“Play/Pause” isn’t just the title of Susan Marshall’s new work for six dancers. It also neatly sums up the structure. Casually dressed in leggings and T-shirts, the dancers play — poking one another, noodling around — and then they rest, and then they play around some more, and so on, in a steady start-and-stop rhythm.
The same goes for the three musicians who were seated to one side of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage Tuesday: Some sharp cracks on the drums and silence; a guitar riff thrashes about, and then all you hear is heavy breathing. (David Lang, increasingly popular among choreographers, wrote the score.)
But there is more to this fitfully interesting, ultimately unsatisfying piece than that. Marshall’s previous works have been dreamy and fantastical, taking us into theatrical, richly atmospheric realms of dark humor and mystery. (I remember one that ended with a shower of blowup dolls and another that took place in a surreal cabaret.) Yet “Play/Pause” is stark and deconstructed. There’s no set, although a plain sheet of plywood is sometimes used as a prop, as when one of the dancers sticks duct tape to it and another rubs a microphone noisily across the stripes. If the words “play/pause” evoke technology, Marshall’s low-tech approach gives them an ironic twist.
At times, the stage acquires more clutter, when the dancers breathe into microphones on stands or swap out the mikes for panes of glass and breathe onto those, fogging them up. At one point, Eric Southern’s deft lighting made their faces, behind the glass, appear to float, disembodied. As the fog dissolved and re-formed with the dancers’ breath, it was like a subtle game of hide-and-seek. Even with the simplest of props, Marshall can evoke a sense of mystery.
The dancing, too, was simple but often lovely, with the clarity and precision that are Marshall’s hallmarks. Sometimes the dancers were human whips, lashing, airborne and dangerous. At others, they were more meditative, swaying gently with that staple of the living-room dancer’s arsenal, the sideways step-touch with a little bounce.
So, why was the piece unsatisfying? In a program note, Marshall writes of wanting to “take that kind of ‘feel-good’ dancing seriously.” This came about as awkwardly as it sounds. “Play/Pause” operated in an atmosphere of sober experimentalism, and its repetitive fragments — the clunking mikes, the flashes of action and stillness — soon seemed self-important and overworked. Although the piece was just an hour, it dragged.
One moment of discovery just about vanquished the repetitions, however. Like a mute emcee, one of the dancers stood in the spotlight, faced the audience and simply breathed, audibly, into his microphone. He did this a few times, then it was our turn: He inhaled, pointed the mike at us, and what do you know? The crowd returned the favor with a loud exhale. Inhale, exhale, tossed from stage to spectators like a hot potato, turning the theater into one giant heaving organism, breathing together. In an hour devoted to simplicity, here was what had been missing: the ordinary turned extraordinary.
Susan Marshall & Company performs Thursday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. www.kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.