Having seen it in progress more or less complete at Link’s Hall last month, I watched Erin Carlisle Norton’s Stops on the Line Friday able to focus on how she set the piece into Epiphany’s cavernous nave.
It sits with permanent purpose like a slab foundation poured into an excavation.
Excavation, in fact, is an apt descriptor of how Stops feels. A key ingredient of its hard-to-pinpoint tension comes from its slow, inexorable travel in two directions: East, and down. Throughout its lean runtime—an hour or so—it’s carving itself out of a rind; like a single shape being hollowed out, its progression makes the membrane separating its world from ours increasingly fragile. And while there’s no hard setting aside from the room itself (a few costumes match the walls’ colors perfectly), there’s for me an explicit referencing of the late 1920s, the cusp of the Great Depression and the birth of Union Station, Daniel Burnham’s building (which inspired the piece and the anniversary of whose urban plan occasions it).
The audience split in half and facing each other across the performance floor, Norton turns the space into a channel and keeps the composition flowing through it lengthwise, although sufficiently mixing it up with diagonals and traversals. Her hand for traffic patterning and dressing a volume is superb, and the pews’ arrangement also reinforces another theme, that of travel along rails (as when Anna Goldman, in a wide stance, heaves across stage like she’s made of cast lead, holding a headlight and trailing an umbilical). Also notable is the execution of every element of Stops on the Line: In a venue that comes without any decisions granted, The Moving Architects made Epiphany Episcopal look and feel like it’s been a dance venue for decades. The lighting design, by recent Western Michigan graduate Francesca Bourgault and Master Electrician Viv Woodland, is rife with striking looks, sometimes elaborate in setup despite only being switched on for a minute or two. The five-member company feels much larger, not only because of Norton’s continually-inventive compositions but also their collective flexibility with delivery. Some scenes are directed to be more narrative and character-driven, while others are in the realm of pure dance; this quintet makes crystal-clear the point of each and, it should be noted, is one of the cleanest, most unaffected groups in the city. I relished the ease with which I was able to see and intellectually interact with the choreography; these dancers’ technical solidity and purity made it simple.
Adhering to a palette of bold forms and straight lines for much of the dance-driven scenes aligns well with the sense of era: Norton’s vocabulary for Stops is reminiscent of the crystalline, pastel Art Deco of the Lyric Opera in form and the Beaux-Arts monumentalism of Union Station in weight. This formalism, however, is dropped without any preciousness when not necessary: A few tangents into light dance theater, like a mother (Jessie Young) trying to control her tempestuous young child (Stefanie Karlin) while a janitor (Goldman) and lone woman (Alison Riazi) are absorbed in their own trials nearby, aren’t hindered by forced dancerliness and transition imperceptibly into the following action. Other sections, meanwhile, are pitched between dance and theater, including a solo by Lauren Bisio that has her laboriously shuffling through the room on stilts made of books, and an epilogue-ish, almost Matthew Barney-like procession of Young on her hands and knees, unrolling a mud-caked and wet floor panel, doing some kind of penance or hard labor, which she then leaves to rejoin the group albeit marked by a residual filth. There are touches of class-consciousness there and in other moments; if anything in the work is unresolved it’s how much Norton wants to get into the subject — I personally could have seen it either developed further or dropped altogether.
Composer Ian Hatcher is almost part of the action, sitting in one corner with a guitar, glockenspiel and smattering of other instruments. It’s a quiet, almost apologetic soundtrack to what is often giant, proud movement; this contrast is the other source of tension that seethes throughout. Some of the movement motifs, like an exaggerated, prancing leap would be one-note proclamations of optimism were they not tethered to the ground by the plinking delicateness of Hatcher’s score. This isn’t to say that the music is a hindrance, however; these counterintuitive dynamics are what gives the work its mystery and supreme command of tone.
I’m looking forward to more from Norton and her dancers. She’s announced herself as a choreographer of note with Stops on the Line and is following the explication of a voice unlike any other in the city. Congratulations are in order for everyone involved with this terrific production.