Dis/Unity: A Service premieres at the Englert Theatre

Dis/Unity: A Service

Englert Theatre — Thursday, Sept. 7-Saturday, Sept. 9

In June 2016, Dis/Unity was presented as a workshop production in Iowa City. — photo by Adam Burke

The world premiere of Dis/Unity: A Service will occur at the Englert Theatre on Sept. 7-9, with tickets ranging from $10-50. The Thursday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Friday’s is at 5:30 p.m.

The event is the third coordination of a group of individual experimental artists who riff off and build from each other, as though they were an all-star team featured in a game highlighting every sport’s talents, or a supergroup that occasionally jams together at the end of a festival given two hours and whole new dimensions. Because the artists converge from different points of strength, they create a wholly immersive, intense aesthetic experience that exceeds the boundaries of what one would see individually in a museum, theater or gallery.

The group — which includes Esther Baker-Tarpaga, Raquel Monroe, Courtney Jones, Lamar Barber and Heidi Wiren Bartlett — is responsive to current events, as well as to the local space of the Englert in particular and Iowa City in general. Nothing of the past several weeks has been neglected or forgotten: Artists mention Irma and wildfires, Korea and Charlottesville. Water comes up often: the local lakes and rivers of the Iowa City area and the tainted water of Flint, Michigan as well as the water dumped on Houston, Texas.

In speaking with the artists I sensed their attunement to the universal and the particular or, as Monroe (performance/installation) put it, “the sacred in the everyday.” In other words, the service brings together not just different artistic modalities — visual, aural, performance, intermedia, dance — but also different geographic relations, different people, different times.

Rather than racing to combat damage and danger or hastening to help everyone whom the world would harm, Dis/Unity: A Service offers Iowa City the ability to do otherwise. The intermedia performance art group suggests instead that we pause. Be slow. Heal. Experience. Fight on better grounds instead of lesser ones. As the group puts it in its artist statement: “Art is a powerful tool for coalition building and fighting systemic oppression.”

Katie Roche, Development Director of the Englert, described her experience in this way: “Dis/Unity offers us another, more lyrical way to reflect. I think of Dis/Unity as an experimental ceremony, where we turn off the flow of information from the outside world and instead attempt to examine how we can heal as individuals and as a society.”

Part of this work involves the physical transformation and reconstruction of the Englert’s space. Rather than the familiar scene in which an audience passively stares at the proscenium arch, this collective wants, in the words of Baker-Tarpaga, to “decenter it from one voice … what the stage and arch gives. But we also use it. How do you give other voices space? We are remaking this space to allow it.”

This involves a series of installations in the foyer and hallways of the Englert, inviting the audience to tarry and explore the whole of the theater as an art space instead of limiting it to a mode of passive reception. The audience will also be invited to dance along with the troupe — the group encourages active collaboration.

“Energy and participation is needed,” Monroe said, noting that they would adjust if nobody wanted to join: they offer invitations, not demands.

Raquel Monroe, Courtney D. Jones and Esther Baker-Tarpaga in last year’s workshop production of Dis/Unity. — photo by Adam Burke

Barber, part of the installation and performance art aspect, describes his hope for the series in terms of a change for the future, wanting to empower white bodies to battle racism for their children, not just for the sake of brown or black bodies. In passing the baton to white America, he hopes to encourage the kind of change displayed in Charlottesville.

“For me to be free from this racism and prejudice I have to do something about it. White people often don’t want to see that it is their fight too. They keep ignorant of how consequences affect them and focus on their privilege,” Barber said.

When everything is in crisis, the tendency is to attempt to exert control: to tweet back faster or with greater wit, to rush from one kind of aid to another, to protest more loudly or with greater moral outrage. These efforts have not been in vain, but have not (yet) produced the goals that motivate many who engage in them. The rifts that divide our country deepen as the natural world seems intent on producing terrifyingly beautiful (Iowa) and numinously awful (Texas, Florida, Montana) weather patterns.

Art is perhaps too often better in theory than in practice, such as when the artist statement claims the “kinesthetic, sonic, visual and aural landscapes strive to transform the trauma of oppression into healing actions.” This sounds good, but many have experienced the high praise that a philosopher or artist might have for the work art does in offering transformation, only to come away disappointed or bored. The skepticism we have learned after watching an exciting trailer transform into a boring movie seems appropriate to deploy, especially when hearing Jones, whose music accompanies the movements, say, “You have to experience it to understand what is there.”

Each artist spoke of healing, of community, of transformation, but Dis/Unity is worth seeing for even the seemingly smaller stakes of good art. It may not be the passive entertainment of a big blockbuster movie — but it promises to be something that will have longer staying power.

One could leave Dis/Unity feeling unmoved by the beauty of the art and the various modes of expression merging together to create multiple simultaneous kinds of art. One could be unmoved about the story of water and its role in America today. One could leave seeing the world with the same eyes — but the artists share a hope that more is possible, and seem earnest in their desire to create a space where that possibility is encouraged to come into being.

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