IMPRESSIONS: Ursula Eagly's "The Nature of Physical Reality" at Abrons Art Center
November 3, 2021
Choreography: Ursula Eagly
Lighting: Madeline Best
Sound: Kohji Setoh
Performers: Ursula Eagly, Madeline Best, Kohji Setoh, Takemi Kitamura, Maho Ogawa
A conversation between the worlds happening around us and within us is ignited in The Nature of Physical Reality, an experimental one-on-one performance by Ursula Eagly. There are a plethora of personal experiences contained within the mind and body that when tapped into by outside sensations (sound, sight, and/or touch) give birth to — or resuscitate — stories we did not know we held. In this meditative observation, your mind is the performer and your memories are the script that stitches each interaction together.
As I check-in at the front desk of the Abrons Art Center lobby, Ursula Eagly greets me like a physical therapist would a patient arriving for an appointment. She guides me upstairs to a corridor where I leave my coat, phone, and backpack before assuring me that my belongings “will be safe here.”
Trailing her, I enter a 8’x12’ rectangular-shaped room. In front of me is a chair facing the east next to a table loaded with technical equipment. To my left, there is a second chair facing the west. Both north and south walls have open windows on the east side of the room. As you can tell, I am always cognizant of my cardinal directions even when indoors; it centers me.
Eagly invites me to take a seat in the chair by the windows as she closes the doors and sits in her chair so that we end up facing each other. “This is about your perception,” she says, letting me know she will not impose any ideas or thoughts on me. She explains how the listening device I will wear works, and we perform a soundcheck. I can leave my eyes open or closed as I choose. I understand this to be a journey of my own mind, and I am anxious as to how I will allow my thoughts to ebb and flow.
She holds a fuzzy microphone in one hand and gently caresses it with the other. I’m instantly transported to the ocean. A sense of calm comes over me as I bask in the sun streaming in from outside. The windows are open, and I can hear the sound of kids playing. Their screams remind me of birds so in my head I call them “bird-kids.” After a moment of listening to the waves, she moves to close the windows. The sun is gone, but the lights in the room are still on.
Again she caresses the fuzzy microphone, and the sensation evolves from oceans to the internal sound you hear when someone is gently caressing your head. I fall even deeper into this experience, comfortable, vulnerable even, with this stranger six feet away. For a moment, thoughts of safety arise: “How do I physically submit myself to her perception of safety without knowing her? If I close my eyes and place my hands facing up on my knees will she see that I am surrendering?” I am vulnerable and yet concerned about my guide’s perception of safety.
The lights begin to dim, and I open my upfacing hands even wider. The ocean, birds, head caresses, crunching tundra under heavy footsteps. The sounds from this microphone are opening windows to experiences I can’t clearly see, but I begin to feel them and to recreate half-drawn visual images for each. A siren from a police car outside blares. I guard my mind, reluctant to allow certain experiences/thoughts to roam.
The overhead lights are now so low that I can only see the reflection of her white socks poised as she is seated in her chair. Suddenly a red light on my right fills the room. While I know where I am, this light reminds me of being in my room during quarantine: a safe space for experimentation and creation. We sit here together for a moment in silence. I collect my thoughts in peace.
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing you are not the voice of the mind — you are the one who hears it.” — The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself; A. Singer, Michael.
She rises to open the windows, and the sun floods back in. I find it strange that my anxiety is rising. “This reminds me of what it was like to return to the outside after quarantine,” I said. “It’s more safe here.”
What I appreciate most about The Nature of Physical Reality is its reduction to simplistic forms of reception and inspiration: sound and vibration. It is an experiment in a controlled environment that ultimately relies on the vulnerability of both participants, the guest and the facilitator. Often we don’t sit with our thoughts long enough to find our center. From my experience with Eagly, I was able to recognize my body’s depths and layers where I hold and hide memories.
Even though I return to songs of teenage angst whenever I’m in a mood, I never concretely considered sound as a facilitator of sense memory within the body as it pertains to performance. I am grateful for the offering, for the stage healing. Rather than feed me texts and decorative imagery, The Nature of Physical Reality provided me with a moment, in the city that never sleeps, to be present and to acknowledge where I am in my own journey.