Thu. Jun 8th, 2023

WITH THE WINDING TITLE of her latest dance, Mapping a Forest While Searching for an Opposite Term of Exorcist, the choreographer Mina Nishimura suggests she’s looking for a role, a word, which she has so far grasped only by way of its inverse. As the audience filed into Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church before the show, the work’s title was projected across one wall. If an exorcist expels spirits from a body, or a space, would Nishimura and her collaborators be inviting spirits in, summoning the supernatural into their bodies and the space of the church?

It sometimes seemed that way, if fleetingly, over the dance’s seventy minutes, in the loose and spooky matrix of appearances and interactions that materialized throughout the building. Like Nishimura’s 2018 work, Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W), also presented at St. Mark’s Church, Mapping a Forest whimsically investigated the architecture of the East Village landmark, highlighting portals and passageways in particular. Sitting on and around the church altar, the audience faced the main entryway and the two smaller doors that flank it. Those doors lead to shadowy backstage rooms and two sets of stairs, partially obscured, which lead to a balcony that wraps around the performance space, providing a second, elevated stage.

In their capricious comings and goings through these and other channels, the eight performers lit up the edges of our vision: the crevices of carpeted risers, stretches of unadorned wall, a distant corner that holds a grand piano. Nishimura—an extraordinary mover who made her first entrance from beneath that piano, although how and when she got there was a mystery—is curious about peripheries, both in the physical realm and less empirically observable dimensions. What lies beyond that which the audience can see? How can a performance attune itself to this? Mapping a Forest also arises from her interest in Buddhist concepts of “emptiness” and “no-mind.” In a conversation with curator Seta Morton for Danspace’s online journal, Nishimura describes “no-mind” as the cultivation of a “soft and quiet inner state,” a kind of openness to whatever may enter one’s consciousness. In her dance practice, she notes, she begins from that state, “so that anything from outside can arrive.”

Mina Nishimura, Mapping a Forest While Searching for an Opposite Term of Exorcist, Danspace Project, New York, 2022. Stuart B Meyers, Emma Rose Brown, Jace Weyant, and Glenn Potter-Takata. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Before any discernible movement in Mapping a Forest, there was sound: the chiming of bells that at first seemed like St. Mark’s Church’s hourly toll, until you remembered that the show started on the half-hour, and noticed that the bells weren’t fading, they were growing louder. (These turned out to be the first notes of Kenta Nagai’s subtle, intermittent score.) Dancer Jace Weyant, who had been kneeling near the main entrance, her torso draped over a riser, peeled herself up and walked down the center of the room, a slow and hollowed-out drifting that would return in other guises. Meanwhile, Glenn Potter-Takata, up in the balcony, walked in the other direction, like a gentle opposing force.

Building on these simple pathways, much of the material, dance and otherwise, unspooled in solo or duet form, like scattered islands of activity. evan ray suzuki sat scribbling in a notebook; Potter-Takata applied pieces of tape to the wall. Early on, Emma Rose Brown crawled across the floor while telling herself aloud, “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.” She repeated this later while writhing vehemently, before coming to rest in a fetal position, her body curled around a pillar. Other performers also seemed to beckon alternative states of consciousness, through vigorous, jittery exertion or more internal, incremental shifts, like the pulsations that flickered across Stuart B. Meyers’s face. At times, video footage from the group’s recent Danspace residency (which involved local “pop-up performances”) showed them engaged in similar exploits on the streets outside of St. Mark’s Church. Kathy Kaufmann’s expert lighting added discreetly to the play with what could and could not be seen.

As is often the case in Nishimura’s work, it was the choreographer herself who most fully inhabited her own vision. Her presence electrified the space, most notably in an extended solo toward the end of the piece. As she kneeled on the floor, her feet tucked under her and torso folded forward, Potter-Takata began to chant the Heart Sutra from the balcony. (Nagai processed the vocals live to give them a growling, textured depth.) Chanted several times daily in Zen Buddhist monasteries, the Heart Sutra translates from the Sanskrit as “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” As Nishimura’s torso began to churn and thrash—in a repetitive action that somehow gradually brought her to standing—the chant’s driving, cyclical rhythms seemed inseparable from her being, as if she had swallowed and digested the sonic vibrations. Her plain white t-shirt appeared to be inside out and backwards, states mirrored in her twisting movement. (Kota Yamazaki, her husband and frequent collaborator, designed the understated costumes; he is also credited with dramaturgy.) Whatever plane her fellow performers had occupied, intriguing as they were, Nishimura ascended to another.

Mina Nishimura, Mapping a Forest While Searching for an Opposite Term of Exorcist, Danspace Project, New York, 2022. evan ray suzuki. Photo: Ian Douglas.

If the work felt drawn-out or diffuse at times, perhaps that was an effect of creating conditions hospitable to the unknown. Watching on two consecutive nights, I found my mind wandering during the first show. During the second, now with a sense of the overall structure, I realized how much I had missed: patterns, tensions, repetitions. What had first seemed random or chaotic revealed itself to be a carefully assembled order—a ritual for welcoming the unexpected, a map that could be redrawn again and again.

When another dancer drifted into the space during Nishimura’s solo, it felt like an interruption of something holy. And yet, what happened next, and last, was just as uncanny. Other performers returned, taking up introspective tasks, as a peaceful, nocturnal mood settled over the room. Then the front door opened, and someone we hadn’t yet seen wandered in. For a minute at least, I was sure this stranger was a lost, inquisitive passerby, and that Nishimura’s summoning had worked—not for a ghost or a spirit, but for an ordinary person.


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