The Experience of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up?

The ensemble of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

The ensemble of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s not every dance show that serves you chicken broth on your way into the space. It’s a peculiar sort of welcome, but one that tracks perfectly with Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Although calling Nourishment a dance show is perhaps too limiting; the program describes the site-specific performance series (of which this is the second iteration) as “an evening length performance experience combining mediums such as: movement, live music, visual arts, set design, storytelling, food, and drinks.” Running at Brooklyn’s Planta Baja (a historic-carriage-house-turned-arts-space) September 21–23 under the direction of Gwendolyn Gussman, Nourishment explored the question posed by the title, gifting audiences with what can only rightly be called an experience.

Carefully cupping the aforementioned mugs of chicken broth received as they pass through the kitchen, the audience drifts in waves into what appears to be the central performing space. Above hangs what can best be described as a nest of textured cotton, draping tendrils that lend the mostly unadorned room a strange coziness; clothespins hold scraps of rough paper suspended just within reach. (The artist behind the installation is Anna Driftmier.) It feels oddly like a housewarming party, perhaps because of the grounding warmth of the chicken broth, or how casually friends and acquaintances converge and converse as the performers flit in and out, stopping to say hello, before they begin.

Nico Gonzales (center) and the ensemble of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

Nico Gonzales (center) and the ensemble of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

The performers form a tight circle in the center, facing out. They begin telling stories to whoever they’re facing, at first silently, then at a nearly inaudible whisper. Their volume grows and grows, and just as you think the person talking to you is about to reach the climax, they break off, the circle turning, the individuals breaking into gesture series that recall mundane, daily tasks. The scene is aptly titled “Where I’m At,” at the center of which is a story told by Nico Gonzales about why, exactly, he hates the subway—the crowding and delays, yes, but mostly the way it makes other people into obstacles rather than human beings deserving of kindness. Soon after we are invited to follow the performers out the back door.

This is something else to note: The performance is not limited to a single space, instead using all of the available rooms in Planta Baja. There are smaller rooms beyond the one with the nest, which I unfortunately did not visit. In the back garden there is a tarp laid to form a dance floor, around which are rows of chairs set in semicircle; large windows offering glimpses into the main room form a backdrop. Even the kitchen graduates from a liminal space to one where the action might occur. Though at first the audience moves as a whole where directed, as the evening progresses they are split into groups, then invited to follow their own inclinations—you have to miss some things to see others, prompting the audience to “grow up” with the performers.

The ensemble of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

The ensemble of Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

The work is divided into two acts, each of which has four scenes, more often than not punctuated by the serving of a new food or drink (all by chef Collin Wagner). Some are comforting, like the chicken broth that greets you at the door or the coq au vin that accompanies intermission; others are more jarring, like the kale and oyster that introduces the scene titled “Play/Loss of Innocence.”

Concrete stories center the scenes as much as the food. Patrick McGrath talks about losing the nanny who had become his second mom (Act 1, Scene 2: Adult-ing); Mara Driscoll about the weight of expectations that comes from belonging to a family full of extraordinary individuals (Act 1, Scene 4: Expectations). Gonzales, who after saying he wants to move to Europe had begun justifying why what he wants can be put off, or is impossible, leaps onto Carly Krulee’s and McGrath’s backs. Facing him is Driscoll, voice growing in volume as she tells him no; with each repetition, Krulee and McGrath jerk beneath Gonzales’ feet. More than once he flies backward to the ground, barely getting his feet underneath himself before clambering back onto the unstable surface (Act 2, Scene 2: Confronting Limitations).

Trevor New, Carly Krulee, and Patrick McGrath in Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

Trevor New, Carly Krulee, and Patrick McGrath in Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

And it’s not just the dancers who enter the fray. Trevor New, who spends most of the evening tending to the soundscape, wades through the tangled limbs of his collapsed castmates as he tells the story of finding his way into music, then nearly losing everything to a depression diagnosis. Soon after the people who have been serving food and drinks and otherwise guiding the audience join in an improvisation, the group’s practiced care accounting for the range of experience levels.

Other moments are more ephemeral, yet land just as heavily: Krulee closes her eyes and steps backward slowly, but without hesitation, into the traffic patterns the others create behind her, carefully closing her outstretched arms to embrace something unseen (Act 2, Scene 1: Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back). Driscoll hovers in an endlessly growing arabesque over Krulee and Gonzales as they carefully lie down, head to head. Outside, the dancers’ paths trace spirals, arms trailing through the air like wings, as though their souls would take flight if they could (Act 1, Scene 3: Play/Loss of Innocence). It is beautiful, and it is familiar—that feeling that there is more hovering just beyond your reach, if you could just grow up enough to know how to grasp it.

Most transitions are effective, facilitated by the servers, save one or two. The first act ends with all of the performers in a circle, repeating the same simple turning phrase as they take turns stepping out to speak a word or a phrase of advice into a standing microphone. Their words loop back again and again as they move faster, the phrases piling up into a panicked cacophony, until McGrath steps out and berates the others, asking, “Why aren’t you listening?” The execution might be awkward, but the concept is strong; it was a rare moment that might work better in a less intimate setting.

Gwendolyn Gussman performing in Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

Gwendolyn Gussman performing in Nourishment: What does it feel like to grow up? Photo by Jeffrey Lee (On the Spot Image), Courtesy Gussman.

And yet there are moments that transcend their unwieldy setup. Jett Kwong Kelly plucks at a guzheng as she croons “Moon River” and the ever-present noise of the city and the rustling of leaves overhead seem hushed. Wandering back inside to find that the performers have scattered themselves throughout the rooms, I get caught up just inside the kitchen. Gonzales tries one precarious counterbalance after another in a corner as he talks about what it is to have your body betray you; under the nest in the next room McGrath punctuates Krulee’s confessions with what feel like snatches of haikus. Eventually everyone, performers and audience alike, finds their way back to the first room. They pluck scraps of paper from the sculpture, reading answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” that were scribbled by audience members at the beginning of the night. They reform the circle where they began. They sing together, one last time, and then the moment is broken, the performance over. Once again we’re just in a room full of people, some familiar, some not.

Nourishment is a show that is far easier to experience than to describe. It’s about the stories that make us, the stories that we don’t necessarily tell but which hum, unspoken, in our bones. It’s not any one person’s narrative; growing up is different for everyone, after all. But it’s a collage, a constellation, that traces a kernel of truth, that reminds us that regardless, we’re all swept up in the passing of time, in our stories. We’re all just figuring it out.

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Courtney Escoyne is an associate editor at Dance Magazine. A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and Dance Teacher, and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.

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