It's elemental 

Beacon Dance completes its four-part epic with an ode to air

The old brick walls are stained and pocked. The concrete floor is cracked and roughly patched. Above, the ceiling is a puzzle of boards dark with age and new planks of white-yellow pine.

Where there was once a delivery gate, an old wood-burning stove punches its pipe through new plywood. It couldn't possibly heat this place; there's too much air in here. An old bank of windows is walled shut with cinder blocks. And where once there was a wall, someone has busted a jagged doorway through the bricks.

In this space, Beacon Dance will perform To Air is Human, the final installment in the company's four-part epic, The Elemental Project. All four pieces are site-specific works; they exist in conversation with the performance spaces. And each is multi-disciplinary, bringing together modern movement, aerial dance, music, spoken word, theater and video projections around one of the four basic elements: water, earth, fire and air.

There is a life cycle to The Elemental Project. The series started in 1998 with Water Study, staged in the vast basement of City Hall East. The dance looked at the beginnings of life: the ocean, the amniotic cradle, the baptismal bath of rebirth. Earth 1999 emerged from the primordial ooze to stomp about on hard rocks and dry leaves in City Hall East's Gallery. Lives transformed and ended were the subject of Into the Inferno, which brought pyrotechnics to the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

To Air is Human, opening at The B Complex May 1, examines freedom beyond corporeal being. Artistic Director D. Patton White began work on the piece in June 2001. He gave his dancers a series of questions to write about over the summer. Among them: "What would you give up to be free?" "What are you holding onto? Why are you holding onto it?" "What dreams do we have? Do they imprison us as well?"

Three months later, the 9-11 attacks gave new meaning to the questions. In the land of the free, suspects were held without trial or charge, the Justice Department freed itself of fundamental judicial restraints, and librarians were drafted as secret agents in the war on terror. "We were faced with different ways that our government was starting to take away our freedoms," says White.

The dance company's response is a series of structured improvisations -- free movement unified by common questions -- in the old Lanham Cotton Cultivator building, now owned by an artists' collective. (White had hoped to return to City Hall East for To Air is Human, but heightened security measures made it impossible.) "The dance itself continues to be as free as it can possibly be," says White, "not something that's pre-determined and devoid of the life that we hope this format brings to the piece."

Dressed in richly textured sheer whites, the dancers look like animated clouds in the troposphere, like angels in flight. They build fleeting sculptures of plastic chairs, walk the floor in blindfolds, fly on a trapeze and play in a pile of cast-off clothes. They ride a caravan of noisy vehicles: a wheelbarrow, a dolly with a seat, a bed built on a rolling platform for moving dreams.

White panels of fabric, rolling in the breeze, serve as screens for Maya Ciarrocchi's video projections, which include close-up footage of the dancers, images of Ground Zero and studies of the qualities of air. On a raised stage, Allen Welty-Green mixes ambient tonal sounds. Beth Heidelberg plays the flute and other winds.

The audience is also encouraged to be free. Traditional boundaries are violated and the usual scripts abandoned. The dance is all around you. You decide where to sit or stand, where to watch as the dancers move about. A dancer may touch you; she may ask, "What do you dream?" or "How free are you really?" "They can choose to answer us, or they can choose to respond ... with a gesture or a movement or a sigh or a look of the eyes," says White. "Or they can break free and feel the spirit move 'em."

If the freedom feels too much like falling, Beacon's Amy Zeger-Burton will be there as a "caretaker." "If somebody feels like they need some guidance," says White, "she is there to be that liaison, somebody who is making sure that the audience doesn't freak out."

The experience is not for everyone. Those who need an anonymous seat in a darkened hall from which to watch a well-lit proscenium performance may find this too much vertigo. But for those up to the jump, it's an emancipating rush.

Perhaps, in this space, there will be a rhythmic rebellion, a lyrical liberation, a shedding of the weights that tell us we can't fly. It feels like this: an upswept wind, a cyclone and a sigh.

thomas.bell@creativeloafing.com

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