A Review of The Student, a work by Vanessa Voskuil,
The O’Shaughnessy, April 3-4, 2014.
by John C. Koch
With a generous effort to articulate a deep spiritual understanding, Vanessa Voskuil knows how to invite the audience in to her latest work, The Student. As the curtain rises on an empty stage, we hear a series of uncanny whooshing sounds, as if the enormous unseen circulatory system of the work is whirring itself to life. Solemn figures enter the auditorium from the outside, proceeding down the aisles to envelop the audience on either side, lit with hard back light, and slowly walking backwards toward the stage. It has bracingly and disarmingly begun. To approach this work, the uninitiated should first understand that Voskuil’s work boldly and uncompromisingly moves within its own time and its own logic, and she works unapologetically on her own terms. But without being didactic, pretentious or overbearing, she gently summons the viewer into this distinctive space, where the air feels different, time and sound slow down and perception shifts, and thus the stage is set for a truly singular expression. But it is foreign. Some will choose to enter it, and others may choose to remain safely where they are. Some will be drawn in unwittingly, like the performers themselves who so gracefully and dramatically continue to be drawn backwards into the unknown of the stage, single file, one by one. Some may look at a work like this and feel a stronger than usual urge to check their phone—it is an esoteric work, to be certain—but it is one that has the potential to provide great rewards of insight for those who are willing to follow its lead. This piece requires of the viewer a willingness to be completely open, completely present, and to release the intellect from its usual dominance over our mind and thoughts.
The Student, an epic work in two parts, addresses themes that delve into the study of the nature knowledge—what it is, how it is acquired, and how to extract useful wisdom within the cacophony of one’s own mind and environment. More specifically, it addresses the acquisition and/or development of spiritual knowledge, not necessarily religious, but spiritual in terms of the cognitive means to understand oneself, one’s place in the world and whatever world may (or may not) lie beyond the one we know. It paints a vivid portrait of an intensely personal endeavor that is, more often than not, overtly confusing, exasperating, utterly terrifying, but also at times, joyous. It is epistemological warfare between body, mind and spirit.
There is no single element of The Student that rises above or below the harmony of the piece (with the possible exception of some lengthy choral works in the second part) which is at the core of its strength. The extraordinarily coordinated movement is however the most noticeable and most present element. The way the large cast, some 170 performers total, interact with such coordination helps give the piece a certain sense of magic. The combination of experienced performers with those with little to no movement experience seems as though it could be a particular hazard for this piece or for any choreographer. But Voskuil integrates the movement perfectly, seamlessly using the disparity to create a sense of depth within this large mass of people. Some stand out and are in the foreground, while some remain less conspicuous, but each contributes in his or her way to the activity and beauty of the whole, which alone speaks volumes. For Voskuil’s solos within this large cast, an element that could so easily get lost, I get the feeling that she invested a great deal in perfecting her individual performance. The deep personal significance of this work comes through in her movement, which was elegant, expressively precise and full of life, in contrast to the bleaker, more austere movement of the other performers. The mere logistical challenges conquered with the choreography of such a large cast with so many different elements is impressive enough, but the fact that is was pulled off with such power and precision in its expression makes it all the more impressive.
The Verbal Component
I found the verbal (and thus more theatrical) component to be a fascinating part of this work that at first seems risky, but ultimately adds an otherwise impossible depth to it. This component consists of two orators who eloquently speak to the audience in a series of highly verbose direct addresses. While their words seem sophisticated, well spoken and sincere, they amount to very little sense. This component at first seems to function merely as a lighthearted Brechtian device—a reminder to stay conscious of the performance as performance. But as it unfolds, it seems as though Voskuil is questioning the value, almost ridiculing the inefficacy of words through the very use of words. The more words are spoken, the less is understood, and the intellect breaks down. Any viewer looking for patterns, ideological connections or seeking to define this work in a semiotic context will be deeply frustrated. It moves beyond the loaded imagery and easy dramatic devices so commonly used (not just in dance, but in any performing art) to elicit emotion and win over an audience. The orations unravel into chaos more in the first part, but in the second part they emerge slowly and slightly more cogent, as if something is gradually being resolved. It is the language of an at first indecipherable spiritual guide that sheds its wisdom and ultimately relents with its final “the end”.
