The four women have spent the past few months getting dizzy. Emily Johnson, Morgan Thorson, Kristin Van Loon, and Arwen Wilder have spun each other around, let go at their maximum rotational speed, and then carefully recorded the stumbling, hopping, and rolling results. These kinetic experiments are all in service of choreographer Thorson's newest work, Big Room, an exploration of the human body's relationships to the laws of physics premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater.
The "big room" in question is actually the universe. As children, Thorson and her friends would use the term in play, and the now 40-year-old choreographer remains fascinated by the laws and limitations of the infinite expanse. "Physics has a role in the way you perceive reality," says Thorson. "I'm thinking beyond the boundary of the body to the realm of particles, vapor, and water. Can we find a way through movement to dissolve the container that is the body?" By testing perceptions about the relationship of our peculiar skeletons to basic concepts like gravity, space, and time, Thorson hopes to discover new ways to create and order the shape of her dances.
During a recent rehearsal at the Hennepin Center for the Arts, Thorson led her dancers through ordinary movements, like running in place. Then she combined these with the falling, rebounding, and counterbalancing movements collected during the dancers' early experiments with centripetal force. It's somewhat jarring to witness normally sure-footed performers struggling for balance, but ultimately their off-kilter maneuvers reveal a considerable fearlessness as well as a security in the well-honed abilities of their bodies. They achieve a sort of grace similar to that of astronauts who must struggle with, and eventually adapt to, the challenges of doing normal tasks in an abnormal environment.
The score and lighting of Big Room promise their own experimental flair. Composer Pauline Oliveros has devised an electronic patch that will process sounds performed live by trombonist Monique Buzzarte. Throughout the performance Buzzarte will collect sounds and reprocess them, and they'll then radiate from unexpected parts of the performing space. Similarly, Jeff Bartlett's lighting has been designed to illuminate the raw architecture of the theater--the other big room--as much as the dancers themselves.
While Thorson's show expresses wonderment with the worlds of physics and science, the choreographer isn't unaware of where this quest for knowledge has led us. The character of Marie Curie--pioneering scientist and radiation casualty--makes an appearance onstage and in Eleanor Savage's accompanying video. The perils of the nuclear age are also referenced.
"The footage of bombs exploding is so beautiful yet so despicable," Thorson says, referencing films of mushroom clouds. "It certainly brings the idea of the universe down to a more concrete and personal level." The cosmic energy that has so much potential for good can also destroy us, Thorson concludes. Better to just keep spinning around.