Reflecting on Katie Faulkner’s Divining
Every now and then I get an invitation to write a reflection or review for another blog. It was a pleasure to catch Faulkner’s most recent work and write for Life as a Modern Dancer.
Mohr’s newest piece, Leaving the Atocha Station, is inspired by Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel of the same title. Working with and from text is not a new format for Mohr. In 2015 she co-directed (with Mark Jackson) a dance theater production of Antigonick, Anne Caron’s translation of Antigone, for Shotgun Players. Many of Mohr’s previous dances are directly inspired by texts such as extreme lyric I (2018), Plainsong (2012), and The Force that Drives the Flower (2009). She also often relies on oral expression as part of her choreographic structure such as in Manifesting (2016). Last, Mohr’s ambitious Bridge Project is framed by orality as it is “a form of community organizing to facilitate equity-driven cultural conversations.” Given such, Mohr’s work can be situated between dance and theater, body and text. Leaving the Atocha Station is easily placed within her oeuvre and a distinctive contribution.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, Mohr takes on the task of translating and transforming Lerner’s “auto-fiction” to create a “hybrid theater” piece that included dance movements and theater-like monologues. The interplay between these forms amplified a commentary on art that astutely reflected the humor and strangeness of experience – the everyday and extraordinary, the self and other, the familiar and unfamiliar.
The 55-minute piece began as the 2 dancers, Christian Burns and Wiley Naman Strasser, entered the space and sat down at a table strewn with empty pill bottles. They faced each other as if looking into a mirror, Strasser wearing a paper hood that covered his head and neck. They moved, copying each other’s gestures and movements, eventually touching each other as if wanting to know more about the other/the self. Toward the end of the opening, Burns reached over and grabbed the paper hood to take it off. Strasser quickly grabbed it back, clutching it to his body and turning to the side. He wore sunglasses and headphones – clearly not ready to be seen. How do we encounter the self as a self? What masks, screens, pills, and relationships do we hide behind?
I have not read Lerner’s novel, but critics understood it to be informed by Lerner’s personal experiences while living in Madrid, Spain as a Fulbright scholar in 2003. It seems fitting then for Mohr to orient the piece toward the subjective.
A series of scenes followed this opening in which Burns and Strasser took turns reading from, moving with, and responding to parts of Lerner’s novel. Maureen Corrigan (book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air) described Lerner’s novel as an “offbeat little novel [that] manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience.” Yet, Mohr’s editing-by-way-of-extracting gave Lerner’s words an elegant form that allowed the audience to witness the processing of events and happenings experienced by the novel’s main character, Adam Gordon, and performed by both Burns and Strasser; they took turns inhabiting Gordon’s persona. This format provided an alternative way of “reading” Lerner’s novel that allowed the audience to viscerally experience an art encounter in the Prado museum, witness the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and observe a conversation about a drowning. This last moment was striking. Both performers read this conversation from Lerner’s book while standing at microphones. They kept interrupting each other, which gave this section a kind of tragic urgency that left me still – could this be true? Leaving the Atocha Station ended with Burns and Strasser each performing a last scene – one with words, the other with movement. For some reason that I can’t pinpoint, it seemed fitting that the dancing came last. Perhaps dance can offer an embodied rhythm that resonates more clearly than the verbal. Perhaps dance can better “put into words” when the verbal (or textual) seems lacking in descriptive or active potential.
While Leaving the Atocha Station is not a departure for Mohr it was refreshingly poetic in its form and movement. I enjoyed laughing and encountering the question(s) of experience – art, self, and otherwise – the pleasure of not understanding and the wonder that travels with them.
