Mad Science: David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group’s “Restless Eye”

[Read this review on The Huffington Post.]

“I’m interested in an irrational response to our perceived place in the universe.”

So says choreographer David Neumann in his program notes for Restless Eye, which runs through April 1 at New York Live Arts. It sounds like an expression of cool scientific curiosity. But Eye isn’t a polite experiment, a gentle probing of ideas. Instead it’s an acute, hilarious and, in the end, persuasive argument against logic. The only rational way to respond to our place in this big, crazy cosmos, Neumann claims, is irrationally.

Or at least I think that’s what he claims. In a way, trying to make too much sense of Neumann’s rich, artfully diffuse, multi-disciplinary world is beside the point. For Eye, he has gathered five singular performers (Andrew Dinwiddie, Kennis Hawkins, Neal Medlyn, Jeremy Olson and Victoria Roberts-Wierzbowski); Sibyl Kempson’s snippets of text, ranging from Chekhov’s stage directions for The Cherry Tree to transmissions from the lunar missions of the 1960s; a drywall “house” that also serves as a projector screen; and NeuroSky headsets, which translate the dancers’ brainwaves into lighting and sound cues. Art! Science! Technology! Before you even factor dance into the equation, there’s enough there there to keep your restless eyes busy.

And that might be a problem. Neumann, who is a professor of theater at Sarah Lawrence College and a guest lecturer in acting at the Yale School of Drama, has been criticized for marginalizing dance in his works, so that his dancier sections read as filler or afterthought. In a way it’s hard to blame him. His idiosyncratic performers are often most compelling when they’re talking, not dancing. One of several laugh-out-loud moments in Eye occurs when Dinwiddie explains the NeuroSky headset he’s wearing: “It allows me to control the [various apparatuses] of the room — with my mind!” (He flutters his eyelids, and the overhead lights flicker wildly in response. The mad-scientist laugh is implied.) Later, Roberts-Wierzbowski haltingly mis-dictates an obscure mathematical equation: “It’s like, three parentheses, minus a, uh, very severe checkmark — yeah, like a computer checkmark. Minus, like, a fancy ‘a.’ ”

Kennis Hawkins (left) and Neal Medlyn in "Restless Eye." Photo by Ian Douglas.

But the thrust of Eye, its unpacking and burlesquing of the futile systems we use to try to comprehend the incomprehensible, is well-served by dance. Neumann’s dance passages here feel like allegories for the mysteries of the universe: One dancer’s sharp inhalation of breath causes the whole group to stir, as if initiating a chemical chain reaction. Hawkins and Medlyn repeat a sequence of gestures, with a little stamp to mark its conclusion, at various points around the stage, as if participating in some necessary but inscrutable biological process. Four of the dancers sit together, but when Dinwiddie runs towards them they pick up their chairs and scoot away, as if repelled by his static charge.

“I’m full of implications that are almost insinuations,” says Dinwiddie towards the end of Eye — and it’s the closest we come to hearing Neumann’s own voice. “I have seen the answer to the question. The big truth is all about: You get what I’m saying.” Or we don’t. Which, well, exactly.