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The Dance Laboratory of an Existential Fidgeter

What does a body contain? How do our stories and experiences inform the present moment?

As the choreographer Moriah Evans sees it, we all have bodies and we all have stuff — our everyday possessions, our emotional baggage, our epigenetic history. In her fascinating theatrical experiment “Remains Persist,” Evans excavates the interior worlds of dancers to reveal bodies in states of resignation, of surrender. And Evans is interested in remains: How can a dancer perform what is hidden or buried within the body?

“In this post-pandemic moment, I’m trying to think more expansively about what are we doing with the theater,” Evans said in a recent interview. “There was this moment in 2020 where, yes, everything was shut down, things weren’t working, there was crazy social upheaval. As an artist, what do we do now? What is a relevant stage for the 21st century when we have Instagram, TikTok and digital everything?”

In “Remains,” which opened at Performance Space New York last weekend and continues on Saturday and Sunday, a potential answer can be found in Evans’s particular type of relational theater — a laboratory with witnesses. On a handsome multilevel set by the visual artist Doris Dziersk, “Remains” features four areas, or stages, in which audience members are free to move and to change their point of view. In that way, viewers aren’t just watching a dance, they’re a part of the room — and of the choreographic system unfolding around them.

From left, dos Santos Martins, Betts, Lydia Okrent and Lizzie Feidelson on the multilevel set.Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

As the dance develops, the structure becomes clear: There are question-and-answer sessions in which one dancer — taking on a clinical, bureaucratic persona — interrogates another or others and then gives an instruction for the dancing that follows.

Evans likens the interviews with what happens in a visit to the doctor, where, say, you are asked to describe your family history. “Whether it’s filling out a survey or a financial aid application — all of these kinds of containers are ways we are categorized and asked to perform ourselves,” she said.

“Remains” is slippery and mysterious, yet enchantingly (and surprisingly) entertaining. There are moments of lightness and darkness, of the fantastical and of the everyday. Stretching over four hours, “Remains” allows viewers to come and go as they please. Evans hopes they stick around.

“Even though I’m making it durational, I don’t want this to be performance art, like anything goes,” Evans said. Pictured from left, Varinia Canto Vila, Betts and Feidelson.Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

“Even though I’m making it durational, I don’t want this to be performance art, like anything goes,” she said. “For myself as a dance maker, I want to hold myself to the standard that this is a performance. It has a beginning, middle and an end, and I need to think about this structurally. I’m not asking the audience to come for all four hours. I think that it’s better if they do. I think they’ll get a cooler experience. But that’s not the conditions.”

Within Evans’s choreographic tapestry, the format stays essentially the same as the scenes evolve and grow: Along with the interviews, there are movement studies that focus on resignation and remains, and within them, layers of being that she has named subject, self, body, flesh and stuff. Broadly speaking, a resignation study could be about surrendering to the present moment, while a remains study draws on the residue of information in the body. “What happens after the point of exhaustion?” Evans says. “And what is the micro choreography that happens in each moment of the post-exhausted state?”

Bodies shake and rattle uncontrollably with arms that often stretch out, as if seeking balance or giving the torso space to shake out its organs; they also float in seeming stillness.

Poetic language is involved. A dancer might be asked to access a point in the flesh of their hand. Do we see it? Maybe not. But do we sense it? Over time, yes. And all the while, the questions persist until you start to consider them for yourself, for your own body. It wakes you up. Who taught your body how to love? Does the body have boundaries? How much stuff is inside you? Has your stuff ever killed anyone? Is your flesh disciplined? Is some of your flesh in someone else’s flesh?

Dancers perform at a dress rehearsal on Doris Dziersk’s multilevel set, which features four areas, or stages.Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

It’s both surreal and analytic as the dancers become distinct, individual. In many ways, “Remains” is a homage to Evans’s dancers — and to all dancers. But here, their biographies are exposed throughout: We learn about their childhoods, the pressures they face, the mundane and profound details about their stuff. Evans gives them a voice and in doing so, expands the idea of what a dancer can do and what a dance can be. Within the structure of “Remains,” the dancers have agency. They can take charge of their bodies as well as their past and their present — there is no script.

While Evans is adamant that the work is not about the pandemic, it did come out of it. She relocated to Ohio, where she grew up, in the early days of the shutdown; working on Zoom with two of her cast members, Sarah Beth Percival and Cyril Baldy, she started to consider the idea of resignation. “You would meet inertia and then you would just resign and then end up nowhere,” she said. “But then through time and keeping at it, this weird thing emerged, which I ended up calling remains.”

She thinks of it as a kind of residue of information in the body: What happens after the body is spent? “Let’s assume we’re all already exhausted,” she said. “Let’s take that as a given and let’s create a space in the theater where there’s a kind of gentleness around that.”

Last Sunday, the dancer Kris Lee gave instructions for a remains study: “Get to a position. Try to sustain what doesn’t change. Locate remains in your elbows, in the layer of being that is your body.”

Evans has been wondering: “What is a relevant stage for the 21st century when we have Instagram, TikTok and digital everything?”Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

Varinia Canto Vila complied, and her body began to vibrate until her elbows gradually quivered to life. Lee said, “Varinia, initiate speech.”

As Canto Vila poked her elbows to either side, jabbing at the air sharply, she said: “If you want to go through a mass of people, you just kick your elbows. This is also when you want to win a job, an audition — you just kick everyone to the side so you can go through and be the one, the only one.”

The dexterity of her body and the devious inventiveness of her mind were entrancing: “I have very thin elbows, they are painful,” she said. “Watch out.”

The question-and-answer sessions reveal surprises, too. At a run-through a week or so before opening night, a dancer posed a question: What do you need to make a revolution happen? One person said discipline; another said sacrifice. Evans loved that moment for the way it looked to the larger world. What do we need to sacrifice in order to make life better?

Also, it showed that in “Remains,” no one is an expert. “The dancers are themselves,” Evans said. “I feel like I’m continuing this kind of quotidian dance practice that’s part of my legacy as a post-post-postmodern choreographer in New York City. I’m bringing in another type of pedestrianism — of the clinic, the doctor’s office, the courtroom, the interview.”

Kris Lee in “Remains Persist.”Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

Evans has been working on “Remains” for a long time — it predates “Repose,” a durational work that premiered two summers ago at Rockaway Beach. With both, however, she is focusing on accessibility, making known the instructions of her movement scores to demystify them. She also offers, before each performance, a dance class, free and open to everyone.

Evans calls her dance style an “existential fidget.” Who couldn’t use some of its unruly strangeness? And is it really so strange?

“We all have a wide array of bodily experiences in our life,” she said. “We share that. I guess I’m trying to also give more access points into what might be considered dance and how people could dance themselves.”

When Evans considers narrative and performance in much of dance, she is flabbergasted, especially by story ballets with “the most absurd, crazy stories,” she said, that require an “insane” suspension of disbelief.

“You can’t get behind the concept of a remain — that my grandma is in my wrist talking to me every day or has a message that I’m channeling through the activity of performance — but you all go and buy ‘Nutcracker’ tickets?”

It’s OK to love both. It’s all dance. And her dance, “Remains,” is not a fairy tale, it’s about life. Or as she put it, “Let’s engage imagination to the extreme level! Let’s have fun with the escapism possibility in the acts of performing and watching performance.”

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