Oklahoma Contemporary
Two people are standing a few feet apart, bent at the waist, hanging loosely. Behind them, their shadows are projected. The image is in gray scale.

New Light

March 10, 2023

A Breathtaking Duet at the Bottom of the Sea

“We encounter one another as mirrors of that which we have denied … we are able to acknowledge one another, and, what is more, to recognize in each something of ourselves.”

Imagine this: You’re trapped, held captive, at the bottom of the sea. You, a human being, are not meant for these depths: the pressure, the darkness, the abyss. And yet, here you are, on the ocean floor — surrounded by blackness that only shifts with bioluminescence and one other being, a partner, a lover, a comrade. Together, you are forced to navigate your environment, your humanity and each another. How do you eek out a life?

In big, block, pink letters is the word SQUID on a white background. The tail of the letter Q turns into a tentacle that is wrapped and draped around the bottom of the letter U.

This is the premise of SQUID, running in our Te Ata Theater on March 16 and 17. The fantastical dance theater performance features longtime creative partners Leslie Kraus and Douglas Gillespie, who met during their decade-long run with the Kate Weare Dance Company. Their genuine, rich relationship is part of the reason Kraus felt encouraged to make SQUID with Gillespie as partner and co-choreographer.

“We have such a long relationship of partnering and dancing with one another,” Kraus says. “I felt like with this sort of story where the intensity of being at the bottom of the ocean in an alien environment, how would I react to such a strange circumstance? And I thought, it was best to be down there with somebody that I personally really, really know. I really know, in dance terms, his reactions to things. I thought in this alien environment — with all this pressure, intense lighting, intense sound — why don’t I have that with somebody that I have a solid, interesting, rich history?”

Lit by dark, glowing light, a dancer is hunched over, arms bent in front. They are dressed in a black shirt and their shadow shows behind them.
Performer Doug Gillespie

Within this dance relationship, SQUID was able to flourish. The idea of the performance was born (and later written, choreographed and created) during a graduate course Kraus took during her MFA in Dance from the University of Washington. During a phenomenology course — the study of the day-to-day lived experience — the dancer was introduced to the book Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (“vampire squid from hell”), by Viliém Flusser and Louis Bec. The authors explore the evolution and seemingly intertwined existence of humans and the deep-sea cephalopods.

“When this book was presented in the class I was taking, I was struck by this duet that was presented between humans and these deep-sea squids, vampyroteuthis,” Kraus says. “They’re presented as these two beings … and twin presences. So this idea is that the humans sort of turned away and into the mountains: We have linear bodies, we have bones, very chest forward, upright. And the squids turned into the water and went into the deepest depths, and they have bodies where they’re more stomach-upward, circular, soft, sensitive.”

A book lies on cement. There are yellow post-it tabs. The book is dark gray cover with gold writing. A large illustration of a squid is on the bottom half of the cover.
Vampyroteuthis Infernalis by Viliém Flusser and Louis Bec

“In this discussion, it came to this place where we spoke about a theme that comes up in the book, where humans are essentially built for war and vampyroteuthes are essentially built for love. And then it gets deeper — those ideas are circular: Humans go so far into war that they circle around to find love, and squids go so far into love that they end up being destructive to themselves. So the line of the water and land is this dark mirror so that these two beings can look at each other and learn about each other, and this is sort of [the authors’] point. He takes these scientific facts and just runs with it and tries to figure out the human condition.”

This scenario, the two species so different and yet seemingly finding their way back to one another, sparked Kraus’ imagination, and once the environment within this deep, pressurized situation was presented, the dancer knew a work based on this idea would one day come to fruition.

Two people are dancing together. One is facing away while the other faces the camera. They move, one extending their arm into a circle while the other rolls their head inside, only to be pushed away
Kraus and Gillespie

“In the first chapter of the book, [the author] points out this scenario: Humans today take the relatives of the vampyroteuthis, other squids, octopi, that sort of thing,” Kraus says. “We take them, we put them in these glass cages up here on the earth, we fill it with water, and we try to simulate their environment. And when we do that, they often kill themselves and devour their own bodies — they won’t tolerate that existence. [The author] poses very clearly and very beautifully what we would do if the reverse situation presented to us: If we were captured at the bottom of the ocean, what would we do? And I just read that and thought, ‘That’s a really good dance piece.’ And [the author] even mentions lighting, the only thing we could see would be bioluminescent light, and then I’m like, ‘That’s the lighting design!’ It was really clear to me at that point that it would be a great dance piece. I didn’t know I would make it, but I’m very happy that I’m making it here with you all now.”

A close up shot of two people. One person's head is rolled back, while the other's face is tucked into the neck of their partner, only showing the side of their head and ear.

The story of Kraus and Gillespie’s characters evolves along the ocean floor, with lighting designed by Harrison Best and the soundscape created by Warren Realrider. The two dancers navigate all the dynamics of a long-term relationship: love, trust, betrayal and doubt. Simulating enclosure, set designer Erasmo Salinas designed interactive, moveable walls that Kraus and Gillespie utilize to envelop the audience in their world.

“I love the idea that the walls are there because they are architecture for our (characters’) minds,” Kraus says. “Essentially, the walls are soothers for Doug and I. If we were actually at the bottom of the ocean and dealing with that level of abyss, we probably wouldn’t be able to cope. Interacting with the walls is what’s grounding us psychologically, and then also visually and choreographically.”

SQUID takes the Te Ata Theater stage this Thursday and Friday with limited, pay-what-you-can tickets. Join us for this sci-fi dance theater on the ocean floor, an “intense, intimate, sometimes humorous duet between two people who know each other really well,” and Café Contemporary’s tentacle-licious sweet treats and beverages.


Dance partners and co-choreographers Leslie Kraus and Doug Gillespie. Photo: Tessa Fungo.

SQUID logo.

Performer Doug Gillespie. Photo: Tessa Fungo.

Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise by Viliém Flusser and Louis Bec.

Kraus and Gillespie dance together during SQUID. Video: Tessa Fungo.

Kraus and Gillespie during an intimate moment. Photo: Tessa Fungo.

Tags tags
dance Te Ata Theater performance SQUID Visual art dance theater

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