As I stand in the center of the room, surrounded by other rapt guests, I peer at a makeshift wall. Behind it, I can see one of the dancers lying in a bed, trying to get some much-needed sleep. A shadowy hand slowly reaches out for the dancer, pulling on her limbs like a puppeteer, while her body stretches and contorts, hands waving frantically. The nightmarish sandman has arrived.
OdDancity’s Unihiekka…sleep sand invites five participants to witness the mental and physical shattering of motherhood through a lightly immersive, horror-dance piece like 2018’s Marbles and Invoke. Unihiekka is based on the Finnish folk tale of the sandman throwing sand into children’s eyes to help them sleep, or, in a more sinister mythos, stealing their eyes during the night. Choreographer/director Alex Floyd infuses this idea of a menacing sandman with the concept of motherhood, creating a piece less about aggression and more about storytelling: the struggles of motherhood descend into madness.
OdDancity excels in maintaining a creeping sense of dread throughout the hour-long performance. The dancers (Leslie Augustine, Kerri Leonard and Angela Todaro) are fluid yet jarring at the same time, deftly conveying the conflicting emotions of motherhood. They hold their plastic baby dolls, one moment handing them over to audience members in frustration, the next yanking them back possessively. These “mothers” are overworked, underappreciated, and simply tired. Their bodies drag around the room. They slump over as if hanging on by a thread. They scream out in silence and their cries fall upon deaf ears. They want their baby to rest peacefully for a moment of solace to themselves, though a mother’s work is truly never done.
One notable part about Unihiekka…sleep sand is that the entirety of it – including the performers’ interaction with the audience – is done sans dialogue. The whole story is conveyed through the means of head nods, blinks, gentle hand- and arm-holding, and interpretive dance set to folkloric lullabies from around the world. The level of touch, we had been warned, is moderate. In honesty, the touch is welcome and decidedly comforting; the three dancers portraying figures of maternity and madness are much gentler than expected. There is a point during the performance where the guests walk the perimeter of the room, circling around one of the dancers who writhes around on the floor. The dizzying experience adds to the general uncomfortable mood of the piece, and highlights the madness of the women. The dancers’ movements, facial expressions, and commitment to their characters evoke feelings of mental anguish which is both believable and sympathetic.
The setting is fairly bare bones. The candles collected in corners of the room, lights strung around, and the one bench which guests take turns sitting on add to the feeling of bareness and struggling to get by. This is not a plush slice of life audience members catch a glimpse of, but rather one of chaos and dread. The use of lighting in the room is well executed and helps to set the creepy atmosphere: at one point, as the women are each in a different corner of the room, a light spotlights them in turns to feature their individual plights. The timing and synchronicity of this sequence is spectacularly impressive.
During the performance, one of the dancers rested her head on my shoulder, rocking gently as we stood together. There is something to be said about the use of touch – albeit minimal – and how going beyond a simple “boo!” kind of scare is actually much more effective at eliciting an emotional response. It was easy to become immersed in the piece, to empathize with the characters, and to follow their story. Though only for a fleeting hour, the pain and tension pours out of these dancers with every move they make. By the end, guests might also feel heavy with sorrow. If I can offer one piece of criticism, it would be to have the dancers cover up their modern tattoos with make-up just so they themselves can fully be in character without distraction to the audience.
Unihiekka…sleep sand by OdDancity is dark and foreboding, while also maintaining a certain sense of somber calm. The clever use of gentle touch is reminiscent of how mothers care for their children, and serves to create an emotional bond between audience members and performers. OdDancity’s tribute to mothers is a haunting lullaby for horror fans.
For more information, check out OdDancity’s Facebook page and Instagram, or sign up and donate to their Patreon. Unihiekka…sleep sand runs Tuesday evenings in June in Highland Park. For tickets, email OdDancity to reserve your space.