It is a busy summer for Proximity Theatre Company, who will head to Brooklyn to join forces with a comedy troupe and a video production team following their month-long teen workshop in Santa Barbara. Before that, though, there is a performance (this Sunday, July 7) of a new work, The Time Is Now, at the newly christened Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara. And, astonishingly, in the midst of all of this activity, the core members of the six-year-old theater company have managed to produce yet another new work — the spare, tight, and frequently tender Desire.
Something about Proximity Theatre reminds one of the encounter groups of the 1960s and ’70s, which aimed for heightened sensitivity, spontaneity, honesty, emotional exposure, and an appreciation for the present moment. Founded as a youth theater for teens, Proximity has always emphasized immersive processes of training that include retreats, camping, sweat lodges, journaling, and improvisation. In the balance between process and product, Proximity tips the scale to the former. Yet critics have often noted the voltage and cohesion in Proximity’s performances, signs that all that method and introspection works. No theater to hide in, Proximity seems dedicated, first and foremost, to stripping away layers of habit and assumption from the artist.
In several ways, Desire seemed to be a kind of signature piece for all of this. First, there were no fictitious roles; the six performers were introduced by name. Secondly, the work was dance-intensive and virtually nonverbal, a discourse of body language and emotional reaction, rather than linguistic construct and conceit. As such, there was no unifying storyline to the dove-tailed sequence of tightly choreographed dances, but there was a kind of abstract narrative arc that brought together the performers in a surprising and effective climax. And perhaps most important of all, Desire was written collectively, evolved from group processes and exercises.
The whole tone of the piece was tenderly established at the very beginning with a trick taken from silent film: The title card. Director Kyra Lehman stood alone onstage and slowly flipped through a stack of hand-written messages, accompanied by mellow electronic music (composed and recorded by Ken Urbina). First came the perfunctory welcome and cell phone reminders; then an invitation to be present, read slowly, and make eye contact with the director; finally desire was broached, not the banal daily sort, but the far-flung existential kind: “Are you living the life you wish?” “What keeps you up at night?” “Did you think your life would be like this?” Eventually the five dancers were introduced, along with a simple statement of personal desire: A wish to sing, the pleasure of being looked at, the burden of fantasy, the craving for solitude — themes explored in the movement that followed. Urbina was joined by Proximity veterans Karina Richardson, Sophie Leddick, Jake Himovitz, and Gabriela London in carefully synced group dances, as well as mime and gesture sequences that spotlighted individuals. Toward the conclusion, the frenzy yielded only restlessness; and so the performers turned to one another, undisguised, the end of desire.