As the audience filed into ODC Theater on Saturday night, the intimacy of choreographer James Graham’s most recent “dancetheater” piece, “Alpha Mouse,” was already palpable. Friendly strangers conversed, their questions of “do you know James?” indicative of a familiarity permeating the theater.
“Alpha Mouse” successfully elaborated upon its own name, cited by Graham as an exploration of the strength in quiet and composure, multiple times throughout the production. In a set speaking to the tenuous nature of human mortality, Graham and company member Galen Rogers matched one another in monotone bursts of song. Taking turns to press an ear to the other’s chest, each performer listened to breaths and heartbeats and the echoes of sound in each other’s ribcages. Graham spoke to the sense of provocative sensitivity when Rogers seemingly effortlessly carried Graham, in fetal position, offstage.
The image of grown men allowing themselves open vulnerability and tenderness, not equatable to weakness, challenged the audience to consider cultural perceptions of gender.
In another duet with Rogers, Graham further successfully explored the fluidity of gender, which he believes “doesn’t need to be labelled.” Rogers, back turned to the audience and swaying languidly, let down a silky headdress in mimicry of waves of hair. Suddenly, the dancer became pop singer Crystal Gayle, as dictated by Graham’s nostalgic intonement of childhood yearnings to brush the star’s famously long locks. Regardless of his minimal costume change, Rogers’ body language communicated a discernable shift in his presentation of self. The transformation ended with another moment of gentleness, as Rogers softly kissed Graham upon the forehead.
The addition of female dancers about 30 minutes into “Alpha Mouse” provided a further level of complexity to the navigation of gender onstage. In one of the show’s more comedic moments, tearful male and female dancers came together to, as Rogers solemnly intoned, “mourn the death of masculinity.” Performers took turns offering their memories of the subject of the gathering. Some earned appreciative chuckles from the audience: “I think that if masculinity were here right now, he would call all of us pussies.” Others wooed viewers with intonations reminiscent of poetry: “I remember the heat of his breath in my ear and the smell of beer.” Rogers’ frenzied exclamation that “the world was all his” left him in a hysteria from which his fellow mourners had to coax him. The ceremony ended with a pointed question: “What will fill the void we’re all feeling?” None of the dancers’ flurry of wide-ranging answers satisfied Rogers. The resounding message of ambiguity on the part of all genders in the face of social change rang clearly in the crowd, made increasingly receptive by virtue of the preceding humor.
The abstract and constantly shifting nature of the piece, however, did not function as effectively in the absence of more tangible performance elements, such as the aforementioned spurts of coherent dialogue. At times, the ambiguity of prolonged periods of movement, which lacked musical accompaniment and a discernible narrative, left viewers too confused to appreciate the intricacies of the art. For instance, during a period with all performers onstage, the dancers engaged in a series of unique numbers. As different performers competed to lead the movements, the scene devolved into chaos, with each practicing their own hectic motions. Booming techno music shifted on and off. While plausibly a commentary on the nature of socially designated gender roles, the constant shifting of action and intent obscured meaning.
Overall, “Alpha Mouse” succeeded in beginning to explore the complexities of gender identity and relations, though the occasional lapse into vagueness at times blurred any dialogue “Alpha Mouse” may have hoped to spark. Regardless of such imperfections, however, as the dancers stood for their bows, viewers responded with raucous applause. The musings and closeness explored onstage continued outside, where a majority of the audience stayed late to chat with the cast. All things considered, and regardless of the flaws in “Alpha Mouse,” Graham achieved his stated goal of curating for his audience “an experience in a very unique way.”
Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].