“Okay—let’s practice your secret.”
Jessica Grindstaff, the director of Falling Out—opening tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—is giving cues to a dancer crouched behind a grim wall of 150 numbered black trash bags in a fifth-floor rehearsal room. Moments later, the dancer—Brooklyn-born flex and krump dancer Banks Artiste—begins secretly and slowly pushing a mountain of tulle up, over, and out of the assemblage of bags before breaking through and performing a riveting solo movement work meant to evoke the horrors of exposure to radioactive fallout.
Two days before the New York premiere, the assembled team of six dancers trained in various forms—in addition to flex and krump, Falling Out draws on modern dance and Japanese butoh—are doing last-minute fine-tunings for a dozen or so hours each day. A song by the Brooklyn-based band Elysian Fields featuring haunting vocals by Jennifer Charles begins, and four of the dancers, crouched around two life-size human puppets, begin a mesmeric process of resurrecting the puppets and guiding them in a dance of courtship, joy, and loss.
“It’s about bringing these forms together and seeing how butoh and flex and other forms and puppetry interact,” Grindstaff says later during a break. “And working with dancers allows us to approach traditional notions of puppetry in fresh ways.”
Given that these emotions are being imparted upon unadorned, lifeless forms constructed (by Erik Sanko, who also did the music for the production) from cast-off paper materials and stray rope and old coffee cups and papier-maché—and that this rehearsal is being conducted without the production’s lights, costumes (by Henrik Vibskov), or staging sleight of hand—it’s shockingly moving.
The piece is the final installment of a trilogy about “people’s relationship to nature and the environment,” as Grindstaff puts it—one begun seven years ago by Grindstaff (an artist, director, and set designer) and Sanko (a composer, puppet-maker, and long-time fixture of the downtown New York City music scene). Their Phantom Limb Company, which specializes in collaborative and multimedia performance pieces incorporating marionette puppetry, began in 2011 with 69 Degrees South, which was centered around Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 expedition to Antarctica, and followed that with 2016’s Memory Rings, an evocative and sprawling meditation with the world’s oldest living tree providing its focus and beating heart.
Falling Out was largely inspired by three months Grindstaff spent recently in Japan, where she witnessed the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, itself the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami. That mountain of trash bags, for instance? “The Japanese government has taken the top 18 inches of soil—they call it ‘cleaning’—and they’re putting it in these gigantic black bags and trucking those into these old rice paddy fields—hundreds of thousands of bags of radioactive soil,” Grindstaff says. “Oh, and P.S.: They’re on the coastline. So if another tsunami comes in . . . It’s this maddening, futile exercise. And we work with this concept a lot in the show—you never really get away from these bags.”
The notion of working with tulle—in addition to playing the part of a radioactive link, the fabric comes back again later in the piece as an undulating sea—came to Grindstaff years ago in a kind of happy accident. “I was sitting with Freya [her and Sanko’s daughter] in our living room, and one of her tutus was on the floor,” she says, “and the wind through the window blew it across the floor. It felt like a ghost, like vapor, like radiation, and like water. It’s kind of like a puppet—it takes on all these different forms.”
And while Falling Out is certainly thematically linked to Phantom Limb’s earlier pieces, dramatically, it represents a new kind of storytelling. “I was trying for so long with the trilogy to deliver a sincere message about the environment,” Grindstaff says, “but then I made this pivot, where I realized it wasn’t about sincerity—it was about truth. And spending three months in Japan talking with people who have lost everything, and whose lives have been transformed by radiation—I felt I had to honor those stories. I’m using a bunch of footage from my trip, and the story is really rooted in interviews with those people. There’s some experimentation early in the piece with the dancers trying this idea of physical empathy—they’re literally watching interviews and copying what they’re seeing and building movement sequences from these small gestures.”
There’s also a certain hopeful takeaway that might be unexpected, given the work’s underlying subject matter. “I’d become pretty pessimistic about what sort of hope we could maintain about the environment,” Grindstaff says. “Everyone I talked to in Japan kept talking about ‘hope,’ and it infuriated me—this was the most dystopian environment I’d ever experienced. And I think we all feel disabled by how monumental our problems are regarding the environment. But when I saw these people finding happiness in the smallest of gestures within their community, in the face of this intense catastrophe, it gave me hope. So we literally built a piece based on small gestures which become almost a kind of healing. And so I hope when people see this desolation, this disaster, they might still come out of it feeling uplifted.”