(This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 2/1/17.)
In Babel, the mesmerizing new dance theater piece by Convergences Theatre Collective, the first sight seen by the audience is a stage adorned only by the show’s 22 (Yep!) performers. They represent all races, ethnicities, and body types. Dressed in colorful but simple garments, they stand or lie in their chosen territories, either stationary or making only the most subtle of movements. It’s as if the actors themselves are the show’s set pieces. Some are solitary, and others are coupled. The opening music is the hypnotic soundtrack of nature: waves crashing on the shore, the wind, and other ethereal tones of the outdoors. As the story begins, Mother Earth’s playlist evolves into a melody, starting out with an ominous and cautious vibe and then turning joyous and effervescent. The performers, slowly breaking out of their trances, follow along with the mood. They seemingly recreate the jubilation of the first humans learning to stand on two legs for the first time, as well as their awe of a wider view of the world around them. The performers’ initial movements— primitive, instinctual, and seemingly inspired by the animal kingdom— lead to more dynamic and acrobatic maneuvers with each other: assorted permutations of duos, trios, and beyond. The joy and ambition of these characters, as well as the actors’ joy in performing as them, is simply infectious. Just how high—physically and spiritually— can they ascend?
If the ancient story of the famous tower which inspired Babel is any indication, the humans in this story are about to be humbled… and that’s exactly what happens next. After a few ominous music notes and the dimming of the lights, both the players and the audience get a reminder that, despite our ability to walk on two legs, we are still just animals after all. This leads to the next segment of Babel, where it seems to be… “back to nature”! Many of the segments seem like the complex mating dances of our fellow birds and beasts. The choreography integrates themes of fascination versus apprehension; attraction versus repulsion; altruism versus aggression, and more. Some of the dances are humorous, others are tinged with eroticism, and others are astonishing displays of the performers’ athleticism. (At one point, this reviewer was longing for a bird’s eye view to better appreciate the kaleidoscope-influenced dance moves of one segment, featuring two concentric circles of dancers and some impressive flips…) What all the sequences in Babel have in common is the experience of bonding as human beings. There’s not one line of dialogue in the entire piece, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no acting. The acting is all wordless, and the cast— seemingly of varying levels of experience, but all dedicated— make the most of their bodies and faces.
Babel may be wordless, but that’s exactly the point of this engrossing play. Laughter defies language. The facial expressions of happiness and other emotions transcend words. The representations of human synergy are universal. Co-created and directed by WT McRae and Jeremy Williams, Babel has been evolving for three years. However, given the increasing divisions (political, religious, and ethnic) in our culture as of late, the play’s diverse cast and message of coming together as one couldn’t be more timely in 2017. While the story of the Tower of Babel was a cautionary tale, this Babel has a hopeful ending. We are reminded that the only “walls” we should build are ones where humans bond together for a common humanitarian cause… and the only way we can reach greater heights is when we have our fellow man or woman to hold us up.
Convergences Theatre Collective’s Babel continues through Sunday, February 5th at The Theater at the14th Street Y, 344 E 14th St, New York City. Visit www.14StreetY.org for more information.