Dark Matters: Tormented atoms in a bed of mud

Kidd Pivot: Dark Matters

Dark Matters is the latest offering by choreographer Crystal Pite, the founder of Kidd Pivot.  Influenced by Kabuki and Butoh puppet theatre, Dark Matters is a two part performance that deconstructs it's own dramatic premise, immersing the audience in meditations on creation and destruction as part of a cosmic flux.

Part one is a theatrical narrative told through movement, a dark fable about a puppet maker whose creation comes to life and kills him with a pair of tailor's scissors (think Pinocchio gone terribly wrong).  The second part is based in pure movement, but though free of narrative, it is accompanied by a parallel sound-track to part one.  It is an abstract meditation on movement, where dancers defy gravity, spinning on their axes and collapsing at their joints, as if they are the wooden puppets.  Through both parts, masked black-clad figures clamber, crawl, and tiptoe through the scenes.  These figures are the puppet masters – they animate the wooden doll in part one, moving its limbs with long metal rods.  In part two they meddle in the action, moving the other dancers like dolls, or engaging in mysterious stage business in the wings (one even climbs onstage from the front row of the audience). Throughout the performance, the music is urgent, sparse, and dramatic: choral voices, breaking glass and rhythmic drums.  Follow spots creep across the stage exposing figures to the audience's view and strobe lights flicker like lightening.

For all its moody atmospherics, Dark Matters is surprisingly clever and funny.  Part one culminates with the total collapse of the set, made to look like the tailor's small apartment.  The troublesome puppet climbs the wainscoting and tears up the wallpaper, and when the tailor gets stabbed, the masked puppeteers traipse onstage to tidy up, one with broom in hand. It's just another day for these stage hands,  their body language seems to say – but then they literally bring the house down, turning the clean-up into a comic pseudo-ninja fight-scene that ends with the walls crashing down. Part of the pleasure of watching Dark Matters is waiting for the bait-and-switch: these puppeteers operate outside of the main action, and they change its flow at will.  Just when you think the story is over, or that a pattern has developed in the dancing, a masked figure will wander onstage holding a prop, or appears behind a screen making shadows, signaling an abrupt shift in action.  

Dance aficionados are likely to prefer the second half of Dark Matters to the first.  The puppet is a beautiful creation, and the puppeteers to a wonderful job of bringing it to life: it's movements are by turns childlike, animalistic, and downright chilling.  Yet this portion of the show feels most like a piece of theatre.  It is not until part two that the full compliment of dancers take the stage.  They adopt a physical vocabulary that is akin to the loose-jointed movements of the puppet.  Often they cluster together, touching arms, shoulders, back-to-back, so that as a group they are like the puppet, moving as co-dependant units.  They are wizards of gesture, moving from positions on the floor to standing in a heartbeat, as if their bodies weighed nothing.

Throughout the performance, a segment of Voltaire's “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon” is quoted.  A disembodied voice intones such lines as  “He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes / Tormented atoms in a bed of mud / Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.” The words offer a subtext for otherwise disjointed parts of the performance, which also swings from the comic to the tormented.  Dark Matters is not  rooted in the poem so much as it is touched by similar concerns: the tailor makes the puppet as Voltaire's God might make a man.  The dancers collapse and rebuild themselves, and their awkward grace they may well be a commentary on human civilization itself.

The elements of Dark Matters  are loosely connected, and it is in the space between concepts that meanings accumulate.  There is no linear connection between the silly ninja fighting of the puppeteers and the ethereal scrimmage of the dancers, save that in both cases bodies flow around each other. However, Dark Matters does set up thematic tension between acts of creation -- the tailor making the puppet -- and forces of destruction -- the unruly puppet or the rowdy puppeteers.  In the second part, dancers explore this tension, moving as if they were elemental forces – waves on the ocean or particles of energy – subject to entropy and decay.   

Dark Matters concludes with an emotional coda. One of the masked figures slowly undresses on the dark stage.  As her body emerges from black clothing, she seems to glow – she looks new-made, a newly created being.  Is she human, a doll, an immortal spirit, or an elemental force?  All of these possibilities have been suggested by preceding aspects of the piece.  She performs a lyrical duet with a male dancer – the tailor from part one.  Midway through, they kiss.  At the end, he collapses, and she mimes sewing together his open chest.  The movements and the repetitive pattern of the music suggests that this coda is connected to the opening story: the woman is like the puppet, new, inquisitive, threatening.  Was she given life by the tailors kiss? His collapse turns the puppet's original attack into a tragedy, a crime of passion.  When the woman sews the man's chest we are reminded again of the cyclical flow of Voltaire's poem: “He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes / Tormented atoms in a bed of mud /.../ Our being mingles with the infinite.”  Life and death seem endlessly connected, and collapse and rebirth look like two sides of the same coin.

Dark Matters is an eccentric hybrid of dance and narrative that draws together different kinds of performance in a single work.  The tone of the piece shifts from extremes: naive puppetry to comic dance, narrative drama to abstract movement.  It is a strange brew that coheres in spite of itself.  What emerges from the mix is an image of the human spirit that, even when doomed, is clever, whimsical, and bright: “far-seeing eyes, /... have measured the faint stars.”  As if out of dark matter, a light.

By Kirstie McCallum