For Carrie Ahern, red is a very scary color. Inspired by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Ahern's Red was a rich tapestry of densely layered images of pent-up ferocity.
The piece reminded me of a section in another great literary work, Jane Eyre, in which Jane is locked in a terrifying red room as punishment. As in Bronte's imagination, for Ahern red represents oppression, aggression, and fear, and possesses power to overwhelm and consume. As the piece opened, one could hear only an eerie swishing sound, which was generated by the odd, sliding gait of ten pairs of feet approaching us from behind. In near dark, women in long, multi-textured dresses, with blacked-out eyes, marched monk-like to the stage. A light shone briefly bright, throwing an elongated shadow of the balcony railing onto the upstage altar wall as Ahern bolted down the balcony stairs to join the rest of the group onstage, knocking the other women to the floor like dominoes.
It is rare to see a contemporary dance work with such a large cast, and the small army of women trapped in their macabre mission brought to mind the tortured Willies of Giselle or La Sylphide, and even Prada's disquieting SoHo window display of a battalion of nearly identical, fashionably miserable mannequins. There was a certain voyeurism attached to bearing witness to this world, yet the audience in this case is not the dangerous onlooker. Throughout the work, the dancers took turns watching each other with sinister attention, as if to ensure a sentence would be carried out. The potential harm remained captive in the performance space and was amplified by the virtuosic sound design, which was deftly woven into the work.
Performed in identical costume to the dancers', Kristin Norderval's design incorporated live singing mixed with pre-recorded sound, which was then also recorded and re-mixed to build a complex, ghostly score that fluttered between lullaby and scream. Just when we thought we had this grave, sinister world pegged, miniature basketballs rained down from the balcony, bouncing insanely and immediately exploding the restrained energy of the performance. Ahern blew a whistle, and the group began to run a drill-series tagging the columns as they ran back and forth. The sports reference was a brief, anachronistic, zany, masculine intervention in what is otherwise an exclusively somber, female world. The respite from the thick gloom was welcome, yet the influence did not hold long. Gradually, the dancers came to rest, forming a stoic frame for the space in which they resembled statues in a Greek temple, as one woman gathered the basketballs to create a precarious, uncomfortable bed.
By the end of the work, the allusion to Atwood's novel took over, and I felt a keen sense as the piece drew to a close that I had heard this story before. When Ahern kept closely aligned to the themes of the book, the effect was less fascinating than the spin-off world into which she drew us for the first two-thirds of the performance. The line between terror and angst is thin, and the reverential reference to Atwood that had initially inspired the work seemed ultimately to dissipate Ahern's own striking investigation.