Water:Works, conceived by Natalie Scarlett and Judy Bejarano, marks the beginning of immersive theater in Northern Colorado. Blending media in an interactive environment, they told a tale of dislocation and continuity. Beginning with the first settlers arriving in the Front Range, the cast led audiences through the joys and hardship of frontier life. However, Water:Works is an impressionist piece, and the work it does on the viewer is as important as the scenes presented.
Sometimes it’s best to step away from a subject before returning, letting impressions become thoughts, thoughts become observations, and observations become something concrete that stays with one. I let a few days pass before writing down my response to the piece.
Water:Works slowly builds. After claiming my graciously comped ticket at a picnic table become concessions stand, my party and I were directed to an area where we were issued with ponchos and given a brief introduction. After our orientation to the evening’s plan, we entered a circle of river stones to wait. Almost imperceptible, dancers clad in blue dresses, representing water, flowed into the circle and danced around members of the audience. Drawing my attention inward, I was surprised as settlers, clad in brown, raced towards the circle from the cardinal directions. They were greeted by the water dancers, who now left the circle to minister to the needs of the settlers. The scenes were repeated around the circle, giving the audience views of the different interactions. A man planted a seed, and the water dancer grew into crops. A hungry and thirsty women were given food and drink by the water. Rains fell on a hot and dusty man, who turned a wondering gaze to the heavens.
After this introduction, we were treated to the idylls of rustic life. Split into three groups, the audience made several rotations through a series of bucolic scenes. Some focused on dance, others on more prosaic matters. Sacred harp chorales accompanied these first scenes. A young man read a book beneath an apple tree as water dancers played nearby. A young woman stalked the dancers and tried to join in, with only partial success. The water joined the man and woman and they fell in love. Moving to the next scene, the washing was done with silent comedy. Finally, a woman kneaded bread while a man brought a pail of water. The man and woman fed the crowd with bread and fine salt, a sort of viaticum for what was to come.
The audience came together to observe a dance performed by the actors and dancers before attending the last set of scenes. Dancers engaged each other in a water fight on washing day. A stern woman instructed the young in the washing of apples while a young man directed audience members to plant seeds. We learned a song to be sung as a round at the end of the show.
Paradise will not last, and calamity strikes. Harkening to a clanging bell, the audience returned very near to the circle see the settlers, hand in hand and horrified, and the dancers, perhaps knowing but perturbed, witness what can only be described as a sort of demoniac dance. Her blue dress in shreds, a dancer tore up the earth with claw-like hands. She ground dirt into her hair and threw herself upon the ground. In the background, a sinister drone played on the speakers. With varied movement, water destroyed the earth. Exhausted, she sank to the ground and was lifted by the other water dancers, who deposited her in a trough, where they bathed her. Although the spiritual embodiment of the natural force was washed clean in her own essence, the people could not drink or use the muddied and polluted water.
We were met by a scene of despair. An old and young woman attempted to wash soiled windows with dirty water, only to fail in that task. The young woman gave up and joined a young man who was drinking from a hip flask while sitting on a hill. A woman cut up a fish while a man, indolent, slept nearby in the sun. The young woman tried to drink of the polluted stream, risking death, though the young man prevented her, offering her his flask instead. The old woman finally abandoned her task of washing the windows, spilling a bucket and throwing away her sponge. The indolent men crept away, while the woman buried the fish’s head and spine, perhaps in the hopes of prosperity to come.
The choir joined in, urging us to not fear the rain that was coming. Settlers, having abandoned their homesteads, now struggled along the bank of a stream, while the water dancers pantomimed rainfall turning to flood. A man is swept off the bank into the whirling dancers, where he is buffeted this way and that, drowning. He gives up, surrounded by swirling dancers, and he is left gasping in the passage of the flood. The settlers rush to his aid, and through some miracle, he survives. The settlers come back together and are cheered by an old song.
We traveled away from the circle toward a tree in which hung a variety of quilts. The settlers distributed these blankets to the audience, and we continued on to a massive cottonwood, singing the song we learned earlier. Spreading the blankets under the wide boughs, a cellist began to play, and the settlers joined the audience. The water dancers performed their last act, and with that, the show closed. We wandered through the glooming back to the familiarity of the waterworks, and to the cars that would take us home.
Water:Works struck me as a tale of dislocation. Settlers rushed to a new land and made their lives. Both audience and cast move from scene to scene. Movement characterizes one’s interaction with the subject matter. After the destructive power of water is visited upon the settlement, however, we stopped moving in a rough circle with a predictable rotation, and instead moved in a linear manner for the rest of the performance. The homesteads, once abandoned, are never recovered. Nor did we return to the circle at the end of the show. Stone circles are powerful images in Western culture, symbolizing union. Abandoning the peaceful and predictable life, the settlers adopting a linear course, emblematic of modern humanity’s thoughts on forward progress and a consistent direction of history. The settlers are deeply affected by the drought and flood. While some they regain some of their previous innocence, their way of life is changed, and perhaps their outlook on the world, as well. We don’t see the cycle repeat. This epistemic break renders the settlers thoroughly modern by show’s end. One can’t help but wonder if the settlers imagine that once defeated, calamity will not return. We don’t see them devise technological wonders to mitigate the impact of future hardship, but it isn’t hard to imagine doing so in the near future. But, abandoning the cyclical scheme seems to abandon a certain wisdom as well: Despite the progress we as individuals and societies make, hardship will return.
Composed of conscious agents, humanity is unique in what we know of the universe as the only organism capable of radically changing its circumstances. Between the joys and perils of settlement, and on to modern development along the Front Range, humanity has frequently adapted in unexpected and wild ways. Now, as in the past, settlement plays a vital role in our American experience of the mobile society. Despite the movement of the settlers, and their eventual abandonment of their homesteads, I got the impression that the water never left the land. The director and choreographer did a good job of presenting water as a natural and persistent force, absent from the drama only during the drought period. Natural systems adapt, and continue to function in ways that appear to us as productive or destructive. Indeed, the show ended with the water playing beneath an immense tree.
Overall, I am impressed by Water:Works. As a piece based on location, it drew inspiration from the historic waterworks. It’s always nice to head out to the west of town, just where the foothills begin to rise. It’s a beautiful spot to take in a show. I anticipated a far more concrete piece, with familiar plot constructions, and was presented with something far more impressionistic, which contrasted pleasantly with the photorealism we so often expect in art. While some of the interactions between cast and audience were awkward, I suspect that true immersion is difficult outside of the context of an organic community. The choreography was superb, and the acting polished. I look forward to the next big thing from Impact Dance Company and Cipher Creative Productions.