As the second event of the year in the Dance Lab performance series, Western’s Dance Department brought the Seattle-based company Better Biscuit Dance to Bellingham on January 13 and 14 to perform their modern dance opera, “The Onion Twins.” The concert combined elements of opera, theater and storytelling with contemporary modern dance, fusing dramatic performance media into a fantastical tale. It’s a tale of queens, dragons, princes, and villagers, where onions are the drug needed to induce pregnancy, and the difference between a prince and a monster is eventually found to be no thicker than that pungent fruit’s skin.
The show proved entertaining and fun, as the five dancers invoked the different physicalities of royalty, beasts and witches, supported by a cloak-wearing storyteller and the vocals of a pair of opera singers. The combination of media was unusual, and signifies a current trend in the modern dance world– a movement away from dance by itself, which frequently leads to confused audiences– to dance as a central, but not exclusive element, in performance that integrates multiple dramatic disciplines. In addition to the issue raised by the moral of this story– that everyone is multilayered, like an onion, and should not be judged on any one layer– this show spurred questions of appropriate and necessary medium in which to describe a particular story, or convey a certain message.
Every medium offers different strengths and limitations. Traditional theater holds the benefit of a commonly held language, conveyed through dialogue, set, and cultural associations that are, for the most part, widely understood. Modern dance is far more abstract, but has the potential to create a language that can express the subtlety and nuance of relationships and emotional states that words cannot capture. Opera brings in the power of vibration, musical rises and falls, and highly intensified tonal resonance. The palate from which this performance drew was rich and varied.
Interdisciplinary mixing of performance media holds the potential to be far more than the sum of its individual parts, however, in the case of “The Onion Twins,” I found that the show as a whole lacked my complete captivation. The answer to the riddle of the missing element in a show so rich in media lies in an insufficient visual demonstration of the alternate world expressed through the text, opera and physicality of the dancers. I wanted to be more visually swept away. Instead, the world created relied almost entirely on the dancing, which was beautiful and character driven, but not quite enough to effectively transform the stage into the world invoked by the large sound of the opera, and the mysticism of the story. By virtue of the fantastical quality of the story and the characterized approach of the choreography and opera, the set needed to be equally enchanting: a magical and ethereal place that is not quite recognizable as reality.
To its credit, “The Onion Twins” was certainly entertaining, and left me feeling positive and happy. It did not change my life or move me in a profound way, but it was pleasing and delightful, and it satisfied my appetite for a good story. It raised interesting questions about artistic craft on the scale invoked through the combination of various media. With the floodgates of multidisciplinary performance open, how does an artist temper their work to engage and use their chosen media fully, but not create such vastness in their created world that the work outgrows its own capability? In the case of “The Onion Twins,” the combined media made for sense of largeness that was not quite fulfilled. What the show did within each element, it did well; it just ran into a problem where the world implied by the dancing, story and opera created a need for a visual world that transcended that of a traditional stage, which was ultimately the performance took place.