Breakbone DanceCo.'s Excavation of Remains opens with corpses lying in a morgue—strangers thrown together to form a bizarre community. One wanted to die; one thought he'd never die. One is enraged by her death while another celebrates her long life. Several are obsessed with their toe tags, which they strain to read.
Only death connects them. But despite the sublime subject, little in the piece—except perhaps the mystery of suicide—is transcendent. Instead, Excavation of Remains deals in everyday egotism, habit, confusion. Death is trivialized, laughed at. And maybe that suits our downsized moment, with its reduced expectations and heightened awareness of human shortsightedness and vulnerability.
A collaborative dance-theater piece created by the seven performers and directed by Breakbone artistic director Atalee Judy, Excavation of Remains is ambitious and appealingly odd, but also rambling and disjointed, with knobby excrescences like a bit naming young baseball players who dropped dead and an audience contest where you get a prize if you find a hidden toe tag. There's a free-floating song about gasoline and kerosene. And the performances are uneven—not surprising given the artists' varying levels of experience.
The characters' backstories are at once overly literal and obscure. Each dancer's T-shirt is inscribed with the cause of her character's death: cancer, suffocation, cardiac arrest, natural causes, heart attack, suicide, crushed. In Suzy Grant's vignette we learn that "Mama" Cass Elliott's overeating contributed to her death. Nikki Stachon informs us that a nice old lady loved to feed her family. And Molly Grimm-Leasure tells us drunk girls get into accidents. Self-evident as all this may be, fragmentary presentation disrupts and confuses each story as well as the piece as a whole. Superficial transitions make matters worse.
But vignettes that both cohere and suggest the mystery of death redeem the evening. Judy, long obsessed with strength and vulnerability, abandons her punishing "bodyslam" technique to mostly jog around the stage, often while singing or delivering text. Her character—a young, well-trained runner, a "soldier of the asphalt" who pushes himself too hard in a marathon—is a fascinating blend of bodily weakness and endorphin-fueled arrogance. He tells us he spent his first six years in leg braces, then fast-forwards to his method of running, which Judy demonstrates: standing still, she tips forward until forced to take a step to catch herself. The step turns into a run consisting of repeated saves from falling. Weakness is a source of strength and its symbiotic twin.
Judy also makes some of the evening's more successful attempts at humor, saying "thank you" when a sheet gets pulled over her dead body, then, "It's really dark in here." Suzanne Dado, playing a 37-year-old flashing back to her terminal diagnosis, goes the route of black humor in scenes that are sporadically funny. Her character becomes a contestant on a game show whose cheesy emcee offers her three options—depression, denial, anger—displayed in garish sideshow exhibits. The best thing about Grant's Mama Cass vignette is the giant sandwich that sustains, pursues, and finally defeats Elliot, slices of bread and deli meat flapping.
Other stories are more serious. Anita Fillmore chooses an unusual identity—a compulsive hoarder who's suffocated under his own trash. Based partly on the spooky real-life tale of the OCD-afflicted Collyer brothers, her vignette is haunting: a cacophony of banging and yelling behind a closed door yields to sudden quiet after she and an avalanche of stuff tumble out onto the stage.
Performed without music for a time, and without much text at all, Fillmore's section relies on dance more than the others do, and she has a delicate but dramatic presence. Swinging her arms from side to side like pendulums, she ends up stabbing herself with fingers driven by momentum. She lifts a curved arm overhead like a scythe, fingers pointed, and mimes stuffing things into her mouth. After extending her arms in a small, tense embrace of nothing, she pulls her hands in slowly as if the phantom she grasps is dissolving. Fillmore's work becomes less effective as it grows more elaborate, adding music, other performers, and a projection of a map in the process of being drawn. But it still carries emotion and meaning.
Mindy Meyers's subject is a suicide. Though the maddening need to explain drives this story, Meyers is ultimately content to let the mystery be. The passage begins breezily, with a dancer bouncing on a small trampoline, all mindless energy—doing jumping jacks, running in place, swinging her arms. She has a short, enigmatic conversation with Meyers as a stooped woman using a cane. Meyers moves to one side of the space and looks out a window (the room's many windows remain open and uncovered throughout, letting in natural light) as a woman hanging from a rope drops to the floor and, while crawling, sings Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," the lines of which darken and resonate with the context. Still at the window, Meyers braces her arms against the frame and leans harder and harder until she's almost horizontal, finally falling to the floor with a gasp. Her restrained movement suggests a sustained accumulation of suicidal thoughts without revealing what they might be. And the way she blurs the identities of the living and the dead, the merry and the depressed, is chilling.
Judy's in-the-round staging uses the Hamlin Park performance space inventively. Her character, the runner, turns it into a gladiator's arena where every lap is a victory lap. Fillmore opens a door to offer a glimpse of chaos in a stairwell, a disastrous world of clutter. Meyers leans against a second-floor window with a sheer drop to the cement. And finally, the dead people gather around an old Park District piano to sing, laugh, and applaud one another, a community united by frailty.