A good rule to follow when you’re choosing what to see at a performing arts festival:
Don’t be scared away by the program notes.
Such is the case with Ing an Die, a work by Sarasota-born, internationally known dancer/choreographer James McGinn now on view at the Ringling International Arts Festival. The jargon in its promotional materials is so impenetrable (“the restrained performativity of post-modernism,” anyone?) that I was surprised (and relieved) to find Ing an Die not just accessible but funny, brave, startlingly eclectic and ultimately haunting.
What McGinn manages to do, without perhaps even intending it, is to give us a virtuoso survey of dance history, from ballet to modern to hip-hop. It’s a work that celebrates not just the magic two dancers can make all alone on stage, but dips offstage into mundane ritual and casual conversation. And in the back-and-forth between McGinn and his collaborator/dance partner Inga Hákonardóttir, it’s an intense exploration of gender fluidity and a test of the duo’s physical endurance.
The opening scenario is stark, the stage bare, the backstage wall unconcealed. McGinn and “Ing” — dressed all in black, their faces pale — move in rigid patterns about the stage, at first to the sound of a soprano singing German lieder, then in silence except for the sound of their breathing and the occasional squeak of a pivoting sole, as their movements become more sweeping, arms windmilling. Then — it stops. As happens throughout the piece, we’re given glimpses of the working dancers behind the personae: high-fives, OK, that part’s done, let’s move on to the next bit. It shifts into a tight embrace, a last-call-before-the-bar-closes slow dance, and devolves into the two lying prone but wakeful — and gradually, we become aware of the thin trickles of blood coming from the dancers’ mouths.
But no one’s dead — yet. Smoke rolls in like waves lapping onto the beach, Enya plays on the soundtrack, and we enter another world into which the dancers reemerge in hooded, futuristic silvery leotards. The dancing becomes more gymnastic — and then, hoodies down, the leotards gradually slipped off, we veer into — what? — The King and I? And not “Shall We Dance?” but the exchange between Anna and the King of Siam from the memoir that inspired the musical, an argument about the proper roles of ruler and subject, of man and woman. McGinn and Ing alternate speaking the king and Anna’s dialogue while engaged in an increasingly stylized, increasingly frenzied movement regimen that parodies both crotch-grabbing manpower and dainty femininity.
And then: Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream”? Yup. It’s another of those shifts into dance everyday-ness, in which McGinn tries to “teach” Ing the steps of a line dance he says he just learned in Dallas. Whether or not he’s actually teaching her as we watch (in an aside later, he acknowledges we probably assumed she knew it already), it’s a lovely bit of homage to a popular dance style that is as elegant and specific in its own way as ballet.
And then: Stagehands roll in lights and a costume rack, the dancers don diaphanous white caftans and doff their leotards while discussing how well they did the line dance.
The white flowy garments inaugurate the final, extended, potentially exhausting (to both audience and dancers) sequence, which suggests a mad mashup of Isadora Duncan and So You Think You Can Dance? There’s wafty, sylph-like movement, frenzied leaps, even a bit of break-dancing and sexualized thrusts. Gradually, the dance vocabularies introduced over the course of the first two acts resurface: the slow dance, the king’s muscle flex, a wrenching move in which Ing hurls herself into McGinn’s arms and they stay stock still for what seems like an agonizingly long time. It’s repetitive and self-reflexive and finally kind of awe-inspiring. A haunting series of chords brings the dancers back to the floor, the lights go down... and then it’s over.
We sat in the dark until McGinn told us, in characteristically off-hand fashion, “That’s it.”
Many people jumped up into a standing ovation. The man next to me sat on his hands.
My husband and I marveled at what was, all told, an extraordinary dance odyssey.