Grief is one of our most extraordinary creative motivators. The band Mount Eerie, a solo project by the musician Phil Elverum, released a song this year called “Real Death” that opens with these lines: “Death is real/someone’s there and then they’re not/and it’s not for singing about/it’s not for making into art.” The existence of these lyrics are an anachronism, and yet I believe them. The passing of Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, was the song’s subject; for Elverum, writing music was not a choice, but a compulsion.
Attack Theatre’s In Defense of Gravity, which debuted last weekend at the George R. White Studio in the Strip, is a fusion of dance, live music and poetry that is propelled by this same feeling. As the show opens, shimmering, dissonant electronic music forces our attention towards several figures emerging from backstage, reaching towards us as if underwater. A man in a business suit enters from outside, hangs up his hat and coat, and passes through the figures to sit himself in front of a trunk. Inside the trunk is a pink blanket barely larger than a washcloth, and the man grips it tightly. We don’t know everything, but we know enough.
The man is played by Peter Kope, who designed and choreographed the show alongside Michele de la Reza. Kope is here a stoic contrast to Attack Theatre’s more emotive cast. We see his character leave and re-enter the same night in his apartment over and over; the aforementioned figures, who at once embody grief, compassion and catharsis, bustle with kinetic energy until the man can do nothing except collapse into their influence.
From here, In Defense of Gravity reveals itself to the audience. The man sits in front of a book, and we hear a poem by local writer Jimmy Cvetic play over the loudspeakers: “the best lie told is the one you tell to yourself, and the greatest lie is the one you tell and believe.”
The choreography gets more complex and demanding, as the dancers embody an infant’s first struggle to stand, a child’s first fight, a lesson in how to lie, a young adult’s first love, and so on. The cast, who are made up of Kaitlin Dann, Simon Phillips, Dane Toney, Ashley Williams and Sarah Zielinsky, are all credited with movement invention, which makes sense; much of the choreography, fitting of the show’s central theme, is peppered with small bursts of unique physical personality.
The show is propelled by more than metaphor, however. The presence of Cvetic’s poetry, which has a familiar quality, is fairly explicit about each stage of life portrayed onstage, which both ensures the audience stays grounded in the play and frees up the choreography to be more purely emotive. The method of delivery for said poetry, however, was a sticking point for me; Cvetic’s voice is made garbled and bass-y by the sound system, giving his interludes an unfitting inhumanism.
In many ways, though, the very presence of Cvetic is evidence that Attack Theatre’s latest is as propelled by intellect as heart, and rarely is a creative choice made that doesn’t encourage some deeper examination of its subject. A quartet underscores the vast majority of the play, and it’s honestly a little shocking how versatile they are. An early Duke Ellington cover, while resonant, led me to expect something in the way of convention, but musicians Ben Opie (clarinet/saxophone), Ben Brosche (piano), Jeff Berman (percussion) and Anqwenique (vocals) slip just as easily into a fusion of jazz, soul and experimental music as they do the familiar.
I enjoyed how true the show is to its theme. With acknowledgment to the loose, playful feel of much of the dance work, we’re never allowed to forget that every element of the narrative is a consideration of gravity. Even during the show’s most disparate moments, there’s always a sense that the cast is about to be pulled however unwillingly back into orbit.
In Defense of Gravity is an immersive, inventive work. There is an inevitable quality to Kope and de la Reza’s expansive narrative that could easily be reinterpreted as defeatist. In life, our greatest relationships must also bottom out to our deepest emotional valleys once our connection to one another becomes severed. We can’t change our role in that story, and we’ll all find ourselves in it at some point. Once we find ourselves pulled back to the start once again, Kope and de la Reza’s work challenges us to brace for impact and start anew.
In Defense of Gravity has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Attack Theatre and what they’re up to here.