Spotlight: Maggie's Brain

Courtesy of Off-Leash Area

This unconventional and frequently moving work of dance theater depicts a young woman enduring the onset of schizophrenia. At the beginning of the show, Maggie (Jennifer Ilse, who also directs and choreographs) settles in for dinner with her parents and two sisters. Soon things start to turn weird--the noises of silverware and cups gets louder and more rhythmic, and conversations turn chaotic and incomprehensible. It's a sly and poignant way of depicting a shattered-mirror perspective of frequently harrowing hallucinations. Intermittently the family exits the action and Ilse performs a series of solo dance numbers to Reid Kruger's echo-laden keyboard-and-effects compositions. Ilse's choreography avoids the sort of gratuitous depiction of madness that might make an audience feel voyeuristic. Instead, she utilizes repetition, along with frequently frenetic gestures and movements, to depict the schizophrenic's emotional world in all its complexity: frustration, fear, occasional moments of happiness and hints of grandeur, and, most deeply, alienation. In the latter half of the performance Maggie's family all at once fall prey to frenzied, obsessive gestures, and when their spasms end they share a brief moment of recognition that they have flashed into their loved one's world. By the end Maggie is literally behind glass and her forlorn family is reduced to writing on the walls to try to reach her. The performance is short, just under an hour, and Off-Leash's tiny theater (yes, a garage) provides an appropriate measure of intimacy. It also feels throughout as though the medium in which Ilse is working is exceptionally apt; the language of dance literally steps in when words lose their connection to the things and ideas they are supposed to represent. By the end we feel for Maggie, but equally heartbreaking is the plight of her family, rebuffed when they try to help her. To anyone who has dealt with mental illness in others, the moment is hurtfully true. This show finds an unlikely degree of poetry and fleeting beauty amid that pain.

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