Two women, two dance performances—that's the premise of Delicate Fish and Bardo, a double bill from choreographers and dancers Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman. The format of the evening is simple. For the first 30 minutes, you are submerged in Delicate Fish's dreaminess. For the last 80, you are scorched by Bardo's evocation of grief as raw as flayed skin.
Because they are being performed back to back, Delicate Fish and Bardo form a single continuum of feeling and motion that leaves you shaken and thrilled. There are stories behind the dances—transformation is their shared theme—but they also embrace the joy of movement for its own sake.
For Evans' Delicate Fish, the cavernous Shaking the Tree Theatre is filled with light bulb-covered pillars, but the choreography has more in common with water than light. The performance begins with Evans shuffling slowly across the floor, looking like a creature of the deep on land for the first time. Other times, her limbs move so slowly she appears to be underwater, an impression solidified by the sounds of surging waves that fill D.L. Frazer's music.
The pillars are then pushed to the edge of the stage for Butler-Denman's Bardo, making room for a rush of stinging emotions. Unlike Delicate Fish—which is enigmatic and wordless—Bardo features dialogue, most of it spoken by Butler-Denman to an absent loved one (the performance is based on her own experiences with loss). "Let's pretend you can hear me," she calls out.
Although Delicate Fish and Bardo are distinct entities, they both present a vision of life in flux. Delicate Fish forges a path from vulnerability to strength—Evans' movements grow more forceful as the performance progresses, a change mirrored by the choir that infiltrates the score. Bardo takes us from grief to rage to anguished acceptance—a destination illuminated in images of haunting stillness, like Butler-Denman kneeling before a bouquet of purple flowers.
Yet it would be a mistake to see Delicate Fish and Bardo as mere conduits for meaning. Does Evans move at molasses speed to convey a sense of crushing ennui? Maybe, but it's worth taking time to admire her ability to move in apparent slow motion without shaking. And while the sight of Butler-Denman slashing her palms through the air like knives is a powerful expression of fury fueled by despair, there's nothing wrong with simply savoring the looseness of that gesture, which makes you feel as if you are witnessing a sudden outburst, rather than a rehearsed creation.
"Bardo" is a word used in Tibetan Buddhism to describe a state between death and rebirth, which is fitting, since death reverberates through each choreographer's piece. You feel it when Evans lies on the floor in shadows so thick that they obscure her form, and you feel it when Butler-Denman tumbles off the edge of a coffin, her body as limp as a corpse.
The great perversity of Delicate Fish and Bardo is that even when they embrace death, they feel feverishly alive. Evans and Butler-Denman seem to risk their bodies and hearts at every moment. The pieces may leave you occasionally weary—the production's sole flaw is a tendency to revel in passages that could have been cut or condensed—but they also carry you from the sea to the heavens, reminding you of the sublime capabilities of the human body.
SEE IT: Delicate Fish and Bardo are at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., lyraandjess.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7. $20.