Ambo company members with audience members in Novel Reflections. Photo: Keith Waits
Novel Reflections: An Immersive Dance Experiment
Directed by Amberly M. Simpson & Jade Frost
in collaboration with the Dancers
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
When you picture dance as white tutu-clad swans crossing a stage en pointe, the concept of immersive performance is the last thing you would think of. The imposed distance of the proscenium is pointed. So many classical ballets are fantasies, stories that take place in worlds apart from our own. Yet new dance initiatives set their sites on breaking down traditional definitions and erasing boundaries separating audience and performer.
Ambo Dance Theatre is one such company, and with Novel Reflections, they engage their modest audience in close enough quarters to demand intimacy and participation. The production, staged in the Ambo rehearsal space, requires the audience members to choose where they first move and what they first encounter. All of it involves dancers moving in relationship to reflective surfaces. One moment in front of a mirror and the next moving away, behind, and around the viewer. Dancers (drawn from Ambo’s Improvisational Company) sneak into your peripheral vision before you fully register their presence and what they are up to.
Dance is typically communication through movement directed at the audience, but this is AMBO’s improvisational company, with performers working within a choreographic structure but given the freedom to make choices about their individual actions, so the first level of communication is between the dancers themselves, navigating how they deliver their bodies into each portion of space without bumping into each other.
Of course, dancers are always doing this, but rarely in such an unabashed manner. The lack of pretense or the veil of narrative makes for an intimate, sweaty exchange (there is a heat wave).
The experience begins with a lengthy preamble in the lobby from co-director Amberly M. Simpson and then a choice of two doors through which to enter the performance. It is an evocative image to begin with, suggestive of the element of chance that will follow. We are told that at times a dancer may invite or lead us to move in a certain direction and that it will be impossible to experience everything in one performance.
I didn’t feel in any way cheated, even when one individual entered the action by closely inspecting the doorknobs on every door. I have no idea how long they had been at it before I caught on. The lighting was at times dim, albeit atmospheric, and I found myself searching in every corner and behind each mirror; in the hopes of discovery or out of fear of missing something important…I wasn’t sure which.
But it was a new way of looking at dance. At one point I was led to an area where four audience members had been seated in a square, each facing a mirror (there are a LOT of mirrors) while ensemble members shifted from singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to executing geometric configurations with the human form in and around the four audience members.
Later, the audience was invited to dance free form with the company. A few obliged briefly, but however much the interaction was encouraged, dancing with them was intimidating. The immediacy of immersion might have been meant to break down that exact barrier, but the skill and energy of the ensemble still force a separation of identity that pulls you back to tradition. It is difficult for the audience to overcome the feeling of embarrassment, real or imagined.
At least that is my observation from the performance (1 of 4) that I attended. Gauging the range of what Improvisational dance might accomplish in a particular moment is challenging to the viewer if one performance is the limit of their experience, but how many will return to see how divergent the individual performances will become?
The penultimate scene involved the entire ensemble delivering spoken word monologues while walking purposefully backward as other dancers rolled across the floor, forcing the speaker to step backward over them. The words were ordinary but personal, even revelatory perhaps, yet all were disrupted by the move in and out of the cycle as performers would drop to the floor in mid-syllable. Conceptually, the interplay between verbal and movement languages cemented the theme of self-awareness and identity central to the evening’s experience.
In the final moments, each dancer slipped between large mirrored panels and intermittently emerged while rendering a highly individual sequence of movements. It included what I believe was the only interaction during which two performers made eye contact with each other after bumping into each other. The brief note of conflict was slight but noticeable, arguably having an impact only because it occurs so close to the end. I felt as if some of the performers were expressing aspects of struggle throughout but it was mostly internal, introspective. The clarity of the final scenes was bracing and important but never overbearing or didactic, still engaging the audience to think and react on their own terms.
Featuring Joseph R. Brandt, Nakoma Ehrhart, Lydia Fletcher, Jade Frost, Candace Kresse, Mysti Jace Pride, Tay Schulz, Amberly M. Simpson, & Helena Smith-Pohl
Novel Reflections: An Immersive Dance Experiment
July 28 & 29, 2023
Ambo Dance Theatre
812 Clarks Lane
Louisville, KY 40217
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.