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Deborah Slater Dance Theater

"The Sleepwatchers"

Dance Mission Theater, San Fransisco, CA

May 3-12, 2001
By Susan Freehafer

Deborah Slater Dance Theater's "The Sleepwatchers," based on Dr. Dement's (his real name) work at the Stanford Sleep Research Institute, is anything but soporific. From the start (even as the audience is seated), pajama-clad nonsleepers writhe and settle, writhe and settle, endlessly it seems, readjusting, repositioning pillows, self, furniture, seeking the illusive drug of sleep. The work is narrative-driven, with innovative lighting, a great evil sleep demon costume (the rest of the cast are in pajamas and/or lab coats), and a great score by David Allen, Jr. (including lullabies in German and the sound of a hospital respirator with all the breath and beeps and clicks).

The work begins as if the audience were in a lecture hall, students of sleep research. Definitions of sleep disturbances are given (and are listed in the program if you miss something), and the case study is introduced - a 33 year old man whose sibling, as a child, died in his sleep. The man cannot fall asleep easily, and when he does, he is visited by various shadowy apparitions, including his own brother, whole but disappearing. The man apparently is trying to work something out in his sleep, to say to his brother what was left unsaid, but he must also plumb the fear and dread of his own mortality, the loss, and renewal of the loss, as his brother appears and disappears in his dreams. To try and resolve the irresolvable, say the unspeakable, is something only possible maybe in dreams (or in gesture, the non-verbal language of dance. Slater's choreography is magnificent in this respect). The dancers manage to manipulate the sublime through the physical, depicting with their bodies the illusive nature of dreams, how by trying to capture them, you ensure their disappearance. The message seems to be that one must figure out some kind of neighborly relationship to the dream state, some kind of peace-with-demon.

The entire ensemble is dynamite. The sleep demon (especially when costumed in a bizarre evil fairy type arrangement of pillows about the neck and crinoline) navigates that comic/menacing boundary so often traveled in dreams. The rest of the characters can be wistful/hopeful/agonized, mapping the complexity of our inner lives, as we seek refuge for our souls. The use of backlit screens, allowing for solid and shadow dancers, plays with the idea of reality/non-reality and the relevance of such a distinction. A couple of segments are particularly moving, especially one that is derived from a story of a boy who could not sleep without his hand on the heart of his brother, to make sure he was still alive. The repeated gesture of hand-to-heart is really quite poignant. Another posture that stands out is the sleep demon poised over the sleeping figure, like an evil cat sucking the breath out of the sleeper, signifying night terror (apparently a universal experience across all cultures).

"The Sleepwatchers" did for me what all great performances do: blur the boundary between participant and observer, draw you in and make you part of a collective experience, a shared dream. In this case, there was a nightmare element -- the agony of loss and its renewal -- but also hope and the promise of some kind of resolution, revelation even, and finally, rest for the weary. Quite a journey.


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Edited by Marie.



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