PS: I was fortunate to watch and reflect on the piece with a few friends, which inspired my response in several ways. I would be remiss not to thank them – SW, MN, ML, JH, and MM. It seems fitting that my response here absorbs these conversations. As Lerner noted in an interview in Granta his novel “assimilate[s] many other modes and sources: it contains a poem from my first book of poetry (a poem I feel is changed considerably by being transposed into the fiction); entire pages from an academic essay I wrote on John Ashbery; lines from my third book of poetry; language stolen from friends and heroes; and so on. So yes, I do love how a novel can absorb and constellate other forms, what you called its ‘elasticity’.”
One of the last dance performances I saw in 2018 was Performing Diaspora 2018 at Counterpulse featuring choreography by Cynthia Ling Lee and Melissa Lewis (with Kim Ip and Nina Wu). It was an exceptional way to end a year of watching and writing dance. I was grateful to learn about the Santa Cruz, CA Chinatowns and Chinese labor camps that existed between 1860-1955 in Lee’s Lost Chinatowns. The layers were sometimes hard to see through, but some points resonated – the value of testimony, community, and memory. I couldn’t help but think about my grandmother, my Oma. She immigrated to the U.S. after WWII with my 7-year old Mother. How did she manage to make a home and find a place after the atrocities of war? Then I thought about how much she never talked about that time and how many stories get lost – the unspeakability of things.
It seemed fitting for the evening to end with I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father. It was poignant and funny, thoughtful and fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect (I explicitly avoided the KQED review of the piece before seeing the show). As part of the Performing Diaspora Residency at CounterPulse, I suspected this piece would be about racial identity in some way. Race was part of the conversation, but it didn’t dominate, which allowed for Lewis, Ip, and Wu to dig deeper into issues of ancestry, identity, and longing. Part dance, part theater, part movie set the pieces of I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father added up – the dancing amplified the content along with the costume changes, karaoke singing, and spoken word. I didn’t get lost or wander too far.
This multimedia, and multimodal piece asked the audience to consider the past as part of how we are now, in the present. What are the lineages that keep us moving, keep us asking not only who we are but who we hope to be? This inquiry, as played out by the dancers, is serious and also humorous. Writing for KQED, Gluckstern claims the piece “doesn’t lead to a greater revelation of the persistence of outmoded stereotypes.” I noticed that too, but that criticism didn’t linger for me. What lingered for me were questions about ancestry and a longing for connections between parts of ourselves that we don’t know to connect or wish we could do better.
As I walked out into the night, I thought about what I long and hope for. I can’t think of a better way to end 2018 and begin 2019.
I was invited by Alyssa Mitchel to write a response to Pilot 70 – Merging and happy for the opportunity. I’ve written responses to Pilot 65 and 67 programs and generally found them to be fun evenings of dance making. The ODC Pilot Program provides a performance venue and framework for emerging artists and is supporting its 70th cohort. Each choreographer is mentored by a professional choreographer and ODC staff in their artistic work, production, and promotion. The selected choreographers self-produce and promote their work collectively, which is not an easy task.
Defining Intelligence by Alyssa Mitchel explored the meaning and nature of intelligence by incorporating video interviews with students and teachers. The inclusion of school desks, rulers, and other classroom references highlighted that institutions of learning still underpin how (and where) we cultivate intelligence. This piece had a lot going on, and it seemed to move fast. I wasn’t sure the videos were even needed as the choreographic movements clearly worked through some of the questions we have about the relationship between intelligence and learning. The end of the dance aptly captured the idea that intelligence is an ongoing process and place of wonder and perhaps a kind of play.
multiple ways to feel invincible by Charlotte Carmichael, a solo performed by Rachel Geller, set a different tone following Defining Intelligence. It was slower and almost melancholic. The music, “Picture your favorite place” by Neterfriends, gave the dance a spacious quality that was amplified by deep plies and large forth positions – as if Geller was gearing up or waiting for something. Maybe she was trying to figure out where to go. Maybe she was gathering strength for some feat. There were glimmers of invincibility especially at the end when Geller’s expression broke into a smile, suggesting that she had figured something out that the rest of us hadn’t. In this way, invincibility might have something to do with persistence and resilience.
