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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Body of Knowledge a thought-provoking experimental theatre experience

Despite writing a preview for Body of Knowledge a week prior, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the Mondavi Center on a rainy Friday night. I was greeted by the ushers with a program and the vague description that the performance piece was “experimental theatre.” And experimental it most definitely was.

Body of Knowledge is an interactive piece choreographed by Karl Frost. During the performance, the audience both watches and interacts with the dancers as they perform various pieces that are meant to represent explorations of political and environmental issues, as well as more personal emotions and feelings.

The performance took place in the intimate Vanderhoef Studio, which is the perfect setting for the piece. Immediately, the audience is put in direct contact and close proximity to the dancers, which is essential to Frost’s desire to spur interaction and break down the wall between the audience and the dancers.

Frost has both audience members and dancers come together as he briefly explains his own thought process for the piece, telling us that there is no definite message he is trying to prove or send with the pieces, but that he is merely trying to get us to think about how we interact – both with others and within ourselves. After a brief “behavior experiment,” which I have been asked to divulge little information of as it could affect the game for those who attend the show this weekend, the real performance began.

The main bulk of the play, about 70 minutes in total, consists of watching and, sometimes, interacting with the dancers. The dancers, about 11 in total, perform in various parts of the stage, while the audience has total freedom to walk around and choose which dancer and interaction to watch. The dancers’ pieces are said to be largely improvised, based more on the sounds they hear (changing video projections with a soundtrack of street sounds were backgrounds for many of the pieces) and the interactions they have with their fellow dancers, rather than something done in a rehearsal.

As ambiguous and vague as the description for the show was, it is instantly clear that this is a talented group of dancers. Many of the performers’ pieces showcase a strong style of contemporary dance that is absolutely beautiful and breathtaking to watch. Some of the dancers’ individual solos are so captivating, I found myself watching them for a long period of time and completely forgot about the pieces taking place in the other room.

The major strength, and entertainment, in Body of Knowledge lies in these silent pieces that focused on the power of these individual dancers, who dance beautifully, both solo and together. A weakness for me, though, was when this wall was broken as the dancers began to talk.

A major component of Body of Knowledge is the improvised discussion that the dancers have with each other about political and environmental issues. At times, the dancers merely stand and talk about them with each other, with no performance at all. Even if the discussion was accompanied by dancing, these were the pieces I often passed by with little pause. The conversation, for me, felt so out of place in the environment, and seemed to act more as a platform for the performers to discuss their own stance on controversial issues, rather than to encourage open discussion.

One exception, though, was a powerful piece in which one female dancer, while carrying a fellow dancer on her back, talked about her past involvement with environmental protest, and her realization that she wasn’t as active as she used to be. A fellow performer came and ordered her to decide right then and there whether she would become more involved or whether she thought it was more important to focus on the personal matters of her life. Struggling with the weight of a dancer on her shoulder and her face turning bright red as she contemplated the question, the dancer finally declared she wanted to focus more on herself.

I found the scene incredibly powerful, and even had a discussion with one of the dancers about it – as the show was taking place. It was when pieces such as this one took on such a personal and emotional level that I felt I was truly able to connect with the performance and become swept up in what I was watching.

Body of Knowledge is definitely a show that requires commitment from the audience. The show is truly what you make of it, as you can choose to walk around and experience the performances and the dancers up close, or to sit on the sidelines and watch everything in the distance. For those who are willing to suspend the convention of what they think defines a performance and allow themselves to experience this “experimental theatre,” there are a lot of rewarding aspects to be found in Body of Knowledge.

Body of Knowledge continues to run at the Mondavi center this weekend. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or on the Mondavi center’s website mondaviarts.org.

ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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