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Out There grows increasingly abstract with tension-filled, rewarding 'Water Will'

Ligia Lewis' 'Water Will (In Melody)'

Ligia Lewis' 'Water Will (In Melody)' Photos by Maria Baranova

With the Guthrie's Noura — in which snow falls not just outside a family home, but inside the living room as well — we've reached the peak of a theatrical snow season that always sees plenty of papery precipitation. Onstage rain is much less common, and even less so the kind of vaporous front that passes through the McGuire Theater when sheets of mist hit retreating clouds of haze in Ligia Lewis's Water Will (in Melody).

The strange weather leaves a moist sheen on the stage. Lewis and three other performers gradually make their way into the ultra-shallow pool: sometimes upright, sometimes prone, eventually stacked vertically in what feels, under the piece's strained circumstances, like a sort of avant-garde group hug. It's a moment of connection in a show that finds the characters often struggling to connect with themselves, let alone with one another.

After opening with Tina Satter's inventive but highly accessible Is This a Room, this year's iteration of the Walker Art Center's Out There series has journeyed into progressively more obscure realms. Last week, Miguel Gutierrez's This Bridge Called My Ass embraced absurdly energetic sensuality of both body and mind; Water Will is even more abstract.

It's a deliberately uncomfortable piece, with moments of levity that are few and far between as the performers wrestle with their own vocabularies of movement. Dani Brown sets the tone, emerging before a curtain with precise, glitchy gestures: throughout the piece, Brown and the other movers (including Titilayo Adebayo and Susanne Sachsse) are alternately self-possessed and possessed by a power beyond themselves, sometimes abased and sometimes defiant.

There are layers on layers here — involving gender, race, and the audience-artist dynamic — but Lewis prefers to let us unpack them ourselves.At the show's midpoint the house lights come up as Lewis steps forward to voice a fragment of text about an unknowable darkness, her words sometimes unintelligible as she forces her own hand into her mouth. The quiet rain gives the audience some relief, though its effect is hardly cleansing.

A program note calls Water Will a "melodrama." The essence of melodrama isn't just heightened affect, but implacable conflict: characters pushed to their limits. This Bridge makes a fitting companion piece in that respect as well, Gutierrez's piece ending as it does with an absurdist telenovela. Both pieces center on physicality — or, as the Water Will program puts it, "surrendering to the possibilities of the haptic."

Amidst all this moist melodrama, Water Will features striking compositions that demonstrate why Lewis' work has fascinated viewers around the world. The piece is very much at home at the Walker, which has long drawn attention to the porous boundaries among the visual and performing arts. Under Ariel Efraim Ashbel's expressionist lighting, with Eike Böttcher's deconstructed stage design centering on a thickly knotted rope, Lewis and her collaborators paint a picture that's often beautiful, but never pretty.