slowly slanting into perpetual collapse from all of the “meaning” it had to convey. The trick for NTO is that the show happens in between and in spite of the lines, a growing dance and a growing sense of music in everyday life. That and the fact that, even with the limited bag of tricks mock melodrama provides, the show never falters, always mesmerizing and surprising the audience.
And it has to, considering the length of the piece, even though the intense duration is arguably key to the transformative success of No Dice. The “everyday” is just that: long, continuous and repetitive. There are small increments of change and it is only with great accumulation of experiences that a pattern can be found. Over the course of the evening, I could feel my own distance from the words and the fierce style of expression wearing down, my laughter replaced with a flexible concentration taking in every element of the drama around me.
As with Ballet Brut, the most memorable moment in an exhilarating evening comes when the cast sheds most of their performance trappings and walks into the audience to engage individual members. They are speaking to us honestly, in unison but making a real individual connection to someone, repeating the words that two hours earlier had left us in a fit of mocking hysterics. Now, however, what they have to say, ever so much more simply, rings true. Abruptly, everything comes into focus and hours of banality delivered with fury gels into, dare I say it, transcendence. And I feel so privileged to have spent the evening growing older in this room with these people.
Posted by Kristan Seemel