‘Immersive’ Dance-Theater Performance Captures a Year of Tumult in American History

‘Immersive’ Dance-Theater Performance Captures a Year of Tumult in American History

Open Dance Project's '1968: The Whole World is Watching' (photos by Matthew Hollis)

AUGUST 19, 1968. CHICAGO. The Democratic National Convention is underway. Inside the International Amphitheatre, and on the streets outside the Conrad Hilton hotel, all hell is about the break loose. The events leading up to a four-day-long confrontation between thousands of young protestors and thousands of equally young police officers, national guardsmen, regular army troops, and city workers is the subject of Open Dance Project’s new dance theater performance 1968: The Whole World is Watching, conceived and directed by ODP artistic director Annie Arnoult.

During a time in which our country feels more divided than ever, it’s instructive, cathartic and, yes, entertaining to see those events translated into an audience-immersive experience by Arnoult’s company of veteran and relatively new dancers, some as young as 24.

Brenden Winkfield, 32, a seasoned and award-winning tap dancer who has performed with Open Dance Project for two years, finds Arnoult’s dedication to eliminating the boundaries between the audience and the stage inspiring, but challenging. “Not only am I dancing, I’m speaking, and I’m singing,” says Winkfield. “I’m doing all of these vulnerable things, and people are literally just a few feet, sometimes inches away from what I’m doing.”

What Winkfield and nine other dancers are doing, as the audience moves freely among them, is yelling (the show’s title is the chant protestors shouted outside of the Democratic National Convention), whispering, and singing while evoking some of the era’s most indelible images and personalities with complex movement and theatrical gestures. At one point, Winkfield takes on the role of boxer Sonny Liston in his first match with a then loquacious upstart named Cassius Clay (who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali). “Annie felt like the powder keg that 1968 became started in 1964 with this fight,” says Winkfield. In another tableau, the dancers stand ten-hut like ghosts on a battlefield, awaiting orders to march into oblivion. At other key moments, they lie on the floor in the fetal position or with their hands behind their backs as if handcuffed, ready to be dragged into a police van.

Given the intensity of the history that Arnoult is asking her dancers to imagine and embody during rehearsals, Winkfield acknowledges that emotions run high for everyone involved. “We have to learn, in immersive theater, to check that at the door,” says Winkfield. “And that’s really hard sometimes. Especially when you’re throwing punches at each other or throwing someone to the ground.”

And then there’s a moment where the ensemble rushes together toward an imaginary podium and suddenly freezes as the voice of Bobby Kennedy, Jr. is heard to say, “I have some very sad news for you … ” before telling his audience Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been assassinated. As Kennedy’s famous speech continues — an impromptu call for peace he delivered just two months before being assassinated himself — the dancers rewind their movements, slowly moving backward as an ensemble, like a flock of angels being pulled against their will into an uncertain future.

Speaking of time, if you’re going to evoke the ’60s, you’ve got to have great music. Thankfully, Arnoult avoids turning 1968 into a jukebox musical by including a handful of original rock songs composed and performed by Paul Beebe, whose music and lyrics evoke the spirit of that time without sounding like a pastiche. Beebe’s music works especially well in a section where the dancers just cut loose and joyfully get their groove on, like a corps of flower children high on the potential for peace and love.

“This is a form of entertainment,” says Winkfield of Open Dance Project’s look back at one of the most tumultuous years in our country’s history. “But it’s entertainment that’s saying something.”

1968: The Whole World is Watching runs May 12-20 at MATCH.

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