In a lightless room, the senses are heightened. That shutting down of sight especially perks the ears. And that’s how an audience sat on Saturday night at MassMoCA’s showing of “Listening to Walls Wear Off Their Color.”
This haunting work-in-progress, created in just a few days at sprawling museum for contemporary art, was a byproduct of the vivid imaginations of director Maya Zbib, choreographer Lee Serle (both of whom performed) and conceptual artist Mateo Lopez.
The piece, though still in its earliest stages, transported viewers to an alternative realm where time is not linear and one’s mind is a flashpoint of memories, mostly of loss of home and loved ones, and readjusting in unknown land. It was an ode to refuges, uprooted and sent to an unfamiliar city where they were isolated, literally boxed in by their language, their look and their culture. But it was also about the universal need to love, to seek out and touch fellow humans.
“Listening to Walls” began in total darkness with the sound of a synthetically created hum. The audience sat like that for what seems like an eternity, until we heard a voice. It was Zbib. She said “the city awakens.” Then in a quiet, controlled, but strong tone, she spilled out shards of a life’s moments: the home’s rattled windows from explosions, the sewing kit in one’s bag, the recipes you wrote for your son and sleeping in the bottom deck of a ship.
Together, it created a sense of a woman who is forced to leave and seek a safe haven.
When the lights finally rise, we see three figures (Serle and dancers Simon Courchel and Jin Ju Song-Begin) and three upright box structures. Serle hangs out of his, either sleeping or dead. The other two are standing inside these coffin like builds – Song-Begin facing outward, but Courchel half-hidden.
To a limpid electronic soundscape designed by John Torres and Zbib’s guiding voice, the dancers come to life and effortlessly wheel their boxes about their world silently. They walk their structures, combining and reconfiguring them again and again to create rooms and outdoor spaces in which the dancers appeared either to be vulnerable or shielded.
Throughout Zbib spoke of the woman, lost in a foreign city and in love with a stranger. In episodic clips, she told of her search for him, his adverted eyes and her sense of his closeness. The intimacy was striking.
Toward the end, the three were together, holding hands inside one of their arranged box clusters. But their proximity ended with Serle flat on the floor again and Song-Begin arched lifeless atop of him. Courchel walked away from it all. But as he left, he hesitated and turned back to the heartbreaking carnage of xenophobic loneliness.