Time Track Productions makes stage images no one else can. This, for instance: a dancer (Kari Mosel) stands, dances, spins. Around her, others dance, some in brilliant close-up, others far off, while fireflies flicker across the space. What you see is a collage, self on self, not feverishly busy but beautifully full, as if you were looking into a web of memory. How do they do it? To choreographer Paula Mann’s muscular, whole-hearted modern dance, animator Steve Paul adds layers of video projected onto scrims before and behind the dancers. Where other companies use animation as a backdrop or highlight, the wife-and-husband team of Mann and Paul integrate animation into the fabric of the work. They’ve spent, they say, two years creating this latest work, and the work and the close partnership are apparent. Dance and animation work together, neither so busy as to overshadow the other, and result in stunning moments such as Mosel’s firefly dance.
But The Closer I Get, the Less I Believe It is not a technique showcase. Mann and Paul use their unusual collaboration to explore virtual reality, the realm of simulated humans and simulated experience. A story winds through the performance: four ordinary humans, seeking fun, excitement, or connection, wander into a funhouse in which their memories are re-enacted and their fantasies of happiness fulfilled. But during a saccharine rendition of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” something goes wrong, a la Westworld, and the creepy robot humans get out of synch. And then everything gets confusing. Concept-laden, heavy with irony, the show goes on, the performers grimacing and mugging inexplicably, until the “what just happened?” end. The irony is particularly crushing, as it prevents us in the audience from judging for ourselves. When we’re allowed to simply look into the funhouse, to be seduced by its beautiful images or put off by its ultimate distance, we’re active and implicated. There’s even some meta-play with the idea that the theater itself is a type of virtual reality. Most of the time, though, the funhouse comes to us mediated by Mann and Paul’s idea that we should distrust the pleasures it offers.
Still, there are moments when Mann and Paul lift the screen of irony. The funhouse barker (Nora Jenneman), who has appeared before only as a distorted face, shows up in a crowded mall, standing still, talking to herself about her loneliness. Meanwhile, a woman with baroque blonde hair moves before this projection. She reaches up and takes off the blonde wig, revealing the close-shorn head of the barker. Here the fake and real blend, shot through with longing. In the dance, too, emotion comes through. The performers differ in acting ability, but they all dance with strength and wild abandon, particularly the whirlwind Mosel.
Visually stunning, rich in ideas, but also frustrating, The Closer I Get concludes a trilogy of work on technology and human life. It will be interesting to see what Mann and Paul turn to next.