Mathew Janczewski’s program note for the production of Plastic Language now on stage at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts suggests that his dance is—like so many—about the challenges of human connection. “Plastic Language details the experience of being understood, and when these efforts fail…become plastic.”
Another way to see the piece, though, is as a celebration of the inevitability of connection. The small, tight cast of Plastic Language are closely, sympathetically attuned to each other for the entire 60-minute length of the piece; even when they’re performing pained solos, none of them ever seem to be truly alone.
The piece rests on that sturdiest of numbers for a cast of characters: three. In the dance’s original 2005 production, the performers were Janczewski himself along with Amy Behm-Thomson and Stephen Schroeder. Schroeder returns for this weekend’s performances, dancing with new partners Dustin Haug and Timmy Wagner. I didn’t see that first production, but my hunch is that switching the gender of one member of the trio matters less than one might think. At least in the current staging, Plastic Language feels less like a piece about romantic triangle than about a small team—or, in other words, a cast.
Janczewski says Plastic Language was inspired by the painter Joan Miró, but it’s highly unlikely you’d pick that up if you weren’t told: there aren’t any Surrealist sculptures onstage, unless you count a growing stack of chairs and occasional stacks of bodies. If you go in forearmed with that knowledge, though—as I did—you might find yourself reflecting on forms and feelings. Artists like Miró play with the distinction between what an object looks like and how the subjective viewer perceives it; in Plastic Language, each of the three dancers is given space to suggest what he might be drawing from the experience he’s sharing with the others.
There’s also a surreal aspect to the juxtaposition of music ranging from avant-garde to deep house to calliope-esque; the latter in particular, accompanied by exaggeratedly circus-like movements, creates a sense of a split between public and private moments in the dance. In quieter moments—which lighting designer Heidi Eckwall supplies with starker, lower illumination—the three men share what seem to be more vulnerable, intimate moments with movement that’s more eccentric, more introspective. Solos and duets give different dancers and pairs expressive opportunities, but none of the three performers is so strongly characterized that he stands out from the others; this is emphatically an ensemble piece, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this sustained, disciplined performance were to be short-listed for a Sage Award in that category come year’s end.
The work’s conclusion, marked by a striking (in multiple senses of the word) set change and a slightly ludicrous costume change—Sonya Berlovitz puts the three men in gilded ensembles that wouldn’t be out of place in Prince’s pajama drawer—is satisfying in a sense and provides the showpiece that such an extended, spare dance seems to call for by way of conclusion. However, it feels too long, too bright, too disjointed from the rest of what is—up until that point—an engaging dance that’s abstracted, but not so abstracted that can’t recognize ourselves in it.