Hurtling through the interstellar void: fragile organic packages totally dependent upon complex systems they must sustain through intricate procedures; joined at the hip with a tiny group of fellow-travelers. Sounds like being in an avant-garde theater company. Or, for that matter, like the entire millennial generation. Whatever the metaphor, Bottle 99, the latest original work by The Quasimondo Physical Theatre is a modern-dance space ballet that takes us to spaces we would never expect; both outer, inner, and artistic.
The piece opens with the thematic image of a poor little monkey being neglected and teased by heartless scientists who are preparing it to be launched in a primitive capsule. Then, as in Kubrick’s 2001, we’re instantly transported to the cold white interior of an interplanetary craft far in the future: one of many colony ships—evocatively called “bottles” —en route to a habitable world. We see two intense young technicians birthing the rest of the crew out of blue-lit honeycomb cells, jump-starting their inert bodies with forceful movements reminiscent of a lioness training her cubs. Clad in skimpy outfits that accentuate their physiques, the crew obsessively undergoes brutal exercise—space is murder on muscle mass. Against a backdrop of gorgeous, if glitchy, video projections, we see them engage in ritualized operations to keep their ship functioning: there’s a geneticist, a nutritionist, a psychologist, a mechanic, a navigator and a “quality control” specialist to keep everybody in line—this is no interstellar cruise. Language seems irrelevant; they communicate by gestures and glances.
Literal-minded sci-fi fans should be advised that this is a poetic drama; more Solaris than Star Trek. We might not know exactly what’s going on at any given moment, but part of the fun is to try to decipher these dream-images, like Rorschach blots, to make up our own story. And if you really must know precisely why they spit into each others' hands in the course of what appears to be an orgy, or why they force the navigator to wear a large silver robot headpiece, why the engineer is convulsing under the ministrations of the ship’s onboard cyborg, and why all the bottles—you can ask them after the show! Narrative ambiguity aside, we do get very clear feelings and ideas from the sumptuous, sexy imagery and the kaleidoscopic variety of imaginative ways for human bodies to move together, all to a kick-ass techno score assembled by Wylie Heftie.
Directors Jenni Reinke and Brian Rott’s method, working with three other choreographers, is to improvise from seed premises to develop scenes, filtered through the performers’ collective minds and bodies, which they craft into a densely allusive, image-rich series of striking and powerful movements, reminiscent of the paintings of old masters in that they communicate volumes through groupings of figures, facial expressions and gestures. Each performer has precise, personal meanings for everything they do, so what could so easily come off as hokey or forced feels genuine and courageous. It’s very much like observing another culture.
When the crew learns that their mission will last their entire lives, and that their children, will step out onto the soil of another world, but not them, it precipitates a crisis. They have to make up their own culture, develop their own social norms. It’s a long lonely trip, and the young travelers naturally turn to each other for comfort. This seems to be about as chancy in interstellar space as it is on Earth: brusque courtships play out like the mating rituals of animals, as their bodily needs assert themselves. We see virtues played out, as well as human failings; one memorable scene show the ship’s black-clad cyborg, suddenly realizing his humanity, being cruelly forced back into his mechanical mask, crucial to the ship’s survival. In a final tour-de-force, we see images of the crew projected on each others' bodies: in the most intimate way possible, they have become part of one another, and the ancestors of a future civilization.
On the way to Utopia, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. The journey of Bottle 99 indeed mirrors the company’s paths as they create their own idiosyncratic, hermetic culture of bodies doing the cosmic origami, folding space to make their own meaning in the chilly interstices of 21st century America. It’s our pleasure—and our privilege—to peer through the portholes and watch their fascinating evolution.
by the Quasimondo Physical Theatre
Directed by Jenni Reinke & Brian Rott
Original Score by Wylie Hefti
Choreography by Jessi Miller, Claudia Sol, Jenni Reinke and Brian Rott
Runs through April 27
The Milwaukee Fortress
100 A E. Pleasant Street, fourth floor
Some walking is involved. Please contact if you need assistance with mobility.
(717) 34 Quasi
Tickets $15 in advance; $18 at the door. (Cash only please.)