Though I’m not a fan of using erudite literary terms, the Shubert’s production of “Stomp” warrants such an exception: brilliant juxtaposition.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe “Stomp” accurately. At its core, the work is a series of performance dance pieces celebrating the art of percussion and rhythm using the mundane — up to and including your basic brown paper lunch bag, kitchen matchboxes and around five copies of the New Haven Register. What is produced, however, is anything but mundane. The brilliance of “Stomp” lies in its conflicting nature, its contrast of grunge and elegance, its cacophony and its harmony.
The theme of contradiction runs throughout the show, from its eclectic cast to its sterile (yet lived in) props, to even its costumes — meant to look paint-spattered, they may have actually been worn to paint a house. The result is an invitation to, literally, see art in everyday surroundings, where even the scrape of a propane gas tank can rival the soothing tones of a Buddhist gong.
“Stomp” is at its best when the art emerges slowly from the profane — when there is a mystery that results from the ordinary. This effect was most surprising in the first piece, when a lone janitor and his broom expanded into melee between cleaning men, a visual symphony of flying straw, wood, and dust.
After the initial piece — a dynamic, explosive beginning to any production — “Stomp” simply launches into a barrage of kinetic art. Part of the joy is the anticipation. After seeing what the performers can do with one household item, there is seemingly no barrier to how they will create their percussive instruments. There was little disappointment in this regard, as the mode of sound was always surprising and mind-bogglingly impossible. Who would hope to drum a large water bottle in the air to an actual rhythm?
Yet, each piece is logical and simple in its execution. Done in complete darkness, even the lighting of cigarette lighters can culminate in luminous harmony. The brilliancy of the “instruments” extended to even the quiet chaos; it is a profound contrast to social taboos when even Zippos can culminate in beautiful music. Even if I did guess the usage of some instruments, that smirking satisfaction was swiftly undermined by sheer skill and choreography.
And what choreography it is. Underlying the pieces is, of course, the necessity to keep up a dynamic beat. However, the rhythm is accomplished with a flourish, mixing together a combination of childhood temper tantrums — haven’t you ever wanted to slam trash cans against the floor? — and martial arts.
Even more amazing is that each performer uses his or her diversity to paint a whole picture. It is jarring at first to see the performers together, as they seem to come from completely different ilk. They are of all different statures, genders, ethnicities and even different builds, something atypical of a dance troupe.
It was also interesting to note that many of these performers came from the Connecticut area, with divergent experience in percussion and/or dance. And yet their differences worked together to formulate stories and personalities in an amazingly nonverbal format. In one instance, a loner character ate newspaper (the Register) while the “cool” kids tried to read papers of their own. It was the first time, in my memory, that I enjoyed a dance performance because each performer stood out from the rest.
And, as if they wanted to drive their skills home, each performance piece was accentuated with moments of perfect harmony — in stance, rhythm and movement. Bouncing basketballs and flickering flames, when done in unison, created forceful images that transcended their singular rhythm.
Of course, at the end, the contrast of harmony and chaos is a perfect representation of — dare I say it? — ingenious juxtaposition. However, that is the highest level of critical thinking I am willing to go to. For “Stomp,” it is best to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Your inner literary critic won’t mind the vacation.