A hum turns into a grunt turns into a cackle. A deep, melodious tone becomes a howl. The line between laughing and crying, between song and utterances of distress, is a shaky one in Ivy Baldwin’s “Folds,” a mysterious, defiant and poignant work for four dancers at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City, Queens. Over the course of its compact 50 minutes, an audience member, too, might feel caught between laughter and concern. “Should this be funny?” I wondered at least once during Friday’s performance.
Baldwin, who has been steadily making dances in New York for nearly 20 years, is not one to overload her audience with contextual clues. She leaves a lot of space and lets us fill it in. Her first new full-length dance since the onset of the pandemic, “Folds” appears to be the outcome of deeply considered collaboration. The atmospheric sound score by Justin Jones, lighting by Mandy Ringger and set by the Ukrainian artist Inna Babaeva (designed with Baldwin and the performers) synthesize into a dreamlike sonic and visual environment, producing a wholeness that supports more fragmentary aspects of the work.
The scenery, a spare but bold addition to the Chocolate Factory’s warehouse space, features a splat of blue tape on the white-brick back wall and, at one edge of the dance floor, strands of reflective blue and silver discs dangling from the ceiling. These enclose a display of costumes suspended on hangers, at once pragmatic — a changing area in a theater without wings — and spooky, a sort of limbo populated by disembodied clothes.
When the show begins, Baldwin and the dancer Kayvon Pourazar have been lurking at the edges of the stage. Hiccupping sounds escape from Pourazar’s body and, as his roaming becomes more vigorous, build to a brusque laugh, so seemingly instinctive it’s hard not to laugh with him. But the mood is not entirely light. When two more performers enter — Katie Dean and Saúl Ulerio — a collective tantrum ensues. Armed and adorned with more of the ornaments that make up the set, the dancers furiously chuck the shiny discs around the room, Baldwin shrieking as she flings them against a wall. Jones’s electronic score has kicked in, adding a growling undercurrent. While contemporary dances often escalate to chaos as a climax, here chaos happens right away, suggesting that whatever may follow, rage is a foundation.
Subsequent passages feel like quieter but deeper exorcisms of anger or grief. Created in collaboration with the performers, the choreography often returns to gestures of stirring up or conjuring — splayed palms or blustery arms pressing through the air — as well as expulsion and release. At one point, communing with Ulerio and Pourazar, Baldwin repeatedly thrusts her hands away from her pelvis; at another she curls her fingers into her lower abdomen, as if digging for something to extract. She curls into a ball, pounding her fists against the floor, and later balances on her sacrum, torso gently circling, in a resemblance of yearning or prayer.
Mystical images materialize and morph. The lighting dims to cast glistening flecks on the back wall; an emission of dry ice, illuminated, looks like a swirling mist. Not long after this almost pastoral vision, a more unsettling one takes hold, as Pourazar duct-tapes Ulerio’s prone body to the floor. Ulerio, motionless at first, gradually manages to shed the restraints.
Next to some of Baldwin’s previous works, this one has weirder, wilder inclinations. Its folds are not tidy creases but softer, murkier arrangements. For all its potent imagery, its final moments feel rushed, incomplete. But perhaps this is just part of coaxing us to find our way in the dark.
Through Dec. 17 at the Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens; chocolatefactorytheater.org.