When I spoke to Andrea Miller, the choreographer of W H A L E, playing now at Sottile Theatre, she told me that it was in college that she'd gotten really excited about the "living art of dance."
I wish I could say that W H A L E made me as excited about dance. The production, at an hour and 30 minutes running time, never seems to get a hold of what it's trying to say. It left me a little confused but mainly frustrated, wishing that I'd vacated the theater with the several groups of people who boot scoot boogied during intermission.
Here's the thing about art, about modern dance: It doesn't have to be saying anything. That's fine — the deep dark hole of pointlessness, the void of emotions, the depth of not caring, that's a thing, that's something worth exploring, and sometimes even celebrating. But I don't think W H A L E was some post-modern dive into what it means to not mean anything. No, I think W H A L E, as Miller told me, is about love — loving yourself, loving others, and reconciling all of that love. It would work if I were convinced of that love.
Eight dancers take the stage in W H A L E and, admittedly, the show begins and ends in a rousing, worthy-of-applause scene. Picture eight dancers dressed in something American Apparel threw out in their lost and found bin. They stand proudly, arms slightly out by their sides, singing Nat King Cole's "L-O-V-E." One by one, and sometimes in twos and threes, they collapse onto the ground, popping back up, continuing to sing.
This first act reminded me of a modern, tongue-in-cheek take on A Chorus Line. This, I could handle. It wasn't what I thought of when I think of dance, but still, it was entertaining, and I felt like I could connect to at least one of these dancers.
Spoiler: you don't get this kind of fun, engaging scene again until the final act. It's the same sort of thing except at the end everyone's naked, singing, switching their clothes around. Woo hoo, right? Meh. It's kind of boring.
That's the thing about W H A L E — it's kind of boring. I could predict each dancer's next move. The gal in the skirt (dancer Georgia Usborne) would run at someone, collapse into them (trust me when I say there's a hell of a lot of collapsing) and then slowly raise her feet, so her full weight was on whoever was supporting her.
I don't fault the dancers — all professionally trained and talented — with the lack of engagement, of any emotional connection throughout the show. I just don't think Miller's choreography clicked for me. Perhaps, of course, this slow, slow performance did something for someone else. The cast got a standing ovation from the audience — from those who stuck around, of course.
There are moments of brilliance, of synchronity that really stand out. But, for the most part, five or six of the eight dancers are sitting in chairs around the edge of the stage, while two or three run around the stage, pausing, faling to the ground, rolling around on it, only to get up, looking as if they're going to make a move, but alas, fall back on the ground or onto one another.
I understand the emotions being conveyed; love is so many things to so many people. When dancer Dan Walczak runs around the stage, falling before each dancer, writhing on the ground, I presume that he's begging for love, or forgiveness. The guy next to me could be projecting something else onto the stage, which is great, that's what art is for. But when the running and the writhing and the sitting continue, well, I kind of don't care what he's asking for. I just want him to move on.
Oh yeah, you're probably wondering about the nudity. It feels like an inorganic addition to an already flailing show. At the end, when two dancers spin 'round and 'round, both stuck into the same T-shirt and shorts (which got some laughs out of the audience and left me cringing) each dancer runs across stage, naked as can be, arms and legs spread wide, flying through the air. The flying remdinded me of myself at any age before clothes were required, running through my yard. There's a freedom there, but at the end of W H A L E it feels disjointed and too little, too late.
At the end of the day, if love is all that W H A L E can give to you, then they can keep it.