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IMPRESSIONS: Laura Peterson Choreography's "Interglacial" at Dixon Place

IMPRESSIONS: Laura Peterson Choreography's "Interglacial" at Dixon Place

Published on December 13, 2021
Photo by Whitney Browne

December 8, 2021

Choreography: Laura Peterson
Dancers: Ching-I Chang, Darrin Wright, Jennifer Payán, Laura Peterson
Lighting Design: Amanda K. Ringger
Music: Omar Zubair
Costume Design: Charles Youssef

Choreography for Laura Peterson is the transformation of space, time, materials, and movement into ideas. In her timely new work Interglacial, four performers interact with a paper environment — which becomes a world in the throes of climate change.

Paper – in sheets of thick papyrus covering the entire space – represents water and ice. A black-box theater becomes a blue-and-white paper ocean, and an hour of time stands for tens of thousands of years – the last Ice Age, and the current Interglacial period – the brief warm spell that has allowed human civilization to flourish in 10 thousand-plus years since the glaciers receded. Normally Earth would be due for another deep freeze soon, but people have messed with the climate in ways that make the future unknowable. 

Two crumpled paper sculptures are beside each other. They look like icebergs.
Laura Peterson Choreography's Interglacial at Dixon Place; Photo Whitney Browne

The piece begins with a Sisyphean image – the four dancers crawl across the stage, head-butting bunches of crumpled paper to the other side. They disappear under a white paper floor – then erupt into icebergs, crackling and swaying, buzzing with Omar Zubair’s hypnotic sound score.  

Eventually, Peterson and Darrin Wright thaw out and begin to move symmetrically in tandem, laying down the laws of motion that govern civilization and its discontents. The law lands hard on Jennifer Payán and Ching-I Chang, who are tumbled violently by forces they can’t see, knocked for a loop around the margins of the set.

Soon all four are marching around, bowing mechanically while kicking themselves in the forehead, for much longer than anyone would want to repeat this action.

As civilization advances, Amanda K. Ringger’s lighting changes imperceptibly from white to pink to blue to green and yellow—global warming with all the sick charm of 65 degrees on Christmas in New York.  

Suddenly, a red alert —a storm bursts and leaves the place a shambles, the blue paper under the white ripped up, scattered, and piled helter-skelter. While Chang and Payán sink into whirlpools of blue, Wright sets out to build a shelter, or maybe an ark, out of torn paper. He fails and gives up.

Two dancers in sleeveless white blouses tilt their bodies sideways and extend their arms up into a V amidst paper sculptures.
Laura Peterson Choreography's Interglacial at Dixon Place; Photo Whitney Browne

Hey everybody, let’s dance! The quartet jerks around clumsily, bumping each other, flailing their limbs without rhythm or purpose. Could this be Generation Z?

Timidly and tentatively, they wander around trying to set the chaos in order. They know it’s impossible, they’re just pretending. The Glasgow conference comes to mind.  

Finally, with some resolve, they roll the whole mess into a single wave and push it to the back of the set. Then they turn and launch it like a tsunami, rolling and tumbling, blue and white, billowing at the audience until we’re up against it. 

Lights out.

It’s not “coming soon.” It’s happening here and now, on Rockaway and the Jersey Shore. Beach Haven without the beach. Fort Tilden under the tide.

Surrounded by paper sculptures, one dancer stands in profile with their spine bowed forward in purplish light.
Laura Peterson Choreography's Interglacial at Dixon Place; Photo Whitney Browne

Interglacial is a new look and a creative peak for Laura Peterson Choreography. Following the departure from New York of a signature dancer, Jennifer Sydor, the company has diversified its cast of four. Dominican-American Payán adds a fierce energy, pressure into the floor. Chang, whose bio says “made in Taiwan,” is a wild card – a gymnast who skitters through space and twists her limbs to eerie angles.  

Peterson, the creator, is one of a very few artists with the intellectual chops to take on a subject as complex as climate change. She does it more than justice — expanding the frame of reference to geological time, leaving politics behind to speculate on humanity’s failure to deal with an existential threat. Is this a death wish? Or just an acknowledgment that the forces which shape us, externally and internally, are beyond our control? Laura leaves us overwhelmed.

Over two decades of following her work, I have thought of Peterson as one of a kind, an artist sui generis. This piece, however, hints at her roots in the 20th Century avant-garde. Those paper icebergs, dwarfing the dancers inside them, recall the inhabited structures of Alwin Nikolais. And the combination of geometric moves with random properties of crumpled paper rolls the dice like a dance by Merce Cunningham.

Peterson extends their vision into the present and uses it to address the state of the world. The avant-garde is still avant, and relevant as ever.


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