In Rina Espiritu’s Leveling, most recently performed at the 2016 Lungs Harvest Festival in a Lower East Side community garden, paranoia and discomfort are expressed onstage. The performance begins with one dancer center-stage, still and upright. Their face is hidden by a piece of their costume, and the audience is unsure of when and if their face will be revealed. We are stuck with this frozen, faceless image for a few agonizing moments while ever so slowly, a second, identically dressed figure walks through the audience and onto the stage. Joining as partners in a single-hand twitch, the two stand shoulder to shoulder as large ominous mounds, ‘facing’ forward.
The costumes for ‘Leveling,’ crafted by Espiritu herself, deserve special praise. Draped, white chiffon hangs voluptuously off her dancer’s bodies, with various loose yet attached sheets cascading to the floor. On the left arm of each dancer, a section of their outfit weaves down the limb and towards the hand, where the fabric frays into multiple pieces tied around wrists and fingers. This allows her dancers to make grand movement where fabric billows behind them, and throughout ‘Leveling’ there are flashes of white flying off the body. Reminiscent of the robes of Ancient Greek mythology, the beauty of the costumes create a vivid contrast with the unnerving, anxious movement.
After a minute or so, the duet of hand-twitching ceases, and the dancers advance to more aggressive gestures. Both begin a sequence of self-touch which quickly elevates to self-harm. They start with light, loose taps of the hand meeting random areas of the body, where fingertips following wrists brush the skin and then ricochet off in a slow wave. This series escalates, becoming a frenzy of violent slaps. Eventually, a pattern emerges from the madness. The dancers begin to hit in a prayer-like order: right shoulder (hit), middle of the chest (hit), left shoulder (hit). After the third touch, palms and forearms collide and shoot to the sky, as the dancer faces upward, looking at her clasped hands. This flurry of violent prayer is rapidly repeated until the power lies within the movement, and not the dancer. Both begin to vocalize their agony, screaming out with the hit of a hand, a hand which may belong to her or her partner. Loud, exaggerated inhales which inflate the entire body upward halts this dizzying sight. For a few serene seconds, we watch the dancers striving to reach the sky. A deadening thud then interrupts, as bodies made of flesh and bones fall haphazardly to the floor.
As the performance continues, an apprehensive atmosphere is consistently built. This succeeds in establishing a certain animosity, a confrontation between the dancers and their audience. This restlessness, perhaps of an angry element, is theirs, and witnesses are forced to wrestle with it. Various moments of clear hostility grow this tension, where the dancers, now with visible faces, abruptly stand still and stare straight out with disgusted looks. As the piece closes, the audience is left wondering as to the pair’s relationship. The movement hints at a connection which bounces between trust and distrust, hate and despair. This all adds to anxiety being the most obvious performer in Leveling.
From a program for a previous performance at the 8th annual Irish Dance Research Forum at NYU, Espiritu writes: “when experiencing paralysis in the physical body and paralysis in thought-process, it would be rebellious to start dancing.” She goes on to discuss her feeling of being “stateless,” as an immigrant from the Philippines who has yet to attach herself to an American identity. This anxiety of moving around, without a clear, center source of home, is successfully expressed through Leveling. Rebellious in both form and content, Leveling breaks out of the paralyzing obsession with modern dance, with art in general, to create something ‘beautiful.’ The audience is left with images uneasy to shake, and thoughts which will linger and resurface for days to come.