CHICAGO — Beginning in 2013, Benjamin Wardell dreamed up a process called “The Nexus Project.” He recruited dancers Michel Rodriguez Cintra and worked with a gaggle of choreographers, who developed duets for them, only to have those duets deconstructed and put back together again in a semi-improvised, never-the-same-way-twice series of intimate performances.
It worked. The two dancers in a company with no name, found enormous success, in part because The Nexus Project was – well – good. And different. Having lightning strike twice is no easy task, and now fully organized under the name The Cambrians, Wardell’s company has toyed with his formula, and others like it, as he tries to make his good, different thing a sustainable operation.
That part hasn’t always worked, but “Empress Archer” just might. Through Sunday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, the two women (who together are “Empress Archer) making up the Cambrians’s latest are new faces, but the formula hasn’t changed. Ariel Freedman and Meredith Webster (whose impressive resumes include Batsheva and Alonzo King LINES, respectively) travelled the globe, having duets set on them, only to have Wardell again dismantle and put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The audience enters to find the two women in purple and teal sweatsuits. Each has sandy blonde hair and is wearing a khaki scarf. They look mostly the same, but are actually so different. Webster is very tall, Freedman very small, which, coincidentally or not, echoes the original Nexus Project cast of Wardell and Cintra. They are mirroring each other’s movements, but it’s not clear who is leading or who is following – it’s not even apparent that they are watching each other. After 18 months of traveling and moving together, I think that’s the point: to show the symbiosis that comes from a long journey experienced with another person.
But of course, true to the formula, as soon as we sink into a comfortable space as viewers and imagine we know what’s going on, everything changes. In this case that meant a costume change set to a marching band drum line, followed by a pecking match accompanied by twinkling harpsichord music. You see, “Empress Archer” has a healthy mix of sassy ridiculousness and intensely personal moments, although I could have used more of the former in the evening’s second half.
When that harpsichord strummed its last note, a voice said “black out.” The whole audience covered its eyes – the lights hadn’t turned off – but I hadn’t gotten the memo. This string of noodle-y partnering and movement vignettes all around the space had multiple “black out” and “lights up” instructions, and honestly once I got it, I just decided to cheat anyway. Devising a dance is all about making choices on what you want your audience to see, and I found it fascinating to witness the moments I wasn’t supposed to see. It made these women more real to me, so when later they told very personal stories through dance and their voices playing over the loud speaker, I felt glad to have made the decision to rebel.
The best part of “Empress Archer,” and actually, all of Wardell’s experiments, is the refusal to take oneself too seriously. In the evening’s second half, the women lost sight of this a bit, with section after section of slow methodical partnering, or taking turns soloing almost entirely on the floor. Despite losing interest, I remained acutely aware that “Empress Archer” is a one time thing, performed four times, the stories, the sections, and the arcs of the evening change with each performance. It’s also hard to complain about watching exceptional dancers from ten feet away – a luxury not afforded to patrons of those companies on Ariel Freedman and Meredith Webster’s resumes.
“Empress Archer” continues through Sunday, Feb. 19 at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall, 4545 N Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $20 with very limited availability at oldtownschool.org.