Gathering Momentumby Siobhan Burke
Murmurs of “Wow, I’m so . . . happy” and “How good do you feel right now?” could be heard in the aisles of New York Live Arts on Friday, October 19, as the audience filed out after Steven Reker/People Get Ready’s Specific Ocean. An immersive hour-or-so of live music, dance, and experiments in sound-making, all knit together into some kind of hard-to-name hybrid (the press release suggests “multisensory mixtape”), had left behind a calm euphoria. Reker, the cheerful front man of the indie rock band (credited as director of this new work and, in collaboration with the performers, choreographer), had invited everyone to get a beer in the lobby and stay for a post-show dance party. People lingered, wondering when it was going to start. We were ready to dance.
People Get Ready—whose core members (Luke Fasano, James Rickman, Jen Goma, and Reker) were joined here by Caitlin Marz, Aaron Mattocks, and Natalie Kuhn—has come a long way since its first incarnation in 2009, at The Kitchen’s Dance and Process series. When I think back on that show, I can call up only sullen, shadowy images, a loose conglomeration of minimalist movement, droning sound, and barely-there light. The work seemed almost to be hiding from itself. In retrospect, it reads as a tentative testing of waters; it asked a lot of questions, but hesitantly: How can we play music in such a way that doesn’t deny our capacity and our compulsion to move? How can we harness the possibilities of the space and our bodies in it? How can we link what is heard here to what is seen and felt?
Those questions are still at play, but in contrast to that grey and stagnant landscape of 2009, Specific Ocean glistens and crests and churns. Its momentum—which carries us through a series of vignettes, mostly set to infectious, richly textured songs from the group’s new self-titled album—sweeps us up, lets us coast for a little while, sweeps us up again. The space is in constant flux. Two musical encampments flank the stage on the left and right, framed by rectangles of light (designed by Steve Brady). When not otherwise occupied, the multi-tasking performers crouch here behind keyboards and drums and guitars, ensconced in the architecture of electronic equipment and tangled wires. But they can easily emerge—and they do, one or two or four at a time—onto the vast dance floor, a patchwork of Masonite panels that, when disassembled, double as unlikely sonic devices or projection screens for a surreal music video.
Sound and movement come from unexpected places—first, from a door on one side of the stage, Reker’s entryway as he sings, in the near-darkness, a simple, measured opening melody. “When I woke up, from that dream,” he intones, looking happily and intently at us. As his voice surfaces, so do sporadic, miniscule gestures, pixilated shifts of his shoulders and hands and head, as he saunters up and down the center of the stage. A capella harmonies accompany him, their source untraceable, until his six fellow performers appear from the same doorway and settle down on the sidelines. (“Soon enough, we were all singing,” the song continues.)
From there, the pace revs up. The next, more propulsive song finds Mattocks and Marz front and center. In the most mesmerizing choreography of the evening, they skate across the slick Masonite on their knees, speedily carving out pathways in between sculptural, floor-bound poses, shifting directions with Pac-Man-like decisiveness. Goma and Kuhn lie on the floor upstage, chanting into a shared microphone. The four unite in a rhythmic, chugging crawl, assembling into a 16-limbed creature before dispersing again. A duet for Marz and Kuhn, which follows soon after, gets them up on their feet, at once embracing and transcending the art of the synchronized backup dance.
Discrete songs give way to more improvisational explorations of sound. Mattocks appears with an electric guitar strapped to his back, regarding it as nothing more than an accessory. With the help of some technology, his visceral, serpentine solo generates its own score through the crashing of the instrument against his body and the ground. Reker and Fasano remove a couple of floorboards and create another elaborate, surprising soundscape; their manipulations of the flexible material—as they hoist, bend, or let it fall to the ground—give rise to a warped, ghostly wailing and other strange reverberations (sometimes, strangest of all, total silence).
These experiments, compelling as they can be, can also feel piecemeal, unfinished, as if someone had said “Hey, let’s try this!” the novelty of the idea its sole motivation. At the same time, maybe those loose ends allow the work to breathe, so that what could easily be just a concert with some dancing remains porous, a process of discovery for everyone involved.
Specific Ocean ends with all of the performers flocking to the drum set, sitting down around it, and banging out one last rousing rhythm. That communal vibe has been building throughout the show, enhanced by the interchanging of roles (dancers singing, singers getting up to dance, musicians trading instruments). It raised another question: Are we, the audience, part of the clan? The joyousness of Reker’s music suggests that he wants us to be. But while everything else in this work is so fluid, the seating structure remains rigid and conventionally distancing—audience here, in rows of seats, performers there, in front of us (save when Mattocks, during his “guitar solo,” dashes around us, up one aisle and down the other). Maybe a less traditional setup would only distract us from the intriguing happenings onstage. But sometimes, enveloping as the music was, the act of sitting still, gazing down at the performance from one fixed point, began to feel uncomfortable, even absurd. The invitation to stick around and dance at the end was nice; I almost wished it had happened sooner.
SIOBHAN BURKE writes for the New York Times and Dance Magazine. She teaches at Barnard College.