A dance evolves within me over time. What isn’t memorable eventually slips away, while other moments may become more vivid. An entire scene can be condensed into a single image. I’ve always felt this with performance, but never have I experienced this evolution so intensely, as I did after seeing Paradis by Yanira Castro | a canary torsi. Set in the lush Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Castro’s Paradis guides the audience through a collective journey from purgatory to heaven, or to her conception of paradise.
It is a little after 8pm. We begin at the Garden’s old visitor center, and are led past a beautiful assortment of lily pads in a rectangular pond to the Desert Pavilion. One by one, we surround the octagonal greenhouse. Cacti, succulents, and other arid plants frame a lone figure, dressed in a white blazer, pants, and tennis shoes, Peter Schmitz. He stands motionless for some time and then begins to walk, slowly and curiously, on the Pavilion’s ovular path. His body stutters and sways as if coming to life for the first time — a lost man in purgatory, a delusional god waiting for a storm, Frankenstein’s monster. He walks around hesitantly, stretching his arms out like a bird, picking up his pace and then slowing down again.
Several guides with walkie talkies stand around us, occasionally walking around. A tinny improvisational piano tune emerges from the static, providing a peculiar soundtrack.
Schmitz’s performance has a silent film quality, like a mime’s portrayal of a mad scientist. A clawed hand, which simulates holding an apple, comes at his face uncontrollably. A maniacal scream escapes from the Pavilion.
It’s an astonishing and memorable sight, but one that relies heavily on the finely textured, cacti landscape. This could be an argument for the dance’s site-specific nature, but Schmitz’s movement is very literal, preventing our imaginations from wandering freely away from the narrative in front of us. After about thirty minutes Schmitz takes off his blazer and hunches over as if entering a self-made cocoon.
Patience is required in purgatory.
We are led slowly past an expansive grassy lawn with the scattering lights of fireflies. Eight dancers — Peggy H. Cheng, Daniel Clifton, Simon Courchel, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Luke Miller, Pamela Vail, Darrin Wright, and Kimberly Young — dressed in white summery attires stand in the far distance. Occasionally one dancer darts behind the others, sprinting ahead into the distance. As we walk, they disappear and reappear like ghostly apparitions. The scene unfolds with cinematic ease.
Uncertainty, ungraspable, fleeting…
Is this paradise?
We arrive at the Garden’s Cherry Esplanade to Michael Daupinais playing a piano, the source of music from the walkie talkies. We linger around while watching him play, unsure as to what comes next until we see the dancers at the far end of the lawn. As twilight fades into darkness, they come towards us taking long leap-like strides, while four large spotlights situated behind us gradually intensify. It is one of the most arresting moments I have ever experienced in a performance.
Eventually we are approached by one of the dancers and broken up into smaller groups. “Watch only me.” Jenkins says to my group. The effect is strangely seductive. Never have I had these words said to me during a performance. Never have I been so inclined to obey. The piece closes with a group of four intimate and sensual duets performed simultaneously by the eight dancers in flesh-colored leotards and a brief sing-a-long with Daupinais.
Exiting the now dark landscape through a path lit by flashlights exemplified many of the problems with the piece. Often Paradis is overwhelmed by the scenery — an idyllic garden at dusk and the muggy summer air — all of which I am experiencing for the first time. Although Castro’s choreography accentuated the characteristics of the Garden, it didn’t deepen or challenge my perception of the space leading to feelings of restlessness and boredom.
What is boredom if not the body’s inability to access an experience? Or, the inability to retain it?
But several images have followed me:
ghosts by a piano
bodies come toward me
if not hesitantly
and I will obey