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IMPRESSIONS: Jody Oberfelder Projects’ The Brain Piece At New York Live Arts

IMPRESSIONS: Jody Oberfelder Projects’ The Brain Piece At New York Live Arts

Published on July 7, 2017
Photo: Christopher Duggan

June 29, 2017

Conception, Writing, Direction, Costume and Prop Design: Jody Oberfelder

Dancers: Pierre Guilbault, Mary Madsen, and Hannah Wendel

Dancer Docents: Carmen Caceres, Cecilia Fontanesi, Emily Giovane, Lindsey Mandolini, Maya Orchin, Bo Presley, Jule Jo Ramirez, Gabrielle Revlock, Patrice Miller, Mei Yamanaka

Collaborating Neuroscientists: We ji Ma, Cecilia Fontanesi, Ed Lain


Pictured above left to right: Jody Oberfelder, Pierre Guilbault, Hannah Wendel, and Mary Madsen.

Every day, beneath our skin, our organs perform a delicate ballet. Working with each other and independently, these body parts keep us alive and in pursuit of life. Yet their processes can remain unfamiliar, even unnoticeable, to us.

Choreographer Jody Oberfelder has been on a kick bringing these biological structures to the stage. After studying them intensely and dialoguing with experts, she creates dances that explore an organ’s real and metaphorical form and function.

Several years ago, she premiered 4Chambers, a site-specific immersive performance dedicated to the heart. The experience, equally exhilarating and discomfiting, allowed a small audience to follow dancer-docents through four “chambers” and two “arteries.” Each space required participation, whether it be dancing with a performer or answering deeply personal questions.

A film of a group of people in bright prints is projected on the back wall of the theater and on its floor
Film still from “Dance of the Neurons”; Photo Credit: Eric Siegel 

Now she’s back with The Brain Piece, which received its debut at New York Live Arts. Unlike 4Chambers’ almost claustrophobic linkage of person to material, The Brain Piece is roomier, both in audience size (seventy-two rather than a dozen) and content (less specific in its provocation).

Oberfelder takes a fanciful approach to the brain. Forget gray matter and hard-to-pronounce anatomical structures. This brain is fun, wonder-filled, and colorful. The tropical-bird palette attests to that.

Pre-show, performers affix a bright dot to our clothing. My green sticker marks me as part of the group captained by Hannah Wendel and Pierre Guilbault. Oberfelder’s instructions — “Log in” — echo as Wendel and Guilbault lead us down a staircase. Stationing us on alternating steps, they execute a brief dance, placing their foreheads in the other’s hand.

Once in the basement, we enter a room hung with black domes, similar to lampshades. Under them, we discover decorations ranging from downy feathers to gleaming shells. A mirrored one creeps me out as I gaze wide-eyed at multiple angles of myself.

These domes have a purpose beyond arty novelties. The brain functions as our memory keeper, releasing snapshots of our past evoked by sight, sound, and scent. While most of the domes leave me rooted to current time and space, one of coniferous twigs unleashes a long-forgotten recollection of camping as a kid. I tear up in nostalgia.

We visit the theater next, walking through rows of seats and swiping hands with the purple dot group. Docents tickle our scalps — a delight — before we head to the lobby, now transformed into a rollicking carnival. A bartender pours “Brain-Freeze” cocktails, and Oberfelder presents a platter of spicy-yet-sweet truffles. I scribble a random thought on colorful paper and pin it to a “Brain Map.” We play tug-of-war, right brains against left brains.

Dancers assume wide positions with bent legs. A pattern of white lines is projected on the back wall and floor
Pictured left to right: Hannah Wendel, Pierre Guilbault, and Mary Madsen; Photo: Christopher Duggan

For our last stop, we congregate on stage as dreamy music drones. Docents place our hands on another’s shoulders — a literal connecting of the dots. We may be emulating a brain, joining thoughts together, but really, we are one big euphoric feeling.

Then, this convivial zaniness ends, never to be reestablished. Because it’s time for an excessively long proscenium performance. A trippy video plays of dancers dissolving in and out of dance phrases, like a kaleidoscope of neurons. Then, a lush and forceful trio (Wendel, Guilbault, and Mary Madsen) surges through prosaic floor rolls, low leaps, and rond de jambes à terre. Finally, the cast gathers, exhales (a hint at Oberfelder’s next organ?), and collapses to the floor.

While Oberfelder must have been delighted to have New York Live Arts’ cutting-edge theater at her creative disposal, this section — both in length and substance — feels obligatory, slight, and inconclusive. With nothing taxing to watch nor revelatory to ponder, I log off. The dots have stopped connecting.


The Dance Enthusiast Shares IMPRESSIONS, our brand of review and Creates Conversation.
Check out our other IMPRESSIONS here.
Read a POSTCARD from Oberfelder and a review of her work 4Chambers.
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