Saturday, March 30, 2019

"The Sleepwatchers"

Deborah Slater Dance Theater in The Sleepwatchers
Photo Robbie Sweeny

Deborah Slater Dance Theater
The Sleepwatchers
ODC Theater, San Francisco
March 29th, 2019

A search for understanding, for explanation, for relief – these themes and more lie at the heart of Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s The Sleepwatchers, co-directed by Deborah Slater and Jim Cave. Sleepwatchers processes these questions by taking the concept of sleep, or rather sleep disorder, into the Dance Theater sphere. The 2001 work, currently remounted as part of the company’s thirtieth anniversary, is chock-full of Dance Theater elements, expertly woven into a rich artistic tapestry: text, characters, scenework, set, sound, humor and movement. And by simultaneously mining these disciplines, Sleepwatchers makes some penetrating physical, psychological and emotional statements about the mysterious process of sleep.

Slater, Cave and their collaborators did a terrific job creating a sense of place. A bed was positioned center stage; movable flats (by Jack Carpenter) doubled as room dividers and as educational white boards. Much of the cast was costumed (by Jeanne Henzel) in pajamas and lingerie, others were dressed as medical professionals. David Allen, Jr.’s score and Teddy Hulsker’s sound design included some well-known sleep-themed tunes layered with mechanical whirs, maybe a sleep apnea machine or a ventilator.

Different personas wandered through Sleepwatchers’ ever-changing scenes, which included medical lectures, sleep studies, nightmares and memories. One woman was trapped between adulthood and youth. Her brother was an integral part of the story, as were a number of Doctors and other characters conjured during sleep. Together, they all went on an investigative journey to discover why sleep was elusive for her. Eventually, they do find the answer, but along the way, encounter a myriad of issues, primarily around control. There is commentary about the need for answers; the obsession with figuring things out; the tendency to protectively reframe circumstances; and the discomfort we often feel with an ‘I don’t know’ posture.

Choreographically, Sleepwatchers had a varied physical language – gesture, contact-improv syntax, capoeira inspirations and of course, modern vocabulary. Dance factors more heavily in the second half, in fact, for the first thirty minutes, I wondered if physical theater was a more apt description for the work than Dance Theater. But again, dance does play a significant part, just later on. Broad extensions of the arms and legs embodied searching. An ensemble sequence found all six cast members lifting and interacting with each other – a metaphor for the intersection of their experiences. And there was a postmodern pillow dance to “Mr. Sandman.”

There is much to love in Sleepwatchers, it’s a winning piece of contemporary performance. But it does face a couple of challenges, or maybe, it’s more accurate to say one two-pronged challenge. Clocking in at more than an hour (with a late start, it’s hard to guess the exact run time), Sleepwatchers is too long. Having said that, it isn’t inherently too long. It’s too long because there’s so much repetition, too much for me. As each character navigates the story, recurring motifs were everywhere – in their interactions with each other, their scenework and their movement phrases. For example, there’s a sleep ogre character threaded into much of the dance: half impy leprechaun, half creepy gremlin. The role was communicated well and the choreography was very fitting. But every time the character was onstage, the same things would play out and play out at length. Repetition is indeed a tenet of Dance Theater, though finding the right balance can be tricky. Too little and there isn’t enough narrative impact; too much and the potency is lost.            

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