Escape From Planet Earth

This samsara business blows! Dancing toward nirvana in Wynn Fricke's 'The Hungry Ghost'
Dan Dennehy, Walker Art Center

Choreographers Deborah Jinza Thayer and Wynn Fricke come from different sides of the periodic table--one the essence of ether, the other of earth. Thayer, a former pre-med student, is fond of reinventing the relationship between technology and the body while reflecting her experiences in the Japanese postwar form Butoh and Margolis Brown movement-theater technique. Fricke, by contrast, is a past member of Zenon Dance Company who shades her approach to modern dance with the mindfulness of yoga and Eastern philosophy. Yet though they represent two ends of the choreographic spectrum, both dancemakers revel in rich detail, haunting imagery, and quirky physical gestures. And now their respective companies, Movement Architecture and Borrowed Bones Dance Theatre, will share the stage this weekend as part of the Momentum Series presented by Walker Art Center and the Southern Theater.

Thayer will premiere My Little Cyborg, a tribute to her alternating fascination and disgust with futurism. "Where does the cyborg start: with your cell phone, your prosthetic arm, your pacemaker?" she wonders aloud after a rehearsal at the Dance Arts Centre, nestled within an Eden Prairie industrial park. Thayer teaches here, but her main reason for rehearsing south of the crosstown is the ample room it affords for her latest large-scale set: two interlocking chrome circles mounted on a black, star-shaped platform. Several dancers fit easily within the movable sculpture created by Ron Albert. They navigate the space within and around the piece while interpreting Thayer's idiosyncratic movement style--postmodernist Trisha Brown by way of an android factory. They move carefully with curled, pawlike hands or with fists pressed to the chest or small of the back, thumbs rotating like tiny motors. The work unfolds like an experimental science-fiction film.

Lamenting the 21st-century tendency to live online, where we transmit thoughts with little human contact, Thayer sees the rotating, interlocking circles as a means of communication--antennae trained toward the cosmos. At the same time the gesture symbolizes the potential for transforming Earth into a cold imitation of its former self--a cyborg orb circling the sun.

"In a way this piece is about the planet sending out an SOS because we're making a mess here. We [have been] invaded by the mechanical, the digital," she observes, exhorting her company members to "plug in" with one another and their environment. "We interface, but we don't really communicate or connect."

Fricke and composer Carl Witt ponder similar thoughts yet offer different responses as they rehearse The Hungry Ghost in the airy Studio 6A at the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis. Inspired by a Buddhist mandala depicting the realms of human suffering that must be transcended on the path to achieving nirvana, Fricke has abstracted the dogma into a movement parable about human folly. "I'm interested in each realm and its emotional essence," she says. She explains how the work journeys through the "god realm," which offers "a kind of disconnect from suffering through endless gratification"; the "hell realm," a frozen place "equated with isolation, self-absorption, alienation, and despair"; and the realm of the "hungry ghost," a shadow figure with a huge head, protruding belly, and skinny neck, who is plagued by cravings and "can never get enough."

Fricke quietly watches her dancers tackle the realm of the "jealous gods"--a trio for three men who constantly overpower one another as their bodies tumble across the floor. They toss one another with the strength of giants, pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities.

"I have a sense of caricature about these beings," Fricke says. "I want to feel the contrast between their different energies. I rely on their input to create a different universe." A universe where the cycle of suffering can be broken, if only one cares to risk jumping into the unknown.

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