“I can’t recall the last time I was in a room of humans with such an acute awareness of our humanity.” – Weston Clay, Theater Is Easy
Jody Oberfelder’s immersive dance and theater piece 4 Chambers is playing at Arts@Renaissance in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, through March 22. In the piece, a maximum of 12 audience members, guided by “dancer-docents,” explore the heart in all its aspects: medical, physical, and metaphorical.
By Ashley P. Taylor
APT: How did you come up with the idea for 4 Chambers?
JO: The very first inklings came from a conversation with a cardiologist who, when she found out I was a dancer, was excited to tell me that she tells all her patients post-surgery to put on music that they love and dance with it so that their heart muscles become slowly strong and filled with emotion and become unstuck and things start to flow again. When you asked me the question, though, just now, I had another answer, and I would say way back when I was pregnant with my daughter, hearing her heart beat in my belly and hearing a sign of life was really powerful. I don’t think I was aware of my own heart that much—you got listened to with a stethoscope at a doctor, and it’s like, “Yeah, your heart beats.” But I think that equation of the heart equals life happened when I was pregnant for the first time. But this particular piece came about from that conversation with the cardiologist, Dr. Holly Andersen.
At first I thought I was going to do a piece that was about the endurance of the heart or how exercise or movement increases all the good release of endorphins and that your heart rate is what makes you feel alive; I thought I would be approaching it in a more athletic and aerobic way. And the first piece I made exploring something like this was called Throb, with two dancers wearing heart monitors and a pretend scientist on the stage tracking their heart rates as he asks them to perform emotionally valued concepts like ‘surprise.’ It was very physical, and he changed the music according to their heart rates, so they would come up at intermittent moments during this piece and show these little wrist watches that related to their heart-rate monitors that we got donated from Azumio.
They gave us four [monitors]. Originally I thought I would put the whole audience in heart-rate monitors, and everybody could track their heart-rate watching the dance. That question of how an audience experiences dance then led to the creation of 4 Chambers, and I was pretty much scratching my head for a while thinking, “Well how am I going to do that? How am I going to know that an audience is moved watching other people moving?” I knew I couldn’t just do this on the stage. The audience sits; they watch; they experience something the dancers are experiencing. This formula of proscenium performance and audience as voyeurs was not cutting it for me, so I just thought I would then go to other means. I knew the piece had to be sited. The idea of making a piece that metaphorically represented the heart came pretty quickly, and so I thought, “Okay; there’ll be four rooms, like the four chambers of the heart. Each room will have a different experience.” But what would be in each room came slowly.
APT: In one of the chambers, the dancer docents place audience members’ hands on their chests after they have been jumping and running and exerting themselves. Putting your hand on a dancer’s beating heart is pretty powerful.
JO: Thank you. It’s so interesting—I’m just putting my hand on my heart right now. It’s pretty simple; I mean, look at the Pledge of Allegiance, like what we did as kids, you’d have to put your hand there anyway (I hated that, actually). I think that because it’s a choreographed move in that particularly way, one hand on the front of the body and one hand on the back, that it’s a way of making somebody feel where their heart resides, of feeling that whole cavity of the chest. That’s powerful. I think you’re addressing the hand on skin as something that you don’t do with a total stranger every day. Before the show, sometimes I’ll ask the dancers just to put their hand on their own heart, to say: “This is what the audience is feeling.” Actually, one of the dancers told me on Saturday he got somebody who took his hand off his heart; he just wasn’t having it, and [the dancer] did really great with him. He just said, “okay; that’s fine. Let’s do something else then.” So he just put his hand on his own heart and let the man watch. I think especially for same-gendered relationships it’s awkward, you know? I’m not going for a gendered thing. It’s very random who the dancers get. They’re given numbers.
APT: Without giving too much away, in one of the four chambers, audience members are asked to reflect on a lot of the “big questions.” One of those questions when I saw the show was “Do you think the heart is an apt metaphor for love?” How do you answer that question? And as a corollary to that, how much do you think the brain is a good metaphor for love?
JO: I think it happens through the mind, I do. My next piece will be called Heading, and it will be about the mind. But we happen to not be a bunch of brains walking around or else we would be just a bunch of balloons without bodies. From the neck down, we experience life too. I see the brain as, like, the master of your body. I also think the body functions on its own without the brain saying “okay, heart, beat.” This is the one thing you can’t control; that’s what’s so amazing. Yes, you can concentrate on your breath, which will slow down your heart, but there are times when I’m just aware that I can’t do that so readily, ’cause I’m just a nervous panicked person about something as ridiculous as ticket sales.
You perceive life through different modalities. I was in the country this weekend, and it had snowed six times since the last time I had been there, and I just took a walk tromping in the woods towards the water, and it was heartbreakingly beautiful. And I’m saying heartbreakingly beautiful in the best possible way. I just felt a physical change where my mind just went, “Wow; you are in a place that is bringing you somewhere else.” My mind just sort of untangled. I felt it in my heart, believe it or not. It made me want to cry. I know my heart doesn’t make me want to cry; your brain makes you want to cry, ’cause you’re having a thought about, “this is beautiful,” but I think in a way you bypass the intellect in moments of intense feeling. By feeling, I don’t mean something sentimental, and this is where a piece about the heart can become as corny as a valentine by Hallmark. It really isn’t something that is cliché for me, to go through 4 Chambers.
APT: Do you think that the piece addresses the sexual aspects of the heart and pumping blood, and how so?
JO: I’m gonna go with yes, because I could say, “No, it’s definitely just more sensuous and not sexual…” I think it’s very hard not to access your sexuality in this piece, although it’s not like the dancers are making anyone uncomfortable in this piece—or comfortable!—it’s not like we’re going to do anything completely sexual with the audience members, but it makes you address your own skin and the border of somebody else’s, who you don’t know. The only other time that happens is during sex, where your borders of your body disappear. In a way, that’s pretty sexy. It’s a blurry line between what is sexy and what is sensual and what is that same feeling I had in the woods of, like, the heartbreaking beauty. To feel the hairs on somebody’s chest or lack of hairs or the texture of where their sternum is, that’s pretty sexy, I have to say. But it’s also a tool to feel the heart.
4 Chambers will be playing through March 22
Thursdays at 6:30p.m. & 8p.m.; Fridays & Saturdays at 7p.m. and 8:30p.m.
2 Kingsland Avenue (@ Maspeth Avenue)
Brooklyn, NY 11211; near the L train at Graham Ave.