"This is not a love poem." These words are repeated throughout Made to Dance in Burning Buildings, a dreamlike fusion of dance and theater written by Anya Pearson and directed by Jamie M. Rea. It's a fitting refrain. While there are moments of romance throughout the play, its focus is one black woman's story of surviving rape and battling PTSD.
Yet in a way, Pearson has created a love poem. With its often enigmatic storytelling, Made to Dance in Burning Buildings—which is having its world premiere at Shaking the Tree Theatre—is certainly poetic. It is also about the toughest, fiercest kind of love of all—the love of self it takes to transcend trauma. That's why the presentation transfixes, even when it terrifies you so deeply it's tempting to turn away.
Pearson's creation exists in a completely different galaxy than most theatrical works. The protagonist, Ava (Amber Bates), speaks only a few words, instead choosing to communicate through dance moves that are alternately graceful and tormented. The rest of the women in the play (Emily Hogan, Tonea Lolin, Shani Harris-Bagwell, Nicole Accuardi and the playwright Pearson) don't dance and speak often, but they veer wildly from topic to topic, expressing themselves in fragments of speech like, "Imagine me in wedding photos," and "Vintage is only in every few decades."
Ava eventually meets a man known simply as First Love (Jeff George, who's also the choreographer), and their subsequent dance serves as a representation of what seems an idyllic romance. But like a window struck by a sledgehammer, that portrayal is shattered by the arrival of three of First Love's friends (Malik Delgado, Minon Minniewether and Ian McBride). With feet stomping and fists clenched, they engage in a vigorous, violent dance that symbolizes the trio raping Ava, a violation that leaves both physical and psychological wounds that fester.
What follows is a fight for survival. There are times when the other women onstage—who have names like "Lady of This Uncertain Madness" and "Lady of Utmost Perseverance"—seem to speak Ava's thoughts aloud. But there are also moments when they utter all-too-familiar misogynistic credos, including quotes from the Access Hollywood tape that caught Donald Trump, in vulgar and prideful terms, talking about sexually assaulting women.
Made to Dance in Burning Buildings is about Ava's struggle to rise above those voices, a journey that culminates in an exhilarating, cathartic climax. Before that, however, the play immerses us head deep in Ava's helplessness and fear. The frequent, ghostly reappearances of the rapists—including the image of one of them opening his mouth creepily wide, like a dragon about to spew fire—creates an atmosphere of sustained psychological terror that is, by design, hard to behold and harder still to forget.
That's how it should be. Pearson herself is a survivor of rape, and there are times when Made to Dance in Burning Buildings seems to be saying, "See me. Understand what I experienced," which is what makes the play feel so personal and revelatory. It is a story for survivors, but it is also a story for perpetrators who have never confronted the consequences of their actions and bystanders who have looked the other way for too long.
Made to Dance in Burning Buildings deserves to be seen. By letting words and movements flow together in a sometimes surreal surge of feeling, Pearson, Rea and the cast and crew don't give in to the allure of easy answers and instead have created a potent and primal work of art about how Ava rejects her attackers' hold on her. That's what makes the production not only a powerful lament, but a brave, epic and steadfast tale of rebirth.
SEE IT: Made to Dance in Burning Buildings runs at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., shaking-the-tree.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through March 16. $10-$30.