Digging in the Dark
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
July 14, 2006
Often the most engrossing theatrical presentations are ones that take you on a journey of the imagination, and certainly one of the most exciting journeys I've been taken on recently is courtesy of a San Francisco-based physical theater company called Capacitor. The company's latest offering, Digging in the Dark, takes the audience on an 8,000 mile trip through the Earth's core and back out again with a stunning combination of artistic creativity and technical skill.
Capacitor uses scientific inquiry and concepts as its inspiration, and Digging in the Dark is in step with the company's previous artistic history. The program credits the services of four geophysicists along with its more traditional creative team, and it also gives a short synopsis of the geophysical principles the company will be exploring as we delve deeper and deeper toward the center of the Earth. Thus, "Crust/Majestic Body, Majestic Earth" is described as "a complex interplay of rigid rock bodies", and we witness the troupe form a bubbling mass of bodies pulsing and pushing each other to surface. In "Crust/Slow Change," we are treated to the same layer of the Earth, but through different physical principles. Here, a shifting arrangement of partners coming together and breaking apart results in a slow, central collapse—physicalizing what is described in the program as the gradual shifting of geophysical forces trying to attain equilibrium. Interspersed here and there among these physical representations of the Earth's structure are a juggling scientist and his partner, who—with the assistance of some nifty interactive toys—illustrate the quest of science to try to understand it all.
But while obviously taking these scientific principles seriously, choreographer Jodi Lomask and her team don't seem compelled to turn the theatre into some sort of remedial science class, or spit back everything they have learned into an avant-garde version of a grade school research paper. Instead, Digging in the Dark uses science as a framework to give shape and structure to its artistic explorations and interpretations, which combine traditional and modern dance and movement techniques, aerial gymnastics and juggling, and multimedia technology into a beautiful display of movement and tableaux.
Take for example "Mantle," where two dancers twist, turn, and grind against each other in what feels like a mating ritual, their shifting movements projected into shimmering forms on the screen behind them captured by a camera mounted overhead. In another striking piece—"Outer Core"—the ensemble is garbed like human flames, spinning and tumbling until they slow down into slow moving, triangular configurations, now apparently portraying the solid center of the "Inner Core." And although we explore the same layers on our climb back out to the surface as we experienced on the way in, Digging in the Dark manages to keep the return trip just as captivating. In particular, "Inner Core/Orb" and "Lithosphere/Magma Rising"—two pieces that feature movement both on the stage and suspended in the air—are breathtaking to behold.
Assisting these movement artists is an outstanding design team, incorporating lively video images, sound, and lights that set a mood of mystery, and a simple but imaginative costume design by Monique Kapp that makes a point of highlighting—rather than distracting from—the beauty of the human form in motion. This is a quality that can be seen throughout Digging in the Dark, and is perhaps what keeps the piece so focused in its conception and execution. Lomask, as director and choreographer, seems to have taken care to make sure that neither the stylized design and multimedia elements, nor the clever interactive gadgetry, overwhelms what is most impressive about the piece—namely the tremendous talent of its performers and their ability to reinterpret some heady scientific concepts through physical gesture and form.
This may be the main reason why Digging in the Dark as a whole doesn't get bogged down in its intellectual underpinnings. Although inspired by science and utilizing technology, there is something beautifully simple and primitive about this piece. Digging in the Dark doesn't try to explain away the mystery of the physical forces that define our world from underneath our feet, but instead seems to revel in the wonder of it all. The result is a spectacular evening that feels like the beginning of an ancient tribal ritual, mythologizing into art the mysteries of the physical world.