Fuerza by Marlene Garcia offered a dark landscape. The trio of dancers moved in and out of synchronicity. They started the dance together, in a small circle facing inward. I was drawn to this quality the most. The dancers moved seamlessly between individual and collective moments. The repeated twitching movement suggested an unease or distortion that made the darkened aesthetic even more so. Fuerza is Spanish for force and I wasn’t quite sure how (or if) Garcia was speaking to or with this concept. I couldn’t quite make out the words of “oh ahh Hum” by Jane Winter (designed by Jonathan Crawford), but thought I heard the word “home.” I kept trying to figure out the connection between it and the dancing. The piece ended as it began with the dancers in a tight circle and instead of facing inward, they faced outward as if they gained a new perspective or way of seeing.
Reminisce by Nadhi Thekkek, was part of a larger work, Broken Seeds Still Grow, a mixed media dance production. Thekkek notes: “This work is inspired by witness statements describing the events before, during and after the 1947 Partition of British India.” I was inspired by the possibility of a dance actively engaging with a complex (and troubling) historical moment and its impact on people. The aesthetic and movement vocabulary was fitting and embodied the multifarious drama, particularly in gazes passed between the dancers. The end, focused on the question of how to forgive hate, seemed particularly relevant to the current political climate. Reminisce did feel like a fragment of something larger, but it felt committed and made me curious about the whole work and how one uses dance to deal with the suffering of the past.
Residue by Molly Matutat, was another trio of 3 dancers that started with one dancer in a spotlight center stage that eventually opened up to the full stage with all dancers sharing the space. This was another dark landscape – costumes, lighting, and mood. The crackling-static like sound amplified an other-worldly tone. The choreography included exhausting repetitive movement; the dancers at times ended up on the floor. They never wavered energetically and the pace of the dancing was persistent. I kept wondering what the dancers were searching for, what did they want or need? There wasn’t much resolution at the end, but maybe that was part of the dance’s message. What is left behind? How can we make sense of what we can’t quite grasp? Such questions resonate with 21st Century living.
Daybreak by Tanya Chianese, was the last piece on the program and brought light (literally and figuratively) to the end of the evening. Inspired by the rising sun, Daybreak offered a vibrant dance filled with chorus-like movement and breathing. The seven dancers spent most of their time dancing together, repeating choreography and gestures that at times seemed a little frantic and at others more grounded. While there was a lovely duet it was the collective movements that really stood out to me. And I kept wanting the dancers to slow down so I could focus on the energy between their movements and how they breathed through them. Even so, the light was palpable and the communal aspect of the dance resonated. This piece was well placed on the program given the darker shades of content in the previous pieces by Matautat, Thekkek, and Garcia.
“Merging,” the title for Pilot 70, is a verb that means to immerse, to plunge, to be absorbed and disappear, to combine, to be amalgamated (from the Oxford English Dictionary). The six works (all female choreographers by the way) did not directly engage with these definitions of merging, but they did explore concepts, experiences, and voices in ways that suggest a kind of bringing together. Whether it was a collective questioning about intelligence, hate, or dreams or repeating of shared movement, the dances by Mitchel, Charmichael, Garcia, Thekkek, Matutat, and Chianese were engaged with their content and danced with commitment. I went home glad to have seen six women choreographers and hopeful for the future of dance in the Bay Area.
“Raise your hand if you have ever felt small.” The majority, if not all of the audience raised one hand.
“Raise your other hand if you are pro-nuclear disarmament.” The collective was taken aback by this out-of-the-blue proposition yet chuckled at the incongruous juxtaposition made by the performer, Chelsea Boyd Brown. Most raised their other hand. An intertwining trio then engulfed Brown to the rising volume of rock music. Her voice softened and slowed as she was pulled backward saying, “You can put your hands down now.” The ridiculousness of a scene like this highlights just one theme in Social Movement.
