Tony Bordonaro and Ingrid Kapteyn have always made work by themselves, serving as both the sole choreographers and performers of their sci-fi danceplays, crafted together under the name Welcome to Campfire. Their collaborations teem with an intimacy forged only through a deep knowing of each other, and the organic nature of choreographing for oneself. Since the beginning, their bodies have been the only keepers of their stories.
Their residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) allowed the Welcome to Campfire pair the chance to explore a strange new world as they never have before: the world in which they relinquished their work to other creatives. At BAC, the body of Welcome to Campfire grew a limb in the form of two new dancers, Marla Phelan and Dominica (Dom) Greene. This addition was in pursuit of an upcoming large-scale immersive work built on a foundation of existing building blocks from Tony and Ingrid’s previous explorations together.
For the BAC showing of this immersive danceplay, audiences would be placed up close and personal with the piece, integrated into the environment of the performance. They would find themselves in one of the terrains from the world of The End, Welcome to Campfire’s upcoming creation. This particular portion of the piece takes place in the unsettling atmosphere of a desiccated Mars colony, promised by a large corporation to be the next frontier of a life worth living to customers willing to modify their memories. To get to that performance, there needed to be born two new victims of this heinous corporate deceit.
Thus began the alchemy of transmuting the work that lived only in Tony and Ingrid’s bodies into a story that lives outside of themselves. The process of doing so goes a little like this:
Four bodies move in alienesque curiosity, stretching out in stripes of sunlight on the studio floor. They move first in pairs: Tony and Ingrid, or Marla and Dom; then, all four at once, the entire group exploring the work. Tony and Ingrid conspire together to pull up choreography from their shared pool of memories, involving their bodies in contacting their muscle memory to recall the steps they formulated together. As they rediscover the details, they ask questions of each other, often bookended with phrases like, “I need your help.” An explanation from the other often ends with another bookend of, “I need your help too.” They communicate in gestures and mind-reading, but always wait for the other to finish their sentence, respectful and determined to not disrupt each other’s personal processing. At times they giggle and romp with each other, then just as quickly walk across the room, side by side, steps aligned, in silent contemplation. When they are not in motion iterating, they sit in a tandem, rapt quietness, breathing in time with each step that they know so well, reflected on their new performers. At one point, Ingrid lies belly down on the floor, gazing up, viewing the world from all angles, while Tony paces the room, surveying the scene. They both softly hum the rhythm of the work to themselves while observing. Someone outside of the room may think it’s codependence, but it’s not: it reveals itself to be a deep harmony of two spirits.
This intimate relationship still manages to be inclusive of others. Marla and Dom are given their own space, which Ingrid and Tony lovingly verify. There is trust and interest in their dancers’ embodied experiences. Questions are asked of the new dancers, like: “Do you sense in your body places in the space that aren’t getting enough action?” and when a response is given, Tony and Ingrid both nod, and one says, “we had the same feeling.” Marla and Dom’s workspace becomes the terrain of memory, as they retrace old steps and create new ones organically out of their own bodies’ knowledge. Every step is a negotiation with each other, working together out of a mutual will to succeed, and a reliance on each other.
As the piece gains its shape, we are presented with a story of similar give and take. The world we’ve landed in is strange but familiar, a future space of environmental barrenness and technological decay. We get acclimated to this world via a slow crescendo of disorienting light and sound as Marla’s character explores, followed by Dom, searching for her by flashlight. It isn’t long until the sound of bombs crashes overhead.
Eventually, the game of cat and mouse between the two dancers comes to an end, as one springs upon the other. It is a conflict that is raw and animalistic, teeming with explosive vocalizations and violent, concussive meetings of their bodies, as they lift and throw each other through space. We hear the labored breathing, and can see the sweat on skin and nails pressed into flesh.
But as with all things, when the two can no longer physically bear to fight they are forced to cooperate, and this cooperation quickly mutates into affection, and then into love. This love is filled with little things, like looks that twinkle in the eyes and hands wrapped around feet in moments of curled-together stillness. It is a feeling so familiar that it seems like it belongs to those viewing it. These are the things that transcend fiction.
In the choreography, the choices made feel deliberate. Movements that are purely gestural are scrapped, and Tony and Ingrid hesitate to belabor a point. If they aren’t sure of the intent of a beat, they get rid of it. This makes for a piece where that slightest twitch of a finger or quirk of a mouth feels immensely purposeful. In the immersive realm, this proves to be invaluable. It injects the story with authenticity and believability; when the audience is so close, it could be painfully easy to debunk a moment not rooted in intent. Instead, the viewer feels everything– after all, who hasn’t been so in love that every finger twitch means something? In those long moments of stillness, we lie awake with those characters and wait to see who moves first. We see the tenderest moments of love in a magnifying glass, the kind of moments that we recognize ourselves in. We see decisions get made. We are in the middle of something so private.
This is a reason, amongst many, why some of the most successful immersive performances to date (think Sleep No More, Then She Fell, etc.) have been primarily dance pieces. When an audience is allowed to view a work from all angles, as close or as far away as they choose, in whatever capacity they choose, language begins to skew ineffective. Stakes feel higher when performances can be seen so clearly, and the moments of contact between performers can be felt so viscerally. In this format, then, it becomes so much more important to show, rather than to tell. Of course, dancers have already been giving audiences these moments of specificity and authenticity in proscenium theater– but in an immersive performance, it’s as simple as the fact that the audience can really see them. And because of this, they can really feel them, really feel like they personally are privy to two people in conflict, or two people falling in love, and that they are somehow involved in it. The performance quickly becomes so much more about the actual people in the space, both performers and audience.
In that way, when it comes down to it, Welcome to Campfire is about two people, in front of and behind the scenes. They have created a story about humanity and the connections between us, showing that relationship and collaboration permeate all circumstances, and at the end, are the keys to our survival. It is a story about intimacy, about finger twitches and shared breaths and decisions made. It tells us that the future has play, the future has questions, and most of all, the future has a ragged, authentic, honest love, forged from working together. As the immersive theater format spreads its wings, and as the dance world continues to embrace this style of work, we are reminded of the power of closeness: of characters, of creators, and of audiences and performers.
Leah Ableson is a performer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a director for the cult classic immersive ASMR spa Whisperlodge, which has been covered by The New York Times, NPR, Vice, Netflix, and many more media outlets. Additionally, her work has been seen at Brooklyn’s Bottom of the Ocean, where she facilitated healing practices through ritual-based meditation and play. She is a contributor to the leading immersive experience newsletter No Proscenium, and is a founding member at the World Experience Organization.