A world premiere Friday night at OZ Arts Nashville ends a trilogy about climate change and the environment. “Falling Out,” the latest show from a New York-based dance company, is also likely the first time audiences will see Brooklyn flex dancing, Japanese butoh and life-size puppets together on stage.
During rehearsal, images of the Japanese countryside slide across a 20-foot screen as six dancers toss and drag dozens of black garbage bags around an empty stage.
Director Jessica Grindstaff guides them as minimalist music by her husband, Erik Sanko, plays overhead.
“If you see a numbered [bag],” Grindstaff tells her dancers, “make sure that’s one of the front stack.”
The bags represent the millions of enormous garbage bags filled with radioactive dirt, collected near Japan’s Fukushima reactor, following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
“Falling Out” was created by Phantom Limb, the multimedia dance company run by Grindstaff and Sanko, a musician and puppet-maker. They’ve worked with the likes of Kronos Quartet, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and, as of a few years ago, OZ Arts.
Sanko says the new show isn’t just about the environmental impact of nuclear fallout. It’s more universal, about “people falling in and out of love and falling in and out of touch, or community, with nature, with one another.”
The “people” here embody Fukushima survivors. And the large wooden puppets, which the performers move with their entire bodies, represent loved ones lost in the disaster.
For “Falling Out,” Grindstaff united highly-controlled — almost slow-motion — Japanese butoh dance and a relatively new street style known as flexing. Think breakdancing meets contortionism.
Grindstaff says flex can also “have a stop-motion effect, almost a puppet-like effect, so it actually is kind of a bridge with puppetry and butoh.”
Flex dancer Klassic Carella says bridging the two wasn’t always easy. But he liked how it forced him to become more introspective about his own movements. He said butoh dancer Dai Matsuoka, also the show’s choreographer, had him pondering questions like, “'How would grief feel? Would it be hunched over? Would it be upright but everything’s broken down?' That already gives me an idea of how to be, or how to connect with the audience.”
OZ Arts flew Phantom Limb to Nashville five days ahead of the premiere of the provocative new show — to work out last-minute kinks, in the space, for free. That’s extremely rare in non-commercial theater, where time and space are prohibitively expensive.
“Falling Out” next heads to the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn, and will be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., next year.