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Photo: XMB Photography
Photo: XMB Photography

TRANSIT at Dupont Underground

After a three-day stint at Dupont Underground, Australian-born choreographer and dancer Sarah J. Ewing’s site-specific, original dance and technology performance of TRANSIT left observers with pensive expressions. The looks were not of confusion, but rather a contemplation of the progression of life and the various elements that contribute to our individual present or future state.

The performance began with white words cast upon stonewalls spelling “TRANSIT.” Then blinding lights lit up the tunnel as dancers stepped lightly into the space. Each dancer’s gray attire matched their facial expression, as well as the intended expressionless ambiance.

As the performers stood motionless, the sounds of commuting began to echo through the seats. In coordination with the music, the lights shifted from spots to ripples to darkness, illustrating the obstacles of traveling uncontrollably through life.

The interpretive showcase told the story of three generations of women experiencing similar hardships and joy at every turn in life through different time periods. During a brief interview with Ewing, she explained her vision as a “treasure map of life showing moments intertwined with linear time.”

This movement was a display of power and grace. The dancers’ modern choreography coupled with the music, which maintained a steady beat except for the occasional syncopation, kept viewers fixated on the stage and constantly wondering what would come next.

The audience witnessed solos, duets and a small ensemble, all of whom told the narrative of the linear timeline of life. In one ensemble scene, each performer moved in their own style, sometimes in a haphazard way that might not be considered dancing at all, followed by the rest of the ensemble mimicking the leader’s motions in sync. The scene spoke to the chaos of life and how we are often solely focused on our personal forward progress while others are stuck in peril.

The performance welcomed a plethora of themes, but it would be tough to argue against the significance of time in the piece. The transformative lighting and shifting sounds in each scene highlighted the evolution of characters. Time, illustrated by score, was constant. The volume rose and fell, but it was constantly there, declaring the inevitable continuation of time, no matter our individual circumstances.

The hour-long performance sustained a solemn tone throughout, however, the final scene marked a shift in rhythmic excitement and exaggerated dance that brought a sense of joy to the dark, underground tunnel. This conveyed that through life’s journey, one will always have reasons to celebrate even when it seems impossible.

TRANSIT is a collaboration between S. J. Ewing and Dancers, CulturalDC at Dupont Underground and CityDance. To see upcoming showcases at Dupont Underground or to learn more, visit here. Ticket prices vary from exhibit to exhibit but typically range from $10-$20, with an occasional free event happening.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Circle NW, DC; 202-315-1321; www.dupontunderground.org

Photo: www.tbdimmersive.com
Photo: www.tbdimmersive.com

Cabaret Rising at Dupont Underground

With each step down the spray-painted, concrete staircase, you feel yourself leaving our world and entering a twisted reality composed of an authoritarian regime, a pissed-off resistance and a little bit of drag. Cabaret Rising, a TBD Immersive production, is a mesmeric theatre experience in the Dupont Underground that leaves you wanting more.

TBD Immersive hosted the first Cabaret Rising experience last year, so the current production is more of a sequel than an original production. To set the scene: a year has passed since the execution-style shooting of a journalist on the cabaret’s main stage, causing the resistance to retreat underground. From what I gathered, the resistance is a group of activists who are hiding from the oppressive authoritarian regime that exists above ground.

Madame Martine, the leader of the cabaret, quickly becomes a suspicious character, but you have to figure out why on your own. Eventually, there’s an uprising and you get to choose your favorite leader before the show abruptly ends.

There are several layers of storylines involved, but I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers. Besides, those storylines are so nuanced that I could barely grasp them in the three-hour period I was there. This show is definitely one you need to attend multiple times in order to understand the full scope of it.

That being said, there’s a clever crossover between reality and the cabaret when many characters voice their complaints about the lack of toilets and heating in the Underground, which is an actual thing. No bathrooms means after the third glass of wine, you have to leave the show and cross the street to a nearby hotel to relieve yourself.

By far the best part of the show was the cabaret aspect, which features jugglers, acroyoga and some very tasteful stripping. With three acts featuring three to four performances each, the cabaret broke up the often awkward milling about that guests are subjected to when the stage is empty.

In theory, the immersive experience is great, but in practice, it was a bit lacking. Having a smaller audience could possibly help with this issue because it’s difficult to capture the full essence of the story when you have to wait in line to speak with main characters.

