REVIEW: “Skirt the Wall” by Heart Stück Bernie at Millennium Stage

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

REVIEWSkirt the Wall by Heart Stück Bernie at Millennium Stage
by Matthew Rock

The set up for Skirt the Wall, an innovative and multi-medium site-specific work by Sarah Beth Oppenheim, already told me that this performance would be a unique experience. Parallel rows of chairs cascaded down the maroon carpeted lobby of the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center facing a stage filled with live musicians and a variety of wind and percussive instruments. Above the stage was a large screen, projecting live footage of the dancers with cameras that viewed the stage from either side. Using these cameras and a unique arrangement of chairs, Skirt The Wall invited the audience to experience the performance through multiple viewpoints.

The show began with an ensemble of dancers dressed in black bottoms and white blouses trudging down the center audience aisle. Each step had weight and motive, luring and inviting the audience into this non-traditional performance setting.

As the dancers continued and made their way to the balcony levels next to the stage, they began to form multiple duets, and the shouts of “catch” and “prepare” were thrown into the space.

By the time the dancers made their way off the balcony levels and out the doors to the front of the Kennedy Center, I felt the itch to move from my seat, follow the dance, and get a new perspective.

Now, I could see glimpses of movement through the windows as well as a camera view of the whole ensemble. In this new seat, my relationship with the work shifted from something that felt intimate to something more disconnected. Watching the work through the camera created a separation between myself as an audience member and the performance; I felt like I was witnessing something that I was not a part of.

The dancers next moved to the outside of the building, and a wall now stood between the performance and the audience. Flicks of frustration and angst were exhibited complimented by swift moving and long linear lines as the dancers crouched and shook their fists, then carved out space with the movement, resolving in lunges and low levels.

Sounds of a mellow euphonium entered the air and could be heard throughout the lobby. These noises intertwined with light percussive hits, creating a polyphonic sound score of legato notes that stretched out, low blares with a marcato accented sound, and some syncopated rhythms throughout.

These sounds slowly grew into a multi-layered score that accompanied the movement outside. One part that resonated with me was watching a dancer on camera bolt to the door and shake the handle, or bang her fists on the door. I could see everything happening but couldn’t hear what was happening in her space except when she shook or hit the door; again the separation between viewer and performer was highlighted.

Dancers entered and exited the concrete ground while an ensemble of female dancers depicted the restraints and boundaries women face today as a result of past and current events. Clenching fists, shaking bodies, rippled running, and jumping lunges all led up to the “breakthrough” of the wall as one dancer entered through the glass door.

The dancer who broke through made her way across the lobby to a corner and began a monologue that was hard to hear from where I was seated. I did, however, hear the words “catch,” “prepare,” and “shoot” being thrown into the space again. As those words sat with me, two dancers began singing a 50’s-esque song for a soloist onstage asking, “Where is my Bobby? Where is my Johnny?”

With the slightly warped 50’s song, the shouted words that mimicked authoritative commands, and the hastened movement performed by the soloist onstage, I began to ruminate on some current events involving gun violence and the lives succumbed to bared arms. I started to really think about how oppression in our society is still prevalent for many: women, the black community, the LGBTQ community, and more.

The dancers continued to the center aisle of the audience, where they began to gingerly direct each audience member on the end of the row to stand up in the aisle. Once standing, and without any verbal cues, the dancers directed us to face our neighbor across from us and make a physical connection by pressing our palms together to form an arc for them to walk through.

As the dancers slowly trudged through the human arc, recreating a similar image from the beginning, I noticed that not everyone was physically connecting. Seeing some neighbors connect while others did not limned a realistic and genuine picture of how society is today: fragmented and bound by our own limits or restrictions. As I stood in the arc, reaching for my neighbor who did not want to connect palms, I respected their decision, but still felt a yearning to connect.

It is all a matter of perspective because, as Skirt The Wall blatantly shows on a literal level through the varied options of viewing the performance, one can view a single thing from a myriad of perspectives, and each different perspective can shed a new light on an existing matter and change it completely.

From the objectification and restraint of women to the ongoing inhumane and absurd killings of our youth, especially in the black community, we as society need to wake up and open our eyes to what is going on and to listen to each other. Skirt The Wall left me thinking about how we as humans usually see one perspective of things, our own, and don’t open ourselves up to empathize for another.

We stand side by side with our neighbor, yet we often don’t make any further connections. Instead of bearing arms violently to reason, what can we do to interlock arms and stand by our neighbor’s side with support and new perspectives? Instead of walls that create separation, miscommunication, and disconnection, how do we find strength within our exposed self to be on a better path of openness and equality?

John F. Kennedy left America with a legacy: “Ask not what America will do for you, but what we together can do for the freedom of man.” Skirt The Wall shed light on this legacy throughout the evening. The lasting image of the bridge of audience members conveyed how we as people can build a better tomorrow if we connect, support, and love. This new work shared with us a variety of perspectives, artistically delved into ongoing matters, encouraged connection and community, and  served as both a window and mirror for society to look through.

Skirt the Wall is one of two recipients of the Kennedy Center’s Local Dance Commissioning Project. This year’s Local Dance Commissioning Project celebrated the contributions of John F. Kennedy as a part of the Kennedy Center’s JFK 100 Centennial. The live music score was performed and composed by Daniel Mancini.