Staging an outdoor performance at a BART station is certainly risky. But that’s also what makes it appealing. So thought Eric Kupers, the director of a new experimental dance piece called The Dislocation Express, which will happen this week at BART stations throughout the Bay Area. A collaboration between Kupers’ group, Dandelion Dancetheater, and AXIS Dance Company (which mixes disabled and able-bodied dancers), Dislocation was roughly three years in the making, owing to its logistical complexity. The idea was to create a roving theatrical spectacle with acts performed on multiple sides of the bay. It would have to be incredibly calculated, but with the seeming spontaneity of a flash mob.
On Sunday, the eleven dancers launched their first installment at the Ed Roberts Campus, across the street from the Ashby BART station. Their plan was to finish the first act there in 45 minutes, then pack up their equipment and herd the audience onto a Fremont-bound train, transfer to a Pittsburg/Bay Point train at the MacArthur station, and wind up at the Walnut Creek station to perform the second act. If all went according to plan, then the show would last about three hours, including transit time. The two dance companies left a lot of things up to chance — after all, that was the point.
It made for an exciting — albeit jerky — performance. Dislocation started amid a cacophony of background noise: cars; pedestrians; the drum circle at Ashby flea market. The dancers set up their stage at the entrance to Ed Roberts, which is a center of independent living for people with disabilities. They formed a circle out of metronomes, around which the audience sat. Some people brought lawn chairs; others stood or squatted. Two women handled a tripod and video camera, while other people documented on cell phones. Musicians sat at the perimeter, too, including a clarinetist and two kids playing a junk percussion set. A stagehand wound all the metronomes so they clicked in the background like kitchen timers. Kupers knelt before a microphone with his mandolin in tow. He wore a dress.
At 6 p.m., the performers emerged. Three were in wheelchairs. All wore dingy costumes that mixed different time periods: pork pie hats, calico prints, shawls, lace, vests, fur caps. The idea was to create a collage effect, i.e., “dislocation” from any particular time and place. Kupers began reading the script into a microphone, intoning each line in mumbled spoken-word cadence. Loosely based on a short story by Kimiko Guthrie (who also helped with the choreography), the plot was about a woman named Gig who considered herself a modern-day wanderer, partly because of qualities she’d inherited from her hobo grandmother, and partly because of her addiction to the Internet. “Whatever it is she needs to find it, touch it, taste it, and she’s determined never to stop this search,” Kupers read, as dancer Cristina Carrasquillo rolled to the foot of the stage in a motorized wheelchair.
Heavy background noise contrived with the shoddy sound system to blot out most of what Kupers was saying, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. His job was merely to lay out the bare-bones details, and leave most of the exposition up to the dancers. Visually, they tried to represent a fast-paced Internet culture in which people constantly collide with one another. They ran and wheeled in concentric circles, leapt, somersaulted, tumbled, and knocked over metronomes. A wheelchair-bound dancer named Rodney Bell ended the performance lying on his back, chair upended.
As people applauded, actor Nils Jorgensen, who was dressed as a train conductor, gave us instructions to board the Fremont train and transfer at MacArthur. Kupers and the other performers tried to ensure a smooth transition between acts, even though they weren’t allowed to stage anything past the fare gate. They created a sound file for people to download to their iPhones while riding from Ashby to Walnut Creek. It featured a train-themed soundtrack and verbalized instructions, enjoining listeners to dance and sing on the train (which didn’t really happen). The performers also wore giant hats with tassels and bells that tinkled as they walked. Kupers said he wanted the hats to look “strange and wondrous,” if only to make the train seem more like a stage theater.
So in a way, the commute became its own piece of performance art. Train operators, cranky passengers, a seven-minute delay in Lafayette, a man hawking rap CDs, and a BART employee handing out surveys were all unwitting participants in Dislocation, helping create the “accelerated culture” that Kupers wanted to use as his backdrop. Act II started about fifteen minutes late, with a different audience from the one at Ashby. The dancers gathered in an alleyway outside the Walnut Creek station, quickly set up their sound monitors, and laid out about twenty white umbrellas, all of them buffeted by an evening wind. That, too, was part of the chanciness of this performance, Kupers said. “We hadn’t anticipated that set was kind of a wind tunnel,” he explained later, but added that it ultimately created more visual texture for Dislocation — like building something from scratch, and having it blown away.