Patrick Mueller, the director and choreographer of Denver’s Control Group Productions, had already embraced nascent immersive performance when he launched the ensemble ten years ago. That was at least a few years before “immersive” became a catchword — in these parts, at least — but since then, he’s been honing concepts for proscenium-free theater that mingle movement, narrative and participation into a new kind of show without barriers, all learning as he goes, through experiments and collaborations.
When Control Group’s newest work, Aggregate Materiality, opens this week inside the dark, deeply shadowed basement of a former Globeville slaughterhouse, Mueller's metamorphosing ideas will reach a new level — and he’s stoked. Previous Control Group performances swayed from lush romanticism to self-searching darkness (sometimes literally, as in the company’s dances made to be viewed in the dark series), but Mueller considers Aggregate Materiality his most complete immersive work to date, a fully realized theater experience with a strong narrative that overrides the singular label of dance.
Darkness in a slaughterhouse suits some of the stories told in Aggregate Materiality: dying work opportunities in the Globeville neighborhood, the imminence of death at the mouth of a former slaughterhouse chimney, and our own ambiguous relationship with the netherworld.
During the ninety-minute tour, audience members are split into small groups and led around the space to view different scenes and outcomes in different orders. No two routes are alike. As they progress through a dank, cold, barely lit basement, heavy with the echoes of long-ago slaughter, some supernatural things are bound to pop up, but Mueller hopes people will choose to face them with curiosity, rather than fear.
“Death is the ultimate unknowable,” Mueller says. “Though we make the correlation between darkness and death, we don't have to be afraid. It builds a sensory landscape: We feel the death of a character, the death of a building, the death of an industry — the death of a neighborhood built on a Superfund site.”
That’s where history adds to the story. Through research, Mueller learned that the slaughterhouse formerly processed sheep, goats and cows. “It’s not creepy for us, but it is haunting," he says of the tomb-like construction. "You can feel the pile of death in the room.” So it might help to have a strong stomach to match your imagination as you explore.
“Meat was the largest industry in Denver until oil took over in the '70s,” Mueller recounts. “Then the meat industry moved to Greeley — out in the middle of nowhere — likely to avoid regulation. Globeville had good blue-collar jobs in the meat industry during its mid-’60s heyday, after all the smelters had closed.”
With that in mind, Control Group explores its own relationship with Globeville, as “artists as a gentrifying force, making use of a space that hasn’t been used for decades,” he explains. The ultimate idea is for community and artists to find common ground out of the darkness of a social divide.
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Aggregate Materiality’s cold aura of gloom and social breakdown can only end up face to face with death. But like the white light so often described in near-death experiences, Mueller says he hopes to project positivity by “giving a sense of what’s at stake — to risk asking audiences for trust in an environment that’s not trustworthy.
“That’s the gift in each scene — how to reward the audience for sitting through each scene," he continues. “Our intention is to be gently uplifting with no morbidity fixation: It’s meant to enliven people, to let the living go about enjoying their lives. The idea is that death is taking away any blockage toward being able to feel more fully.”
After four years of exploring dances made to be viewed in the dark, Control Group is now asking its audience to walk through darkness to come out into the light.