Dance, by its very nature, is an especially intimate art. Even in the grandest theater space, audiences and dancers are quickly brought into an intense, if one-sided, familiarity. The spectators are called to do what would cause discomfort in any other public sphere: to make a prolonged and careful study of someone else’s body.
Put the audience and dancers together in the rooms of a house, rather than in the cavern of a theater, and this close study takes on a particular tension. When you’re near enough to hear the performers breathing, to make eye contact and feel their warmth as they pass by, the transaction somehow changes. Are you a spectator, or a voyeur? Is this invigorating, or uncomfortable?
These were the questions raised in Word Dance Theater’s “Chambers of the Heart,” in which dancers spiraled through the rooms of the Josephine Butler Parks Center mansion on 15th Street NW in the Meridian Hill neighborhood. The audience followed them. Or not. We were told to wander around freely, peek into various rooms at will, walk out on the action if we wished and find another room, another dance to watch.
At various times during the 90-minute performance, dancers slid down the wide stairway in cocoons of white tulle, or pecked out poems on a typewriter. They waltzed in front of a roaring fireplace and mimed wedding vows in the candlelit ballroom. The theme was love, and we saw many shades of it — defiant, disconsolate, serene — in these mini-dramas.
The decor throughout the 1927 mansion was spare — a few potted plants, warm lighting. But live music created a lush effect. There were splendid singers and a guitarist, and pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez, the work’s music director, fully transformed the atmosphere with a fluid but light touch, in selections from Brahms and Liszt.
Candles, classical music and tender duets framed by ornate crown molding — it was quite a romantic setting. But the sharpest, most interesting notes of the evening had little to do with the love theme and everything to do with the audience-immersion concept devised by Cynthia Word, director of Word Dance Theater. By stepping into the rooms, the audience was brought face to face with the dancers, and often with several actors who recited poetry and told us when to start wandering around, and when to leave. You saw the effort and the sweat of the dancers. You felt how they could slip silently and discreetly among the spectators while traveling from room to room, so you barely noticed them — while the five actors had a more solid presence, like security guards.
The actors looked us in the eye, while the dancers gazed into the middle distance as if nobody else were around. They were close enough to touch, but remote. Was this a difference between the artists, with actors being extroverted and dancers less intrusive and comfortable in silence, or was it part of the design? How did the dancers feel to be whirling around with us so close? Was it as awkward for them as it was, undoubtedly, for some of the spectators? “Chambers of the Heart” made some sweet statements about love, but mostly it left one with a lot to think about on the nature of performance — and how we relate to it.