Crispin Spaeth has been turning the lights down for a couple of years, making works designed to be seen in the half-light where our peripheral vision registers movement before our brains interpret it. As a frog catching flies—our first response is physical, from the gut not the head. In Dark Room (though Saturday, March 4; Western Bridge, 206-325-6500, www.westernbridge.org), she takes the inevitable next step and turns the lights out altogether, presenting a dance we cannot see without high-tech help. Night-vision scopes reduce the world to an illusive, furtive place and transform the performers into targets. Our field of vision narrowed by the scopes, we scan back and forth searching for a landmark. When dancers do appear in our sights, it's often an abrupt moment, as if they had stumbled into view accidentally. That may be the case, since they are performing in the dark without electronic aids. They are blind, and with Yann Novak's static-laced score short-circuiting any aural clues, they have only their sense of gravity by which to orient themselves. Hesitant reaching and careful gliding would be the safe choices in that environment, so that when they actually spin or fall they appear almost heroic—a jump is indeed a leap into the unknown.
Watching these green-glowing figures through tiny lenses is just as disorienting as it sounds. About half the audience has monoculars, so their depth perception is circumvented, too, but even when we are looking with both eyes, the performers seem like apparitions floating through our visual field. Standing still, they have a halo, and moving, they leave a trail—this is a dance with actual ghosts instead of the trumped-up versions in 19th-century ballet. As our eyes strain to find them, and our hands grip the expensive scopes trying keep them in view, they slip in and out of focus, looming over us for a moment, then dissolving into a generalized fuzziness. If we hadn't seen them before the lights went down, kneeling in front of us, explaining how the equipment worked, and then gently putting it into our hands, we wouldn't really know if they were there at all.
In the heyday of conceptual dance, we were often invited to "watch" performances that were happening in other rooms, other buildings, or other cities, simply by being told that they existed. But by "blinding" the performers and putting us in the same room with the tools to see them, Spaeth has gone further than that postmodern device. In her press materials, she talks about "repurposing military surveillance technology," and those disquieting connections are easy to draw as the scopes put the audience behind a version of a one-way mirror. But alongside those ideas, the experience of hunting for the dance in the dark is as powerful as any kinetic reaction to the movement we find. Dark Room is as much about the act of looking as it is about anything we might actually see.