Anne Carson, Merce Cunningham Dancers Explore Grief and Memory in NOX

It's just before eight o'clock when the creepy, atmospheric music begins echoing up through four stories of darkness. The only sign of life on display inside the Moore building is a young man slumped silently against a pillar. A projector throws yellow light on a blank wall behind him.

Suddenly, a figure slams into the windows from outside. Like a dying bird, the man crashes again and again against the glass before bolting inside and writhing on the concrete floor.

So began NOX, last night's rare, bizarre, and beautiful collaboration between poet Anne Carson and the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe for the O, Miami poetry festival.

The hour and a half performance proved an eerie, moving recital of Carson's most recent work, an elegy to her estranged brother Michael who died in 2000 in Copenhagen.

NOX is itself a strange book, both physically and thematically. Instead of bound pages, NOX is a long folio contained in a gray box (like a coffin or tombstone). Mementos of Michael -- both original and created by Carson -- are interspersed with text, as Carson translates and expounds upon Catullus 101, an elegy by the ancient Roman poet of the same name to his dead brother.

NOX means "night" in Latin, and the books is both a close reading of Catullus 101 for the reader and Carson's own attempt to search for her long-lost brother's identity amidst years of silence, or darkness.

Faced with weighty source material, the two Merce dancers delivered an equally haunting performance.

As dancer Silas Riener writhed on the floor, dancer/choreographer Rashaun Mitchell watched with fright. And when Riener collapsed in convulsions, Mitchell pulled him tenderly to his feet. All the while, musician Ben Miller mixed a recording of Carson reading NOX with dense layers of moody music from a spot on the second floor.

Riener and Mitchell continued their convulsive dancing upstairs, at times flopping on the ground, slamming into the walls, or swooning over the railings. As the audience slowly followed them up the building's four floors, Carson herself appeared intermittently, first in the background, later drawing and scribbling on a projector across from Rob Currie -- a New York artist who collaborated with Carson to make NOX, the book.

Finally, on the fourth floor, Carson read the end of her elegy as two projectors illuminated Riener and Mitchell sprawled against a wall, as if caught in separate spotlights. As Carson delivered the poem's final lines, the two dancers froze in an awkward embrace.

It was a tender end to the ghostly performance. In fact, the event's only misstep came during the short Q&A that followed. The O-shaped fourth floor meant that Carson, Mitchell, Riener, Currie, and Miller were seated far away from the audience, a gulf literally between them.

Unfortunately, that gulf extended to the discussion as well, as none of the performers seemed eager to give the background information necessary to explain the unorthodox piece. For instance: How did the collaboration come about? Who's idea was it? When did Carson first see the dance performance? What were her thoughts? And what is it like to have such an intensely personal thing -- the death of a brother and your subsequent grief -- reenacted in front of strangers?

Only this last question was asked, however, and even then, the notoriously private Carson didn't reveal much.

"The thing about grief is that it's supposed to end," Carson said, before explaining that NOX was her way of searching for her brother's identity, just as Catullus had traveled to Asia Minor to stand next to his own brother's grave.

Because she didn't find out about Michael's death until two weeks later, when his body was long since cremated and his ashes thrown to sea, Carson didn't have that choice: the book was her epitaph.

Carson and the rest of the ensemble will be performing Stacks, another of her poems, tonight at the Moore building at 7 p.m. If it's anything like NOX, it will be worth the ticket.

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