Lucky Plush faces reality in “Cinderbox 2.0”

Reality shows are ubiquitous on television and in pop culture these days. But though we view them with a more knowing and wary gaze than we did when The Real World and Survivor took over the airwaves, our attention hasn’t waned. It was her own fascination with reality TV that led Julia Rhoads, artistic director of Lucky Plush, to create the work that morphed into Cinderbox 2.0, the dance theatre piece that the company will perform on Friday at Purdue.

Glued to her TV, she noticed some patterns in how these shows played out. “I was interested in the formulaic constructs of these shows, like how they package expert opinions, about what is virtuosic and when people fail. I was also interested in the tension between what is scripted and what is improvised or really happening —the reality of it all,” says Rhoads.

But she suspected that what made reality shows really compelling to watch is how invested we get in the people featured in them. “I was so interested in how people at home feel like they get to know the people [on the shows], and you’re really rooting for them because of their back stories, whether they’re actually true or not,” she explains. Often, each person becomes a character of sorts, with personality traits packaged in a marketable way, to hook a certain segment of the audience.

It’s these constructed situations and personalities that still leave us wondering how much is real and how much is fake—and who is watching whom? Are we the audience? Or are the audience members the other people on the show? Rhoads realized that the “tension between what is personal and what is presentational” had parallels in the dance world.

She’d also been thinking about authenticity (a loaded word, she admits) in dance, and she saw some parallels in both genres. “Dance is traditionally very presentational,” she says. “The dancers learn where they’re supposed to be, what the movement and the lines are, and what the shape is—and it’s usually on certain counts. If they’re meant to have some kind of emotional arc, it’s usually indicated, not really experienced. So I was interested in provoking ways that the performers were actually experiencing what was happening on the stage in the moment.”

To do that, she introduced new methods in the rehearsal process for Cinderbox 18 (created in 2007 and revisited now to create Cinderbox 2.0 for more extensive touring). She’d hand a dancer a slip of paper with a task to accomplish during the rehearsal. She might instruct one dancer to move another dancer’s position as often as possible, or to sing a certain song at a random place in the performance. Each dancer knew only his or her assignment, because she wanted the dancers to surprise each other, forcing them to interact in the moment in unexpected ways. This allowed her to see how the dancers would react to each task and how these surprises might change the work. It also prevented the dancers from settling into the choreography and the score, allowing them to experience something, rather than just perform it. Though the movement of the final piece is tightly scripted, as are the overarching scenes and much of the dialogue, the rehearsal process has encouraged the dancers to notice something different about every single run-through as they respond to each other during a live performance.

Rhoads says this is part of what people love about Lucky Plush. After a performance, people often tell her, “I couldn’t tell what was improvised and what was scripted.” Audiences love that tension, she says,
“because they feel that the performers they’re watching are actually having experiences on stage.”

But audiences also love the show because it’s fun—and funny. The dancers of Lucky Plush “are incredible dance technicians, and they’re great actors,” she says. Their technical expertise is augmented by curiosity and a strong desire to collaborate, working together to devise new works. Rhoads knows that modern/contemporary dance is often viewed as inaccessible, and says she’s seen shows like that—performances that simply didn’t reach her. She’s confident, however, that contemporary dance can be incredibly accessible, but also smart and layered. Audience members don’t need to be spoon-fed entertainment; a piece can challenge viewers to make connections, and she finds that they do.

“That’s what I love about his work,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like an obvious ‘We’re doing a reality TV show’ piece, but it seems to be very evocative of that world and environment—of the values and tropes. Ultimately, we want it to have a very subtle and sophisticated way of communicating these ideas.”

Stacey Mickelbart, guest contributor