Choreography/Direction: Hope Mohr, in collaboration with the performers
Mohr’s newest piece, Leaving the Atocha Station, is inspired by Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel of the same title. Working with and from text is not a new format for Mohr. In 2015 she co-directed (with Mark Jackson) a dance theater production of Antigonick, Anne Caron’s translation of Antigone, for Shotgun Players. Many of Mohr’s previous dances are directly inspired by texts such as extreme lyric I (2018), Plainsong (2012), and The Force that Drives the Flower (2009). She also often relies on oral expression as part of her choreographic structure such as in Manifesting (2016). Last, Mohr’s ambitious Bridge Project is framed by orality as it is “a form of community organizing to facilitate equity-driven cultural conversations.” Given such, Mohr’s work can be situated between dance and theater, body and text. Leaving the Atocha Station is easily placed within her oeuvre and a distinctive contribution.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, Mohr takes on the task of translating and transforming Lerner’s “auto-fiction” to create a “hybrid theater” piece that included dance movements and theater-like monologues. The interplay between these forms amplified a commentary on art that astutely reflected the humor and strangeness of experience – the everyday and extraordinary, the self and other, the familiar and unfamiliar.
The 55-minute piece began as the 2 dancers, Christian Burns and Wiley Naman Strasser, entered the space and sat down at a table strewn with empty pill bottles. They faced each other as if looking into a mirror, Strasser wearing a paper hood that covered his head and neck. They moved, copying each other’s gestures and movements, eventually touching each other as if wanting to know more about the other/the self. Toward the end of the opening, Burns reached over and grabbed the paper hood to take it off. Strasser quickly grabbed it back, clutching it to his body and turning to the side. He wore sunglasses and headphones – clearly not ready to be seen. How do we encounter the self as a self? What masks, screens, pills, and relationships do we hide behind?
I have not read Lerner’s novel, but critics understood it to be informed by Lerner’s personal experiences while living in Madrid, Spain as a Fulbright scholar in 2003. It seems fitting then for Mohr to orient the piece toward the subjective.
A series of scenes followed this opening in which Burns and Strasser took turns reading from, moving with, and responding to parts of Lerner’s novel. Maureen Corrigan (book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air) described Lerner’s novel as an “offbeat little novel [that] manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience.” Yet, Mohr’s editing-by-way-of-extracting gave Lerner’s words an elegant form that allowed the audience to witness the processing of events and happenings experienced by the novel’s main character, Adam Gordon, and performed by both Burns and Strasser; they took turns inhabiting Gordon’s persona. This format provided an alternative way of “reading” Lerner’s novel that allowed the audience to viscerally experience an art encounter in the Prado museum, witness the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and observe a conversation about a drowning. This last moment was striking. Both performers read this conversation from Lerner’s book while standing at microphones. They kept interrupting each other, which gave this section a kind of tragic urgency that left me still – could this be true? Leaving the Atocha Station ended with Burns and Strasser each performing a last scene – one with words, the other with movement. For some reason that I can’t pinpoint, it seemed fitting that the dancing came last. Perhaps dance can offer an embodied rhythm that resonates more clearly than the verbal. Perhaps dance can better “put into words” when the verbal (or textual) seems lacking in descriptive or active potential.
While Leaving the Atocha Station is not a departure for Mohr it was refreshingly poetic in its form and movement. I enjoyed laughing and encountering the question(s) of experience – art, self, and otherwise – the pleasure of not understanding and the wonder that travels with them.
PS: I was fortunate to watch and reflect on the piece with a few friends, which inspired my response in several ways. I would be remiss not to thank them – SW, MN, ML, JH, and MM. It seems fitting that my response here absorbs these conversations. As Lerner noted in an interview in Granta his novel “assimilate[s] many other modes and sources: it contains a poem from my first book of poetry (a poem I feel is changed considerably by being transposed into the fiction); entire pages from an academic essay I wrote on John Ashbery; lines from my third book of poetry; language stolen from friends and heroes; and so on. So yes, I do love how a novel can absorb and constellate other forms, what you called its ‘elasticity’.”