Review: TOOL IS LOOT, Wally Cardona & Jennifer Lacey with Jonathan Bepler

I’m a bit late to the party on “TOOL IS LOOT,” which had its premiere back in September, but finally managed to see it Sunday afternoon at Abrons Art Center as part of the American Realness festival. The piece alternated between solo sections for the choreographers Jennifer Lacey and Willy Cardona, accompanied alternately by silence, recitations of poems, descriptions of their actions, and various noises and bursts of music. Each began dressed in normal, yet danceable clothes (although at one point, while talking to a chair, Lacey reminds us “this is a costume”), but by the final sections, when they at times share the stage, have changed into childlike outfits recalling a sailor suit and lederhosen, respectively.

Particularly in the first section, I was struck by the incredible expressivity and articulateness of Lacey’s feet. Her toes were constantly in motion, echoing or initiating the movement in the rest of her body. I was so drawn to these tiny movements that it felt like being at a performance when you can’t figure out which section of the stage to look at—except that here it was just one body, making small and controlled movements, that was creating this sensation of overabundance.

When she did move into a passage of more expansive dancing, it was against a recorded text that sought to define, in the most objective of terms, the body as “object” and its tendencies and capabilities. A trope that would be repeated while Cardona danced, it implicitly invited the viewer to make connections between the recorded words (“this is an object with two stands”) and what was being performed. Just when the correlation began to seem clear (ok, this is talking about the dancer, and not the chair), that understanding would be subverted: Lacey or Cardona’s performance would contradict the dictates of the words or the words would veer off into philosophical abstraction. These subversions kept these sections of the piece from slipping into cliché and prevented one component of the performance (words or dance) from obscuring the other.

In a later section, Lacey holds a conversation with one of the two folding chairs that constitute the piece’s only props. Her naturalness as an actress is winning (and a marked change from the earlier section in which she epitomizes modern dance detachment); as cheesy as this may be as a conceit, she draws you in and makes you laugh. She also quickly squelches any inclination to read this as something more metaphorical: the chair does not represent an absent person, or her relationship to the audience, it is quite simply a chair (one that is offended by a reference to the Eames nonetheless).

Cardona was similarly captivating in his movements and expressions. His dance sections tended to be more theatrical and use bigger and quicker movements. He shifted seamlessly from ironic confrontation to exaggerated dancerly-ness to moments of sincerity that you could read in his eyes from rows away.

For a piece by such fascinating movers, it was a bit disappointing when the piece’s final section didn’t feature them at all, consisting instead of music accompanying colors and planetary images (echoes of Melancholia for me) projected on the large background screen until the lights gradually came up and the piece was over. After being so captivated by the specific movements of particular bodies, this absence seemed all the more striking and vast. It did however give me a chance to reflect on their performances, something I continued to do as I left the theatre wanting more.