Daniel Burkholder/The PlayGround’s ‘The Chemistry of Lime Trees’ by Rick Westerkamp

Daniel Burkholder/The PlayGround’s The Chemistry of Lime Trees is an evening of dance theatre the likes of which I have never experienced. From the deep investment of all of the performers, to the emotionally rich research upon which both pieces are based, this evening of work is bound to affect its audiences on multiple levels. I found myself equally captivated in the moments of stark stillness and the moments of abandon and frenzy.

Stephanie Yezek.
Kathryn Harris Banks. Photo by Rachel Pearl.

She arrived, alone (part one) illustrates the struggle of a young Russian woman, performed by the equally athletic and graceful Andrea Burkholder, who emigrates to the United States, only to find that her husband, choreographed and performed by the dynamic and strong Daniel Burkholder, is no longer interested in her. The piece begins as the audience enters, with Daniel Burkholder laying down seed back and forth on the marley. There is nothing special about this action. This character must do this regularly, but there is beauty in the investment of the performer performing the task. I found myself intermittently captivated as I read the program notes and looked up to see Burkholder still laying down seed.

The strengths of this work are Daniel Burkholder’s use of timing in his choreography, as well as his use of props and traditional Russian dance (choreographed by Katya Denisova). The methodical and long drawn out moments, such as Andrea Burkholder’s slow walk onstage while attached to a rope tied around her waist or her meticulous lining up and organizing of her different sized Russian dolls, could be seen by some as too long, but I would argue that Burkholder draws these moments out to allow different feelings to register in that repetitive movement. He infuses bursts of frenetic energy in between different sustained moments, which propels the characters’ narratives dynamically forward in time and emotion. Toward the end of the piece, Andrea Burkholder performs center stage, as Daniel Burkholder sweeps the seed around her. As his sweeping becomes more intense, the seed becomes confined to the area around her feet, and as a result her movement becomes more confined. You feel the downward spiral of the relationship between these two people, and this young woman’s downward spiral both visually and emotionally. The chemistry between Andrea and Daniel Burkholder is palpable. Their adept awareness of each other in space is such that they can perform solo, with internal focus, and clue right back into the other dancer at a moment’s notice.

The Chemistry of Lime Trees (part two) shifts the relationship of the audience to the performance space, with the audience in two corners of the space on a diagonal, and the stage space in between both sections of the audience. Throughout the space are overturned folding chairs and tripod-like bundles of wood. As the piece unfolds, we are introduced to two famously in love couples, each the Romeo and Juliet of their respective time.

We learn about Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie, whose tragic assassination in Sarajevo sparked the start of World War I, though facts recited by the narrator, performed by Susan Oetgen. We are introduced to this couple in reverse chronological order. We also learn about Bosko Brkic, performed by Daniel Burkholder, and Admira Ismic, performed by Stephanie Yezek, who were the Romeo and Juliet of the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina of the 1990’s, in chronological order, through diary entries as well as Burkholder and Yezek’s physical embodiments of these characters.

This piece is more than a modern dance work, but rather a sensory experience. The audience is transported to a time and place with which we may not be familiar but thanks to the way Burkholder plays with our senses as we are watching the piece unfold, such as the visual of the chairs and bundles of sticks, to the smell of limes as Burkholder and Yezek eat them, to the sounds of a stick hitting a folding chair, we get an understanding for these characters’ circumstances. I’m still grappling with and thinking about the various levels on which this piece operates. The scope of the research and the parallels that Burkholder and his dancers drew from the two couples are fascinating. The Archduke and Duchess were of different social classes and Bosko and Admira were Serbian and Muslim, respectively, but the tie that binds the two is that they loved so deeply. The choreography illustrates both the microcosm of the two lovers as well as the macrocosm of societal conflict. We witness both moments of young love, in a section with the lovers orbiting each other and telling jokes, and moments where the macrocosm attempts to separate the lovers, as they hold each other in a deep embrace. A section that repeats itself at various times that stuck with me is sequence of movement that travels athletically around the perimeter of the performance space as well as on the opposite diagonal of the audience. The agility and precision of the movement, as well as the efficiency of the speech and the use of vocal projection of the two dancers allowed me to invest in the stories they were telling.

 Daniel Burkholder.
Daniel Burkholder. Photo by Rachel Pearl.

The Chemistry of Lime Trees left me awestruck in the talents of Burkholder and his team of masterful storytellers. The levels of discomfort and captivation that Burkholder’s works elicited in me was unexpected at first and gladly welcomed by the end of the second half of the evening. I left the theatre honored have taken in this unique evening and wanting my closest friends to see this work, so that I could discuss every fascinating moment of the piece with someone at great length. I look forward to Burkholder’s next showing of work, and will definitely keep this company on my radar in the future.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.

The Chemistry of Lime Trees is being performed tonight through Sunday, March 24th at The Mead Theatre Lab @ Flashpoint – 916 G Street NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.  For more information, check out Daniel Burkholder/The PlayGround’s website.


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