On November 17 and 18, 2018, Molly Rose-Williams and Co. presented Social Movement, an evening of dance, moving targets, hope, and human pyramids with opening-act guests, Suzanne Beahrs and Jiten Daiko at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center (SADC) in Berkeley, CA. The central question of the evening was: What roles might dance, art-making, and performance play in creating social change? I wouldn’t say the evening worked to directly answer this question but did create a space for one to be affected and potentially changed by the dance’s provocations.
SADC is a house converted into multiple studios and can be used in various ways as a performance space. The audience began downstairs on night one with two dance films by Suzanne Beahrs. Night two featured Jiten Daiko, a young taiko drumming group of 7. On both evenings, the audience was ushered upstairs where the company performed an evening-length work focused on themes like community, individuals, frustration, and awkwardness.
My experience began with Jiten Daiko’s Yama Kawa. As the performers started clicking their sticks to resonate the wood of their drums, a sense of ritual and history felt grounding. As the performers danced through and around the drums, the energy of the group maintained as their dynamics ebbed and flowed – supported by two tempo keepers. Moments of kaleidoscopic turning and polyrhythmic playing by two, three, and finally all seven performers were as much visually as aurally pleasing.
Onward upstairs to the main studio, Rose-Williams welcomed us with a laughing exercise by posing: “Often dance is very serious. Here is your permission to laugh. Let’s practice.” We laughed – fake at first, but more legitimate as the laugh redirected to ourselves and the situation. Just seeing Rose-Williams’ bright smile pulls a giggle or two out of many that know her. And that is exactly what the audience felt like in general: a community of people who Rose-Williams has gained the trust and support of.
Social Movement (the dance piece) began with an entrance through a door, then a retreat. Followed by a build-up of many chases, run-ins, and lock-outs between gendered bathrooms and the studio entrance. We got glimpses of every-person-for-themselves as well as more collective efforts to open a locked door or squish through another. The focus zoomed in when Galen Rogers, the only male dancer in the company, began backing slowly out of the men’s locker room while exploring intricate hand movements. The other three performers attempted to mimic, distract, or distort his task, but fell short in changing his course. Was this meant to be a comment on gendered bathrooms? If yes, it was very subtle and would only be noticed by those actively searching for “meaning.”
What was clearer was the theme of the individual versus the collective. In these moments, the audience could focus on what one person had to say and then witness the improvised responses by other members in a “Yes! I have felt the same,” manner. In another moment, as a quartet attempted to pretzel their bodies together in a pyramid to fully support at least one person and transport them through space, success, not surprisingly, did not come the first time. We humans try and try to advance things for the better, but often feel like we are getting nowhere. Social Movement wove the successes of embodied tasks with a collective understanding of the frustrations within a fight.
We were also shown unison choreography that advanced through the space powerfully but fell short in relaying the strength of the collective that the improvisation allowed. By working with fantastic improvisers, the choreography felt and looked uncomfortable at times. Nonetheless, when speaking to James Graham of James Graham Dance Theatre (and renowned Bay Area gaga teacher), he shared an appreciation saying, “It was a very interesting compositional choice to see the company do movement that was clearly from Molly and then to see Molly, herself do it right after in her solo.” Often this is not the case for the choreographer/director to also perform the same movement separately, or at all, from the group as “other choreographers may come across as ‘one-upping’ their dancers, but Molly’s acumen as a performer and charismatic M.C. helped the choice come across as rather curious and bemusing.”
For the third part of the evening, Rose-Williams very much did perform her material as a solo entitled Soliloquy. She performed with an intricacy that made you want to zoom in and be in on the secret. It was the silence she held when entering, seeing the audience for who we were and knowing that we saw her, which catapulted us all into a shout at a corner, a collecting of imaginary apples, a making of a stew by drawing “ear dust” from the audience, and an exit that was just that, an exit. Rose-Williams’ transition from fully energized physicality to a shrugging off of the entire event itself allowed us a deeper connection to who she is and showed us a confidence that she’s just “doing the thing.”
