Khecari’s ‘Oubliette’ will soon be gone, but not forgotten

The feeling one gets entering Khecari’s latest performance environment must be how Mary Lennox felt when she first encountered the soggy and dead secret garden on the moor. The plants surrounding the barn at Indian Boundary Park are wilted and decaying; there’s a mysterious beauty to the garden that glows under strings of twinkle lights hanging in a nearby gazebo. But dead plants were the stuff of last year’s Khecari performance, and upon entering the barn centered in the north gardens of the tucked away park, Jonathan Meyer greets his guests, only twelve per evening, with hospitality that Khecari’s audiences have come to expect. We gather round a table to receive instructions, and it all feels like very serious secret business – as though we’re about to embark on an unforgettable journey together.

Unforgettable, indeed.

photo credit: Ryan Bourque

An oubliette is a dungeon whose only exit is through a hatch in the ceiling. Derived from the french word oublier (to forget), Jonathan Meyer’s Oubliette is anything but forgettable. Four dancers smoosh together like conjoined quartuplets in the center of a 5′ x 8′ pit as the viewers file up to narrow staircases to watch from above. The dancers would remain there, in garnet-colored hooded frocks (intricately designed by Jeff Hancock) for 20 minutes – barely moving but for a few deliberate hands and chins weaving through the mass of limbs, and faceless bodies shivering. We (the audience) stare down at them as sounds from outside the pit grow in intensity, created, as always, by Joe St. Charles, who plays deconstructed piano with Sarah Morgan on a magically amplified accordion.

We will the dancers to move, as though playing an Ouija Board, and once they do, the wait is worth it. Oubliette is a strict exercise in confinement; what can be accomplished by four dancers within four walls? The result is sometimes frantic athleticism, sometimes pre-vertebral, primordial goo, and sometimes pure madness, as when dancer Josh Anderson pounds his forehead repeatedly against the wall – hard enough that we are jostled in our seats.

Being close enough to see the calluses on the dancers’ feet, we are brought into this performance in a way I’ve never experienced before, nor am I likely to experience again. In Oubliette‘s dramatic climax, dancer Maggie Koller bounds up and out of the pit, crouching on the audience’s level. She sees her chance for escape, and against stares from all present, slithers back down into the abyss, as if to say, “it might be madness, but it’s our madness.”

What a special night.

Khecari presents Jonathan Meyer’s ‘Oubliette’ through December 7th at Indian Boundary Park (2500 W. Lunt Ave.). All performances are SOLD OUT, so you’re just gonna have to wish and hope that it returns again.


Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance critic, contributing to the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine. She is senior editor of See Chicago Dance. Lauren covers dance across the Midwest and writes regularly for Dance Magazine and Pointe with additional bylines in Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Teacher. Forthcoming publications include essays on ballet training in Chicago (University of Illinois Press) and Shirley Mordine (University of Akron Press). In 2020, Lauren published an opinion piece on the impact of COVID-19 on the arts in the South African journal Agenda. Lauren holds degrees in dance and kinesiology and has presented research on dance training practices at the National Dance Education Organization and the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. She has co-facilitated critical dance writing intensives in Chicago and Durban, South Africa, and participated in writing residencies at the National Center for Choreography, Bates Dance Festival and JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Lauren teaches dance history and kinesiology for dancers, with part-time appointments at Loyola University Chicago and Illinois Wesleyan University.