Eames is an evocative word: iconic furniture; a power couple for the ages; rule-makers and breakers; playful partners; the very definition of Good Design. For Kristin Damrow, Eames is also synonymous with contemporary dance.
Damrow, an Oakland-based choreographer, spent the past 18 months bringing Eames to life; the three-night-only performance this weekend is based on the complex professional and personal relationship between Charles and Ray. “It’s a narrative of my interpretation of their lives,” she says of the story, which follows the pair as they meet; fall in love; grow into their creative collaboration; and manage society’s prescribed gender roles and expectations.
Charles and Ray were pioneers at the forefront of the mid-century modern movement; they were also married, and deeply in love. They famously introduced thoughtful design to the masses—producing “the best for the most for the least“—while engineering new manufacturing techniques. Thy also made films, toys, and more, all with a sense of fun, function, and whimsy that endures today.
Yes, Damrow’s is an unconventional take—and her focus is intentionally unbalanced. “Ray’s character is expanded, because I was much more interested in her experience and her role in their partnership, especially at the time they were creating together [in the 1950s].” (Fun fact: Ray studied modern dance with Martha Graham.)
To achieve this depth, Damrow cast five performers to share the spotlight. There is one Charles, and there is one Ray—but she is always accompanied on stage by three additional women who represent distinct aspects of her personality. Custom, period-appropriate costumes by Keriann Egeland set them apart—Passion is dressed in a fiery red dress, Compassion in rich blue, and Independence in vivid yellow—and throughout the performance they interact with the leads, and with each other.
These interactions are entirely physical; there are no spoken words in Eames (not terribly surprising for a dance performance). There are also no props. That means no molded fiberglass rockers; no leather lounges or ottomans; no bentwood anything; no House of Cards or Hang-It-Alls. There is nothing on stage but a selection of “mid-century-style blobs” in Ray’s primary colors, hanging against a stark black backdrop.
The ultra-minimal approach is a pretty impressive demonstration of restraint, considering how easy it would have been to go literal and OD on instantly recognizable artifacts from the Eames oeuvre. For Damrow, it wasn’t ever a real consideration. “I did not want to do a chair dance,” she says with conviction. “I mean, it obviously came up in my mind, but you can go on YouTube, type that in, and pull up everything under the sun.”
Instead, she used the dancers themselves to evoke Charles and Ray’s familiar work. “A lot of our creative exploration was, like: ‘How can we make a chair with our bodies?’ In the section where Charles and Ray are ‘building’ things, we do see moments where her characters become these structural, or supported shapes. They kind of stand-in for set design.”
The throughline, of course, is movement. “My work is always very physical,” Damrow says. “There are lifts, with dancers going upside down, or into the floor. It’s exciting, but you still see the humans behind it. Whereas something like ballet is beautiful but very technical, contemporary dance—my style of contemporary dance—has technical elements, but it’s a bit more raw and relatable.” Relatable to an extent. “You will definitely not be sitting in the audience, like: ‘I can do that.’ You’ll walk away feeling impressed.” And all of a sudden, it’s fitting that Charles and Ray would be memorialized like this. Their body of work is immediately engaging, designed by and for humans to be experienced in an organic, physical way. They were immersed in our world, from earth-bound carbon atoms to the edge of the known universe, and were able to process and present their unique point of view so effortlessly that it belied just how deeply talented they were.
As with her past five projects, Damrow worked closely with composer Aaron M. Gold, who scored the show. “In our first meeting, we were wondering what Charles and Ray might be they be listening to if they were just hanging out in their house. What would their background noise be?” Gold dove into the sounds of West Coast jazz musicians from that golden era, and he began to “sample, reorganize, and mash-up” those influences until he had snippets to share and full sections completed. “It was music I never would have thought to choreograph to, but it really sends you into this different world. We came at it from opposite ends, then met in the middle,” she says of the process.
One of the things that Damrow is most excited about is “cross-pollinating” between the design and dance communities, both of which can be a bit insular. (She only learned about Charles and Ray after her boyfriend went gaga over an Eames chair at the Alameda Flea Market a few years ago, and has been met with more than couple blank stares when describing the project to friends.) She’s organized a small pop-up “museum” of Eames pieces in the lobby of the theater, and provided more info about the couple in the program. “I am offering anyone who walks in the opportunity to be introduced to, and/or learn more about them,” she says. “Dance is always larger than life. Hopefully people can see this creative couple, and be inspired as they walk out the door.”