The arc of a swing is a simple motion. Its breathless drop, downward pull and forward momentum send the body upward to a suspended moment, freeing it from the pull of gravity. This action gave kinetic feeling and visual framework to this year’s “Liquid Culture,” the third and final series of site-specific performances of that name choreographed by Lauri Stallings for her troupe, gloATL.
During a two-week period in July, gloATL performed in four urban locations, dubbed “utopia stations.” Each performance explored the idea and feeling of freedom, with dancers sometimes interacting with audience members. The final station melded Stallings’ choreography with text and performances by students in the Alliance Theatre’s Collision Project, directed by playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage.
Performances took place in a parking lot at Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard; a block along Peachtree Street between 10th and 11th streets; gloATL’s home base at the Goat Farm Arts Center; and the Woodruff Arts Center campus, where gloATL made its debut four years ago with a collaborative multimedia work, “rapt.” Since then, it has become a full-fledged arts organization that has consistently pushed the bounds of dance.
While “Liquid Culture” didn’t have the large-scale multimedia features of “rapt,” it possessed greater dimension. Stallings’ deft use of space, more defined movement language and more structured modes of audience inclusion made the four-part series one of her most effective works to date.
The swings allowed audience members to participate without interfering. A standard-sized wooden swing set was set up at the first two stations. At the Goat Farm’s Goodson Yard, long-roped swings, three each at opposite corners of the stage, hung from the rafters. Finally, pairs of swings on either side of the Woodruff’s Sifley Piazza were suspended from large, pyramid-like metal frames. Like a swing — a plank hung by rope or chain from a supportive framework — the work explored the give-and-take relationship between structure and freedom.
In three of the settings, a large rectangle of blue artificial turf delineated the performance space, setting a boundary between audience and performers. This allowed Stallings to use space in more complex and varied ways. Set patterns and images gained new perspective and meaning when repeated in different locations.
The movement vocabulary was less free-flowing than in many of the choreographer’s previous works, with clearer definition and shape. Movement texture was neither fluid like water nor viscous like honey, but taut and resistant. Gestures, such as crossing wrists and extending them forward, placing gently cupped hands around the ears or in front of the face, or lifting a leg into a balletic position, had a strong yet delicate thrusting quality. With inner kinetic awareness, dancers gazed intently at people and sometimes opened their mouths as if tasting the air. At any given moment, it felt as if all their senses were attuned to the environment.
Stallings’ choice of music was perhaps her most engaging yet. Songs such as the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place,” Tom Waits’ “Kiss Me” and Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” were interspersed with soft piano solos by Chopin, Satie and Debussy, creating a surprisingly effective combination.
The series opened on rain-soaked turf in the Sound Table parking lot in front of a mural, a magenta-and-turquoise image of two horsemen with heads joined in an arc. The groove of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” set the tone as dancers Nicole Johnson and Simon Phillips dropped to the ground, Johnson prone and Phillips supine. Each struck a tightly arched posture; Phillips cast his arms behind his back with fingers stretched open and bent. As if craving intimacy, Johnson nudged her head into the fold at his hips. She later balanced in a precarious embrace that melded into an inverted lift. As Phillips slowly rotated facings, Johnson’s legs reached softly upward, slightly open, as if floating, or like antennae sensing the air. As the music grew hypnotic, their eyes met in such a long and penetrating lock that it seemed their souls had fused.
The swings allowed for quiet moments to reflect on the pure simplicity of the arc. As a prelude at the Woodruff, dancer Noelle Kayser sat in profile on the narrow plank, her legs folded and feet propped up against the rope. To Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” the delicate-featured dancer swung gently, holding an empty swing beside her as Jimmy Joyner lay beneath, just watching. Later, the group repeated side-to-side hip motions in unison, echoing the arc of the swing.
Some movement seemed loose and spontaneous; at other times, structured patterns held a powerful effect. On the Woodruff’s ivy-covered slope, a group of dancers moved in tight unison to the Indonesian-flavored “A Ghost Story” by Atlas Sound. Small steps with knees bent recalled a Javanese court dance. Quick changes of direction and body facings heightened the space’s planar possibilities, adding dimension to an already facile language.
Young actors from the Collision Project later joined the dancers on an open expanse of lawn, repeating the words “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz” to the sound of brisk footsteps. Tension built as they moved to the turf. People clustered together, exchanged support and then disbanded. One actor spoke a powerful text: “Two sides, one river. We share the middle ground. When we sing together, we can forget what we are fighting about, to remember that we are all human.”
Struggle diffused into celebration as the dancers invited audience members into a central horde. To Leonard Cohen’s darkly poetic “Hallelujah,” the population cheered and shouted, circling one another and dashing across the turf.
As the group rejoiced together, a solitary Kayser stood still, staring into her palm, as if gazing into a smartphone screen. The image raised the question: in exchange for one form of freedom, what liberties do we sacrifice?
Dancers picked people out of the audience and led them to the swings. One, a distinguished, gray-haired gentleman, stood in front of his swing as if waiting to hand it off to someone else. When no one came, he grasped the ropes, leaned back and pushed off, reclining into a full layout as he swept forward. After several passes, his demeanor lightened, and he walked away with an aura of youthfulness.
View more photos from gloATL’s four-part series “Liquid Culture” here.