There are two definitions of social movement which Rose-Williams and Co. brought to mind. First, there are the political and justice-oriented social movements. These are the “good fights” that we may or may not be privy. Then there is movement within a social scene – a boogie, a jam, a place to be more embodied and research what that means. By working in the latter embodied realm, Rose-Williams and Co. were able to physically address their own battles which could be (and were) interpreted in many ways by both performers and audience.
Is not the simple act of being exposed to things we would never think of in our daily lives a social change in itself? We are asked to interpret new experiences through previously constructed mechanisms. Yet, we fall short because the moment is so new. We must be open and chuckle when we are taken by surprise. This is what creates change. This is how we build new ways of seeing the world. Unfortunately, not the whole world looks at dance this way, nor is aware of possible internal changes due to, simply, the scene of address.
Was the company’s question answered then? Can dance, art-making, and performance create social change? That’s a hard ask and one that needs to be assessed on the individual level. I am changed by seeing friends perform in ways I have yet to. But do I feel more pro-nuclear disarmament? Not more than before. But it is now on my mind. To be able to change people’s perceptions on specific social issues through dance performance, the audience needs a clearer and more directed message to dive into, tear apart, and reflect on internally. However, by just creating a scene where new experiences are expected and even welcomed, we can argue that this flows into how people look and interact with the world outside of the performance scene.
In the moment that this performance was occurring, over 600 people were still unaccounted for from the Campfire north of Sacramento – California’s deadliest fire to date. It seems even more necessary that this community that so loves and supports the work of Molly Rose-Williams and her company members leave their isolated homes despite the hazardous smoke outside. We need that touch, that laughter, that connection.
The sun glares weak and orange through the ashen skies at noon. By 4 it looks tired. We stand in the little lobby at Joe Goode Annex waiting for the house manager to let us in; when she pulls the door-curtain back, the tall western-facing windows glow brighter by contrast with the gleaming black floor. There are four bodies scattered in huddled lumps that remind me of dropped socks, although these, unlike laundry, are moving…. A red line of chairs frames the three unwindowed walls.
Many audience members stride into the space and choose seats without visible self-consciousness. Maybe they’re schooled in contemporary performance, and aren’t easily perturbed by the lack of clear boundaries; maybe they’re just focused on getting to the bathroom. Either way, we all share the stage for an extended moment. Without a light cue, it takes quite a while, maybe ten or 15 minutes, for the house to settle down.
Was there sound when we entered? I think so, and it has no propulsive energy or melodic structure to mark time. At some point, I realize I recognize only two people there, choreographer Gerald Cassell and tattoo artist Idexa Stern. The red chairs are full and a house manager comes to offer floor mats. I stand; several children choose to sprawl. After what seems like 10 minutes, the dancers are moving more now, not faster really but more frequently. Eventually, it becomes clear that the one closest to the windows is migrating toward the audience, while the other three, already closer to us, are migrating toward one another. I think about knotted clumps of worms. I wonder about their timing, and I fancy I can identify a leader from whom the other three are taking some cues. I notice that two of the dancers are now touching—spooning in slow motion– while a third is several feet away and the fourth is still separated from them by yards. From 4 individual sock-piles, they’ve morphed imperceptibly into a dyad with two asymmetrical outliers. At the end of the evening—after much dancey-dancing– they huddle under the windowsill, where the streetlights can’t touch them and their shapes recede into the shadow, four individual bodies in a line that then stand to come toward us and take their bows.
I’ve come to this performance for three reasons. One is that dusk has always been my favorite time of day. The other two are Arletta Anderson and Karla Quintero, who are dancing tonight; both are lucid, eloquent, and intelligent movers, always worth watching. Anderson is quick and fierce, with something urgent in her concentration. Quintero is languorous and elegant and sophisticated. More than once during the performance I find myself imagining that Arletta is setting the pace, but when I seek confirmation by focusing my attention, whatever I thought I saw has dissolved. (Phoenicia Pettyjohn and Aura Fischbeck, the choreographer, are the other two dancers. While I’ve known who they are for years, I don’t know that I’ve ever watched either of them perform before.)
