Friday, April 14, 2017

A Musical and Choreographic Study of How Self is Undermined by Drugs

Last night at the ODC Theater in the Mission, Prescription Drug Nation was given its first performance in its entirety as an evening-length fully-staged work. The show began as a suite of six movements composed by Aaron Gervais, each intended to be a musical examination of a pharmacological product that has made a serious impact on our society through its use, overuse, and abuse. Each movement focused on a single drug, which was named in the title. All of the music was scored for three guitarists playing both acoustic and electric instruments; and it was all written for the Mobius Trio of Mason Fish, Matt Linder, and Robert Nance. In order of their performance last night, the movement titles were “Adderall,” “Ambien,” “Xanax,” “Prozac (withdrawal),” “Vicodin, and “Viagra.”

In preparing last night’s performance, Gervais teamed up with Michelle Fletcher, founder of the Here Now Dance Collective. She prepared choreography for each of the six movements, which she performed along with two of the members of her group, Kelly Del Rosario and Kit McDaniel. There was thus a symmetry between the three guitarists and the three dancers, and that symmetry was frequently reflected in costuming decisions.

While the names of the six drugs on which the suite was based have become part of contemporary working vocabulary, it would have been helpful for the program sheet to clarify how each of them was intended to be used. By way of a quick summary, Adderall is taken to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Ambien is a sedative usually prescribed for insomnia, Xanax is for anxiety disorder, Prozac is an antidepressant, Vicodin is a pain killer, and Viagra is for erectile dysfunction. It is worth noting that, while all six of these drugs were developed for their physiological effects, from the point of use, each is psychologically significant in its own way.

As a result what may have been the most salient impact of last night’s performance was Fletcher’s ability to capture that psychological significance through her choreography. In so doing, however, she also touched very effectively on the darker undertones of abuse. This may have been most explicit in presenting Prozac for its withdrawal effects, but what was most fascinating about the dance work was how Fletcher could turn to synchronized activities as an approach to depicting an underlying loss of self.

There was thus a prevailing sense of darkness that pervaded much of the evening, particularly in the first five movements. Gervais then summoned up his own palette of rhetorical devices to reflect that darkness through his musical language. Thus he associated the hyperactivity treated by Adderall by his own distinctive approach to working with repetitive structures (that phrase that Philip Glass has consistently preferred to “minimalism”); and this was where Fletcher’s synchronized activities had their greatest impact. Subsequent movements involved one of the Mobius players switching to an electric instrument while the other two stayed on acoustic. Gervais’ sensitivity to the extensive palette of sonorities at his disposal allow the electric instrument to convey many of the psychologically sharper edges of the disorders being treated.

If all this gives the impression that there was a risk that things would get overly intense, both Fletcher and Gervais skillfully avoided deteriorating into any agonizing meltdowns. Indeed, in many respects the final “Viagra” movement provided an excellent opportunity for comic relief. (In terms of Greek drama, it was the satyr play that followed a trilogy of tragedies.) After working his way through five movements of angst, Del Rosario emerged as an icon of vigorous male potency. This was realized metaphorically by having the two female dancers take flying leaps at him, from which he would snatch them out of the air. This became a bit of a circus act, particularly when both of them jumped at him at the same time; but the whole thing was all in good healthy fun.

“Healthy” was the operative adjective there. This was the one movement that kept any sense of a dark side at bay. This is not to say that Viagra is free of those risks of overuse and abuse that were addressed more explicitly in the first five movements. However, both composer and choreographer seemed to agree that, after five rather intense episodes, the audience needed a break. The result was an overall experience that had its own way of being informative while making for an enjoyable evening. The good news is that three more performances remain at ODC, this evening, tomorrow evening, and on Sunday afternoon.

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