However, when you do get the chance to hear their stories, the characters themselves are very interesting. I didn’t meet a single actor that night who wasn’t completely transformed into their character, which is another one of the cabaret’s saving graces.

Eventually, I did relax and have a good time, but it took over half the show to get me there. With more guidance from cast members, a storyline with a faster pace and a smaller audience, I think Cabaret Rising could become a huge success.

Cabaret Rising runs through Sunday, March 4. Doors open at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets start at $55.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Circle NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org

Photo: newmusictheatre.org
Photo: newmusictheatre.org

The Sounds of Surveillance

When an authoritarian regime spies on its citizens, what sound does it make? According to George Orwell, that sound is the background noise from a telescreen. For Margaret Atwood, it’s blessings from an ambiguous but menacing religion. And for the Alliance of New Music-Theatre’s interpretation of Protest, totalitarianism can sound a lot like the echo of Dupont Circle traffic.

Alliance is currently performing the famous play written by Václav Havel, former political prisoner – and Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president – in Dupont Underground through May 21. One of DC’s best-kept secrets, Dupont Underground is a public arts space that served as a streetcar station until 1962.

Because Protest has such a long history of censorship, the subterranean setting was phenomenal. Audience members accessed the space by descending under Dupont Circle from an easily-missed entrance. Lit by only a few glowing lights, the drop in temperature was sudden and significant. Viewers made their way down the winding tunnel to reach the stage, passing by a makeshift bar and graffiti-covered walls.

Protest marks the cavernous art space’s first play, and in the repurposed labyrinth, car horns and sirens play a much more sinister role. The echoes bouncing off concrete walls in the underground tunnels have each character darting nervous looks over their shoulders as they discuss – and avoid discussing – their political situation. According to Alliance’s Artistic Director, Susan Galbraith, the venue plays as much of a role in the performance as the actors do.

“One night, we had helicopters circling throughout the performance so they [emphasized] the danger that the [characters] lived under surveillance all the time,” Galbraith said. “So, it does change the performance enormously, but I also think sometimes it can get so quiet. And we can still feel that immediacy, intimacy and internal monologue.”

Protest depicts an encounter between a formerly jailed activist, Vaněk (Drew Valins), and a wealthy man who has invited him over, Staněk (David Millstone). Staněk needs Vaněk’s help releasing his daughter’s fiancé from political prison, while Vaněk needs Staněk’s influential signature on a petition. Both characters need something from one another, yet the constant surveillance under which they live requires them to perform an elaborate and awkward dance of small talk.

After his imprisonment for defending a radical punk band’s creative freedom, Havel’s plays were banned from public performance. But that didn’t stop the revolutionary. His plays became known as “apartment plays,” performed for private audiences. With Havel often playing his everyman alter-ego, Vaněk, the two-character play became known for its sense of urgency and claustrophobia. In addition to the venue itself, Dupont Circle contributes to the message of the play as well.

“Dupont Circle has been a place of ferment and social movements in Washington,” Galbraith said. “In my time, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the transgender movement, the climate movement now – all of these things – [are] thrilling to me. There’s something happening upstairs that feeds this down here. So, I’m hoping all of our pieces will have that dimension.”

But the ever-present threat of surveillance and political turmoil isn’t the only familiar aspect of the play. Toward the end of the hour plus-long production, Staněk must battle himself as much as Vaněk battles the repressive regime.

In a fierce monologue, Staněk weighs the pros and cons of signing the petition. Is the loss of social status worth a clear conscience, or should protest be left to the known dissidents? As Staněk’s desire for revolution collides with his lofty reputation, Protest reminds its audience that regardless of social status, we the privileged share a responsibility to incite change.

“Now, more and more people are talking about Havel,” Galbraith said. “One guy who came to our show held up a picture of a poster in one of these marches in Seattle. It said, ‘Where is Václav Havel now?’ So, I think there is this feeling of, ‘Where is he now? Where is that voice? Where is the voice of total morality and challenge to us?’ And we’re looking for the leaders, hopefully not to just do it for us.”

Catch performances of Protest at Dupont Underground on May 19 at 7:30 p.m., May 20 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and May 21 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$30 and can be purchased on Dupont Underground’s website.

Dupont Underground: 1500 19th St. NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org