The Music and Sound Design
Sound is always a fundamental component in Voskuil’s work, as distinctive and essential to the work as the choreography itself. Voskuil herself is a master sound designer, but in this piece she turned to composer Jesse Whitney for original compositions and sound design. The piece also includes live choral music featuring the St. Catherine’s University Women’s Choir, the Hamline University Women’s Chorale, and the Perpich Center for Arts Education Choir in the cast, and the original choral compositions of Janika Vandervelde. I feel as though these elements fit incredibly well together, and add a stunning complement to the tone and expression of the piece. Whitney’s sound score features subtly disorienting tracks that feel entirely native and unified to the work, in a way that it would be hard to envision one without the other, which I think is the ultimate goal of any original score. The choral music provided startling bursts of elation that tended to rise up and then descend into something overwhelming, and the singing was expertly performed.
The Visual Component
The affective imagery is so powerful that any attempt to describe it would be ultimately futile. Like any spiritual experience, it is thoroughly subjective and must be experienced to be understood. Thus any description conjured by words of my specific reaction to the imagery conjured within this work feels fundamentally inadequate. In seeking to define it through words, I would lose what it so eloquently gave me using its own inherent language. Some symbols do appear that at first seem overt—a woman hanging from a noose, a cardboard cutout of a figure, students seated obediently in rows—but they are incorporated in ways that recontextualize rather than provide or rest upon easy answers. David Fern’s lighting, John Brinkman and Vanessa Voskuil’s costumes and the sparse set were masterly integrated into the concept. The special challenges Fern faced of lighting such a large, dynamically shifting group of people (who, at one point, spread out to encompass the whole of the auditorium) were conquered in impressive fashion.
In the second half, the pace slows and the poetic meanings and associations become more elongated by time, rather than in the startling, compact bursts of the first half. But it is ultimately still elevating and beautiful and wholly worthwhile viewing. Because of the fact that time moves differently within the two parts without any transition between the two time spaces, I feel that moving between the two parts could be problematic for some viewers. Part I sets a false expectation of the speed and pace going into Part II, which slams on the brakes, and thus could be confusing or upsetting. I know to trust the creator of the work and sit back and let it open up to me, but I think many could be thrown by that. The first choral section in the second part specifically did seem too long and redundant in proportion with the rest of the piece. It is clear that this is a piece that is about redundancy and that it requires extra time to unravel some of these deeper mysteries it attempts to unravel, but in such cases there is always a tipping point between effective expression and being frustratingly pulled out of a piece. I don’t think this problem was a major one, nor did it affect my overall enjoyment of the work, but this, if anything, is its lone blemish.
I interpreted every performative element of this piece to be various interacting parts of one mind or one system. The dancers serve the autonomic brain’s activity, going about their movements and routines, following instructions and dutifully serving their master. The choirs represent fleeting, interruptive moments of spiritual elevation that overwhelm but eventually triumph in cleansing the stage. The orators are superego or perhaps higher spiritual guides who at first obfuscate but eventually help determine the path through this dense terrain. Voskuil’s character to me represents the conscious mind who conquers all of these elements and in the end is left alone and in peace.
The experience of engaging in a work of art is something that should impact and ultimately change the viewer, and not just elicit emotions or trigger reactions—things which are inherently defined by past experience. The experience of viewing art should be in the present. This piece, as all great works do, accomplishes that in startlingly powerful fashion. It glided up to me with the silent power of an ocean wave and powerfully washed over me, leaving me simultaneously emotionally open and in awe. It reaches one at a different level than mere affectation, violently shaking the viewer by daring to ask the big questions, and in doing so invites one into introspection and onto the path of spiritual discovery.
Perhaps what ultimately makes The Student so impressive is that, as with most of the work within Voskuil’s oeuvre, it contains a drive and a wisdom that can never be taught, but can only innately exist within an artist. Her work is so often felt deeply, viscerally and spiritually. This piece is evidence of the further development of her distinctive system and usage of metaphor, and how she is deftly translating her vision and thought process for the audience. It culminates as nothing less than a powerful new creative language of mythic expression.