Six dancers pour from the sides, back, and front of the stage in a flurry of movement and color. They twirl, leap, and nearly run into each other before they all fall to the floor in complete silence. Hampshire College’s student written and directed play, Rust and Dust, can be defined by its controlled chaos. Moments of sporadic, almost violent movement are met with periods of calm and stillness that leave most viewers in awe of its beauty and meticulousness, and reminiscing of their childhood and what it means to leave it behind.
Rust and Dust tells the tale of a young girl, Bess, whose active imagination leaves her constantly questioning life’s bigger questions through movement and prose. Co-directors and choreographers Kyle Zamcheck and Cassie Mills based the entire production off of personal experiences and texts—the “script” of the play is composed mainly of old journal entries written by Zamcheck’s sister and mother. After trying to write a script to supplement the texts, they realized that letting the journal speak for itself would allow for open interpretation and a more realistic look into Bess’s life. By taking personal entries that were created with the intention of never being seen–let alone performed to audiences–there is a level of intimacy and inclusiveness that one would be hard-pressed to find in a normal play.
“It’s a show about growing up, losing innocence, and learning how to cope with and learn from your desires and impulses,” said Mills.
Metaphor and symbolism run rampant throughout the play—at some points Bess’s confusion and zeal for life are very apparent, but are quickly met with a stark contrast where she is in pain, or has a distinct sense of reality. The rust aspect of the title relates to keys that litter Bess’s home. The keys, out of Bess’s reach, open doors to different rooms, which seem to symbolize new parts of Bess’s life that she’s not yet ready to enter. Meanwhile, the dust takes the form of five ethereal performers who seem to move in and out of Bess’s life, but always scatter when reality sets in. Each speck of dust represents a piece of Bess’s personality, and each one gets emphasized at certain parts of the play.
Part of the experience comes from the richness of the scenery. Costumes are multilayered, full of sparkle, deep oranges, bright blues, golds, and ranged in textures. At the start of Bess’s journey, she is covered in sparkles and layers of iridescent taffeta. As she begins to experience a loss of beauty and innocence, her costume continues to get more minimal and less fantastical. Bess’s journal was a huge, handmade book with secret pockets that revealed yards of lavish fabrics, mirrors, clippings, and little drawings.
Acting, dance, painting, video, and even baking all played a role in creating scenes. Bess’s mother, an artist, actually paints on stage. Sheets were draped and stretched on canvases that projected videos of the moon, trees, creating windows into an outside world that Bess always seemed to be moving in and out of. At one point, cast members hand out Willy Wonka-esque cupcakes for the audience—as Bess is hitting a low point and is over-indulging herself with food and emotion to the point of making herself ill, the audience is able to share with her.
“Bess’s moments of intensity and pain are also the most humorous without it being a satire, where the audience is mocking [her]…it’s more of a relatable thing,” said Zamcheck.
Burning incense and the cupcakes gave the production distinct tastes and smells. The play even incorporates different languages—it opens with the dust calling out to Bess in Hindi; then, in Spanish, and finally in English. Audience members are not just watching the play happen, they are living it alongside Bess. We feel her pain, we laugh at her jokes, and we feel what she feels.
It’s hard to say what an audience member will take from the piece—something so honest and raw is sure to affect people differently Looking at it as a traditional theatre production will most likely lead to confusion and distaste. Approaching the piece without predisposition, however, can be a very rewarding and emotional experience.
“I want it to be a pleasurable experience,” said Zamcheck. “I think a lot of people could relate to Bess in her journey…I knew I wanted this to be a show that children and adults and anyone of any age could enjoy. Younger kids could go in and see Bess as a princess because of her costume, and adults can go in and see the transient quality of that.”
Make no mistake; this is not your average theatre production. Rooted in experimental technique, the production blurs the lines between dancing, acting, and visual art. It was created with the idea of being a series of short vignettes (oriented in both theatre and dance) that would together create a narrative.
To get in touch with the emotions displayed in the story, the directors, choreographers, cast, and crew all had to be willing to improvise. Each member brought his or her own personal take to the stage, creating an atmosphere that was emotionally gripping. There was a level of collaboration and a strong attachment to the text that was visible through the cast’s bodies and expressions, as well as the costumes, set, and sound. Rust and Dust is not necessarily about a specific plot but rather about emotions, growing, and learning.
“You really get to see how much of a chance people will take with each other when they’re in a vulnerable position and you can see what type of movement people will actually have in their bodies because they’re not focusing on physicality. They’re actually pouring out shapes and feelings. I think it was really beneficial for us to do something like that because you really get to see an intimate and true part of someone [that] they can’t hide,” said Mills.
“We [achieved] what we wanted. It wasn’t traditional dance as I think of it or traditional theatre as I think of it. It existed in a different place,” said Zamcheck.