“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” the French poet Paul Valery once said. His words are marvelously descriptive of The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, a 30-minute work-in-progress by renowned choreographer Alison Chase. The dance conveys less about the beauty of human form than about the human fascination with beauty, even the beauty of the dead. Valery’s quote come to mind when one attempts to set words to the music of the dancers’ bodies as they leapt and crept their fluid way about the stage, for the way in which they occupied space seemed so fitting and so natural that it doesn’t occur to one to try to assign definition to it. One simply breathes along with it.
The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World was inspired by a short story of the same name written by the master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, in which the villagers of an island discover the corpse of a man washed up on the shore. One of the creative aspects of the dance was a very thin backdrop onto which photos, film and live footage were projected. The dance itself opened with underwater footage of waves that curled like smoke around the halo of light that simmered on the surface of the sea. When the villagers discovered the body lying center stage and started unraveling the cloths wound around the body, it was a slow and gentle uncovering, as if it were an act of love. When his face was revealed the villagers sprang back as a whole, and they silently stole away while still photographs of their faces – composed in shock and fear and the beginnings of love – were projected on the backdrop.
The dance went on as morning came, when the male villagers tried to animate the dead man’s body by carrying him on their backs and striding forward with him sprawled against their torsos. They eventually tired of it, but every nightfall their women would creep to the dead man’s side. With a nervous thrum of strings and the frantic beat of a drum the dance came to a climax when a woman raised her hand and slapped her man after he had discovered her reclining by the drowned man’s side. Her man had seized her and lifted her bodily from the ground, jerking her from side to side, their movements falling together in chaotic symphony before she broke free and struck him. The sound of that slap seemed to wake the villagers from their feverish obsession. Each of the men took turns lifting the dead man, and the last one to handle him turned his body around and around in a way that recalled the motion of the earth around the sun, before surrendering him back to the sea.
While possessing a strange and mysterious beauty of its own, Drowned Man is not as wildly acrobatic, exciting and tumultuous as Chase’s previous work, notably those that feature dancers dangling from colorful shrouds in the air. However, her themes of falling and its relationship to staying aloft, fluid and in control of the moment can be discerned in this piece. Mark Fucik, who played the dead man, flopped about as naturally as possible whenever the villagers grappled with his limbs in their attempts to bring him to life. The motif of being lifted also came through in a scene when a female villager draped herself in the long cloths that extended beneath the dead man’s body and walked towards him arrayed like a ghost, like a bird of the night sky. She then laid herself on top of him, and he raised her up with his palms so that she was suspended in spread-eagle formation above him. The tableau presented was a perfect depiction of the delicate balance between life and death and of the living’s fascination with the beauty and mystery of the dead.
The challenge of a work like Drowned Man is to translate what was written as short story into the poetry of bodies in motion. “Márquez finds [the story] in the air. We take it from the page. We retake it to the air,” said Derek Dudek, the cinematographer, in a brief discussion following the performance. His words curiously parallel those of Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who defined magical realism as “the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal” – as though magic were something that could be plucked from thin air and that if you looked closely enough, the plain weave of everyday life would reveal airy tapestry within it. In the same way, the dancers of Drowned Man moved so that they seemed earthbound like the audience, save for those lyrical moments as when art transcends life. Even in stillness, the dancers took on the aura of flight.