Patrick Mueller’s dance company Control Group Productions has never been known for being easy, and audiences can never take anything for granted when they sit down for a Control Group performance. Mueller already favors unconventional spaces and immersive experiences, but what happens when you throw literal darkness into the equation?
Jake Fry and Ben Waugh perform in Setting Fires.
Understanding that particular challenge has been Mueller’s quest since he launched Control Group’s dances made to be viewed in the dark series a year ago. When his fifth stab at it, Setting Fires, premiered in April at the Boulder Arts Center, no one — including Mueller — really knew how it would play out in front of an audience until it was happening. “The work had an uncomfortable adolescence,” he told Westword then. “We are making choices we want to make, but we’re still not certain that they will work.” They did, says Mueller, but changing locations will bring a slightly changing script.
To begin with, one could say that Setting Fires translates darkness in a new light: Mueller turned to the mass revolutionary thinking brought on by recent political events in America for inspiration, and began to ask questions about how people can effectively wait out what feels like dark times for the nation, huddled together and seeking answers. “The core inquiry was one we knew would be a challenge,” he explains. “There are always longstanding open questions, like what role can arts effectively play in acts of protest and political dialogue? It felt more hypothetical until we actually arrived in front of an audience.”
Control Group's found performance space takes shape in a former butcher shop.
What’s interesting now is that the piece will morph between Boulder and Denver to better fit an unusual space — a former Globeville restaurant and meat market that, for the moment, is in between lessees. “The event takes place outside of normal cultural centers, in a mid-renovation found space on the edge of Denver,” he notes. “It is highly site-responsive, using both public and back-room spaces in the building and incorporating much of the leftover equipment, as well as the aesthetic of dereliction. It fluctuates between gallery-style installations and sit-down performance events, keeping the audience off-balance and at the same time implicating them in the experience through their viewing choices and interactions with the artists. This will not feel like two separate pieces; the audience will see the same basic performance as in Boulder, but they will be different experiences.”
The piece is already designed to leave audiences uncomposed, he adds: “Once the audience settles into their seats, we start to disappear people. It’s not distinctly threatening, but it’s quiet, like there’s maybe something wrong with them, but we’re being polite about it. Small groups of audience members are taken into separate rooms at different times. This is part of a real desire to put people out of their comfort zone, and it keeps changing rules. People will be seated in groups of two in almost total darkness, and though we’ve done that before, this is less welcoming in a way that’s not as full of the promise that everything will be okay in the end. It’s a real-life comparison.”
Mandy Hackman and Ben Waugh in Setting Fires.
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Surprisingly and possibly ironically, Setting Fires in Denver also marks a new comfort zone for Control Group, and Mueller is relieved to find a space so well-suited to the company’s style. “It was an awful extended search,” he says. “Our options in Denver ranged from non-performance spaces to visual-arts venues, and this was our last-ditch option. It really turns out to be the best setting I can imagine.”
Control Group Productions presents Setting Fires at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, and 6 p.m. Sunday, May 7, in a found space at 5106 Washington Street. The program in Denver will include a collaborative duet, Standing Here Across From You, by Control Group artistic director Mueller and Wild Heart Dance artistic director Kat Gurley. Admission ranges from $15 to $26; purchase tickets online at Eventbrite.