Again, A City Builds Itself

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“I had not thought death had undone so many.”

These words belong to T.S. Eliot, from his poem The Waste Land. When Wayne McGregor’s ballet “Infra” premiered with the Royal Ballet in 2008, a ballet created in response to the London Bombings of July 7th, 2005, its program notes contained this quote, and derived inspiration from Eliot’s poem.

“Infra,” the Latin word for “below,” explores the dislocation and violence thrumming below a city surface, and the fraught connections between individuals attempting to make sense of chaos. The choreography of McGregor’s ballet is strange and distorted; balletic steps are stretched out until they become nearly unrecognizable, hands and feet flex. When the movement quality turns graceful, it looks almost inhuman. Often, the exaggerated steps pull the dancers wildly off-balance.

The feeling of being off-balance has begun to seem familiar, and in recent months, I’ve gravitated towards art that mirrors it. As the United States stumbles towards autocracy, George Orwell’s 1984 has become a best seller again. It makes sense. In an article for the New Republic, Josephine Livingstone writes about the strange process of observing art that presumes a universe solidly stuck in the same world order. She is perturbed by this sort of television’s glamor and presumption of balance, since, as she writes: “our world feels tilted way off its axis since Donald Trump took a hammer to it.”

Like Livingstone, I’ve felt strange about art that requires that “the scales must be perfectly still for things to hang in the balance.” “Infra,” however, makes sense of this dislocation. In locating the moments of beauty and fury that lurk beneath chaos, “Infra” feels like an apt ballet for this dystopian time.

 

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The city depicted in McGregor’s 30-minute ballet is a world fractured by chaos. McGregor makes this fracture literal, and creates two separate planes of reality: what he refers to as the “pedestrian space” and another, separate “physical space.” The former is created with the help of an 18-meter LED screen, which projects electronic commuters walking back and forth across the top of the stage. These humanoids are phantomlike, militant; they walk methodically and carry briefcases, some staggering through the space in high heels. Like we do in large cities, they complete their commutes without acknowledging each other, aggressively pedestrian.

Yet below the cold, urban pedestrian space, twelve dancers physicalize their grief and fury. The stage is stark and bare. Men are shirtless, and women wear black shorts and leotards.

The ballet is arranged into separate movements, panels of spotlight dividing the stage into compartments. Dancers move in and out of formations, splintering off into solos.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood in Wayne McGregor’s “Infra.” Photograph by Bill Cooper

Max Richter’s score alternates between “infras” and “journeys,” in which whirring, robotic sounds and static interrupt the elegiac composition. The steps mirror these interruptions; arms twist backwards into themselves, and embraces are awkward, or too forced. During one pas de deux, a female dancer executes a very proper pirouette ending in a front attitude, then stops, almost shocked to find herself in such a proper pose. She breaks the line and swoops out of it.

The moments between dancers are intense, frenzied. Legs wack past hyperextension, and the splayed, forced hips of the female dancers’ exaggerated lines look almost contorted. Dancers fumble for connection and strain away from each other as the callous commuters walk silently overhead, testing the strength of their counterbalanced grips. The physical space appears like an alternate world of McGregor’s pedestrian space. Above, the people can only move silently through the same patterns. In the physical, infra space, they are able to embody their grief. It’s more than a portrayal of a fractured, despairing city; the ballet creates an alternate space liberated from the societal impediments to connection. “Infra” asks: What if we could really take refuge in each other, not our silent spaces, our mutually recognized ignorance? Would we speak? Would we scream?

 

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I spend the evening of November 8th in rehearsal with my undergraduate dance company. Once rehearsal is over, we figure, we’ll all celebrate the election of the first female president of the United States.

Things turn out differently.

When we leave the studio, Hillary Clinton still has a chance in three states. I stop by an election viewing party in a friend’s dorm, sit with my head between my knees as the votes roll in. By the time I make it to my dorm, Trump has won the election. As I walk into my room, I hear a door slam open next to me. Then another. Down the small hallway, three of my neighbors stand in their open doorframes, stunned, perched like they are about to run outside but can’t remember why.

On Thursday, I had planned to visit my friend Charlotte in New York City. “you’re still coming tomorrow even though the world is ending?” she texts me the day after the election. A virus is burning its way through my body, and I’d spent Wednesday shivering and feverish inside my blankets. I say yes, and ride the train down to see her.

The city feels silent. I don’t sleep the whole night.

Months pass. When people ask me how I am, it feels less like a loaded question. “Humans have a high tolerance for chaos,” a friend explains to me at breakfast a few days after the election. “We’ll start to feel happy again,” she says, “because our brains will hit a sort of equilibrium.” I have no idea if this is true, but I’ve think about it ever since. What she doesn’t explain is that this tolerance is relative. For every piece of news, the fear feels fresh and terrifying. I become angrier, more certain of my place in this new, tilted world.

Every normal moment feels off, as if it shouldn’t really exist in the same way now that the world is what it is. In an empty classroom, a friend and I talk about the future and what jobs we hope to get next year. My friend cuts me off. She isn’t sure how to do this, she says, since she isn’t sure if she will be alive in three years. At parties, I joke about losing my right to choose, about nuclear holocaust. No one laughs. I find myself unable to stop.

It’s hard to speak bluntly about this fear, especially because there’s a privilege to mine. While I have felt outrage and anger that has threatened to fracture so much of what I believe about the United States, this fear has never filled me in the same way. For the most part, I’ve never had to grapple with fear on this scale. My identity as a white, cisgendered straight woman has allowed me to believe the world is safer than it is. For a lull period, my friends stop talking about politics. This doesn’t feel natural either, but more like we are selectively ignoring the world below our words.

I simmer. I buy tickets to DC, and get ready to march. I want the Women’s March to be more than a political act; I want it to be an outlet for my anger and fear. I want some of what I saw in “Infra;” a physicalized demonstration of solidarity and passion.

 

***

 

As Trump’s presidency reveals itself to be exactly as promised—racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic—I have begun to see the beauty and possibility of a world below the everyday world, a space to embody anger and frustration.

Beyond capturing this sense of grief and anger, the violence thrumming below the surface of our society, “Infra” creates a physicalized space in which the shell-shocked can embrace each other, and know that they are not alone. In this physical space, people can find intimacy, and find the catharsis in collective anguish.

There’s possibility in McGregor’s world, and in my interpretation. There’s rage and fear, but never solitude. It seems McGregor intended it this way as well. “The ending is one of thought, hope,” Mr. McGregor said in a 2012 interview with the New York Times. “The stress and panic of the bombings was real, but a city builds itself up again, people build themselves up again.”

 

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