We could hear the powerful, rhythmic sound of Biba Bell’s six-inch heels striking the floor above our heads before the dance even started. Around 50 people (a good turnout for an avant-garde dance and sound art performance on a Sunday night in Detroit) were all seated in the basement of the 2:1 Gallery, the new sound art laboratory in Eastern Market. People chatted, took pictures and wondered about the dense arrangement of folding chairs; where, exactly, were the dancers supposed to perform? Above us, over the din, the purposeful sound of heels stalking the gallery space from one end to the other signaled an answer. Bell, a choreographer and dancer performing under the moniker Urisov, descended the stairs and announced the performance was about to start. With that, the lights were dimmed and "InGrain" began — upstairs and out of sight.
The dance opened with a dreadful, startling thud, transitioning quickly into a more fluid shuffling as the dancers dragged their bodies across the hardwood floor. The next 15 or 20 minutes (it was easy to lose track of time) were marked by a plethora of mysterious and varied aural phenomena produced by the contact between the dancers' bodies and the floor. Some were downright unsettling, like cries, more sudden thuds and big, dense sounds that evoked the footfalls of an invading army. Eventually Bell, who’d been standing among the audience, totemic and still, began dismissing us in small groups, directing us upstairs to sit or stand along the gallery’s periphery.
In a reassuring instant, we were met with bright sunlight reflecting on hardwood floors and, amazingly, only three dancers (no army, after all). They performed an intricate installation dance, pressing bodily against the confines of the gallery, stepping over the audience members' feet, sliding along the floor and, in one particularly beautiful moment, throwing open the door and letting the city inside. The dance was, in part, about the 2:1 Gallery, about its physical presence in a particular part of the world, its materiality, its dimensions and the way the slowly fading sunlight looked as it fell through the windows onto human bodies.
The second piece performed that night, "Four Corners," was also designed specifically for the 2:1 space. It included sounds created by Jeffrey Williams on prepared piano, Greg Holm on tambura and sine wave generators, and two singers, a baritone and mezzo-soprano whose wordless vocalizations were directed, at times, into corners of the room and along its bare walls. It was an elegant, evocative exploration of movement — the dancers', of course, but also, on a smaller scale, the movement of sound waves as they vibrated throughout the resonant space and inside each of us.
Biba Bell can be seen in a performance of the Modern Garage Movement piece “Nut” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on July 15, 2011. Holm and Williams continue to work on Fire House Detroit, which will culminate in a large-scale outdoor sound performance at a 19th century firehouse in late July. Check FireHouseDetroit.com for updates.