Runway Blues

by Christopher Atamian

“roadkill” encapsulates the humor and irony of this dynamic and brilliant new piece by Johannes Wieland.  Danced to perfection by the dashing Ryan Mason and the angular-featured Eva Mohn—a rising star if there ever was one—“roadkill” is one of those pleasant summer surprises that introduces audiences to a choreographer of talent, wit and understated intellectual elegance.


The conceit behind this multimedia production is simple enough: we meet two friends, a man and a woman (Mason and Mohn), who appear both live onstage and in a video projected on a screen strung off-center at the back of the stage. They are stranded on an (abandoned? Deserted?)airport runway: what to do next?  The live Mason and Mohn, moving amidst a set composed of trash, scattered leaves and a tree, mimic, react to, reflect, reinforce and contradict the action in the large video. In the course of an hour—on video and live—the two jump around (exhausting), question one another (revealing), sing along to Bing Crosby and Patsy Cline songs (funny) and play Alice and the Cheshire Cat (clever, confusing), speaking through a set of small cardboard megaphones.  Some of the most affecting moments in the performance occur when the dancers respond to their characters in the video or when the video characters address both the live dancers and the audience.  It’s one of the most cunning and intelligent uses of the medium in a long time, simultaneously reassuring and subversive.  

The movement vocabulary itself, like everything else in “roadkill” is neither overdone nor understated: rather it fits perfectly into the overall framework of the piece.  At times the dancers  move independently of one  another, perform jigs, dance or hop around with no discernible sense of direction; at others they unite for vibrant, beautifully choreographed phrasings that employ release technique and other contemporary movement vocabulary.

At one point Mason and Mohn jump around onscreen, frantically screaming “Fun! Fun! Fun! Let’s have some fun!” but Mohn quickly grows bored.  Is “fun” really our teleological goal, as much of contemporary media seems to imply?  In the program notes Wieland states that “roadkill… explores my fascination with the subconscious and its power to conduct one through life…we are trying to understand who we are. But will we ever do so?  Maybe we don’t need to.”  This fascinating if evident anti-rational manifesto is brought to vibrant life by Mason and Mohn: at times they seem to perform the same steps live as their video counterparts/twins, at others their movement appears reflected along a 90 degree plane, backwards and away from the screen.  More than simply delve into the subconscious, Wieland and his performers play with geometry, logic, order and chaos.  Mimetic, anti-mimetic, descriptive and analytic, “roadkill” is a remarkable choreographic tour-de-force.

Wieland, the artistic director and choreographer of the dance theater company at the State Theater of Kassel (Germany), presented his first New York City premiere in 2002.  He’s been around for a while but this work, perhaps his most mature to date, argues strongly for his being better known on this side of the Atlantic.

There was also something eerily familiar about the video and set, as if they tapped into one’s past (or one’s subconscious?) in ways eerie and surprising.   Wieland implies instead of stating, innovates instead of repeating past ideas.  It is remarkably difficult in dance or any performing art to show or attempt to show the limits of language.  Yet with the help of an appropriately minimalist but intricate score by Ben Frost, that appears to be precisely what Wieland and his two dancers have accomplished. The only true “roadkill” in the piece is a dead bird that the two performers play with at one point. Or is our very existence, Wieland mischievously suggests, also a form of road kill?