On March 13, 2020, the Kimmel Center canceled all performances in its venues until April 11, as our city tries to slow the spread of COVID-19. This affects 200 shows, including the Pennsylvania Ballet’s glittering La Bayadère. But before the Kimmel closed its stages, a small audience had the opportunity to experience Liquid Loft’s site-adapted work, Foreign Tongues. I am firmly in the dance-as-communication camp, so I was looking forward to this well before a virus turned the world upside down.
The audience had only about 50 people. No one handed out programs or checked tickets; it was like we had just wandered into the Kimmel’s Commonwealth Plaza to be sociable. We sat, chatting with friends, until a voice that seemed at first just another conversation rose above the crowd, then another, and suddenly a dancer in black was sitting beside me on my bench. Another crawled the gray metal wall of the Perelman and another rode one of the stationary bicycles that are part of the current exhibit. Some of us heard the exaggerated sound of a dancer unzipping a leather jacket, but louder was a variety of taped voices projected from the hand-held speakers they carried.
As the dancers moved through the audience, they gestured, lip-syncing to the voices as if carrying on an animated conversation with us in a variety of languages—German, French, Italian, others I could not identify, and some with the cadence of sentences but with no discernible words. I didn’t understand most of the languages, but I’ve heard them all passing on the street—voices that mark the heartbeat of the city—and I recognize the gestures. Hands carried their own meaning that marked the rise and fall of an imaginary conversation.
In sequences that felt more dancelike, a dancer stood atop the railing near the Spruce Street entrance while the rest of the company gathered around him like a tower of Babel. The company stretched across the doors to that same entrance, like a complex graffito had come to life.
A dystopian world
Just when I was beginning to think the entire performance would take place in the Commonwealth Plaza, the dancers disappeared inside the Perelman, with just one woman left behind to distract us until they were ready. When she slipped through the crowd to join them, we followed, to find ourselves in a transformed Perelman Theater. Instead of seats and a stage, we met a sprung floor leading to a wall covered in black where the stage would be. The dancers sprawled, hoodies and jackets wrapped and stretched around them to create strange, mouthless shapes out of a dystopian future. We wandered among them in small knots of audience to the sound of a pervasive harmonic hum from loudspeakers set around the otherwise empty space.
Liquid Loft artistic director Chris Haring has said that science fiction and the idea of the human body as a cybernetic landscape have inspired his work, and we truly felt that we had fallen into a dystopian world. Happily, however, the performance did not end with these muffled figures deprived of speech. Soon the dancers shed their hoodies and were again wandering through the crowd, miming everyday conversation in a cascade of languages while their commonplace gestures left no doubt of the emotional meaning behind the words.
We are how we move
A dancer reached out to me, so eloquent in the physical expression of distress that I almost reached back to ask her what she needed, though I hadn’t understood a word. I had to remind myself it was a performance. But the most striking to me were the bits performed to recorded conversation by Philadelphians. Here in Philly, we don’t just talk with our hands—we put our shoulders into it. We can make “good morning” feel like a challenge. Liquid Loft’s gestural language was so specific that the dancers could have wandered in from the Broad Street Line.
Communication is a bond we create with our bodies. We tend to think of that in limited terms: someone speaks, another hears; someone types, another reads as we engage in the reciprocal practice of understanding. But words are only part of any story. Liquid Loft’s Foreign Tongues turned the mirror on us, using gestures so familiar we didn’t need words, to show us what they, as dancers, have always known. Communication is a whole-body exercise.
As a member of the IN SITU network devoted to works that create art around public spaces, Liquid Loft expands the concept of the body to include the public spaces we inhabit with others as social beings. As we now retreat into the shells of social distancing, because it is the only sure way we have to curtail the threat of a novel virus, this performance was an important reminder of how integral a part of each other we are on this small planet.
What, When, Where
Foreign Tongues. By Liquid Loft, presented March 11 and 12 at the Kimmel Center’s Commonwealth Plaza and Perelman Theater, 300 South Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or by emailing [email protected].