How do you track the fade to grey? When does afternoon give way to evening? What is the difference between twilight and nightfall? These are questions that occupied and enriched the seasons of my rural childhood, quiet in the backyard near my brother; I’m well prepared to pass time with people, being near them as darkness gathers, sharing the end of the day in silence. Maybe that remembered companionability is part of why I am most attracted to the segments of the dance when the edges of the stage dissolved. At one point, while the other dancers are leaping about, Karla lies down on her side with her back almost brushing the toes of the people sitting two chairs to my left. In front of me on a floor mat, her back brushing my toes is a child (about 8) whose body begins to vibrate with the extra energy of Karla’s proximity. Careful not to be in the way, she pulls herself into her center the way a snail pulls in its eyestalks; and taking up a smaller space makes her dense so that I can feel her intensified presence as a charge in the air. I am half-hoping and half-fearful that this subtle disruption of the boundaries between dancer and audience, stage and house, will be developed. Will the child by my feet be able to hold even more energy? That’s when I realize I’m really not finding much meaning in the larger composition, and without formal clarity or choreographic experimentation to engage me, I am reaching for relational motivation. It isn’t isolated and framed and highlighted and developed the way I’d like it best, but it’s there. At another point Arletta mirrors Karla’s placement, curling up on the floor across from me. The audience members behind her—both women– simultaneously swing their closed knees to opposite sides, opening a V between them as though they’d rehearsed becoming a frame. Here as in our entrance into the space it seems as though we are about to be solicited to understand ourselves as in the dance, with the dancers. It’s as though the point of dusk is to be in it together.
These moments are fragmentary, but even as shards they are beautiful and not always safe. Twice Arletta performs a series of short runs, full tilt on a straight line directly toward the end of a row of seats so that her feet have to stutter under her, breaking her momentum just in time to avoid a collision; and again I find myself eager and interested. I hope she is looking directly at the person she is running toward. I hope she slips and careens into them. I do eventually identify a couple of unmistakable cues the dancers use to shift into new sequences, but I no longer concern myself with them, because it seems clear that the relationships among them will remain abstract and disconnected as long as they are on their feet. When they are on the ground, something else happens. Toward the end the four women curl around one another in a loose and mobile geometry, limbs and heads resolving into momentary comfort before one slight adjustment sets off a chain of responses in all the bodies.
The dancers’ mobile spooning reminds me powerfully of the way infant mammals climb on their mothers’ bodies, of the comfortable accommodations of middle-aged lovers, of the presumption of sexual innocence in contact improvisation. What would have happened if the dancers had inserted themselves into the body of the audience with the same calm and skillful boldness? What might have happened if the lights had not come up as the sun went down and the movement gained force? Could touch and sound have taken over from vision as a way to know who was where in the room, doing what with whom? I don’t mean to imply that Fischbeck ought to have staged an orgy, but rather to underscore the interesting moments of discomfort she created when the boundaries weren’t held stable. I’d have liked to have spent more time there, then, hovering in the moments when it isn’t clear whether it’s day or night
Back in October, I took my 6yr old daughter with me over to Shawl-Anderson Dance Center to watch 5 dancers respond to the music of Michael Wall. She was nervous and we were almost late but got settled quickly on the last cushions up front in a large studio converted into a cozy performance space. I brought her for two reasons: 1) this kid loves music and 2) the show started at 6pm. After the hour-long performance, we were home by her bedtime.
The evening featured 5 responses to Wall’s music: Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations, dazaun.dance, Dana Lawton Dancers, ka⋅nei⋅see⎥ collective, and Molly Heller. What stood out to me was how the live music that accompanied the first and last pieces amplified the physical space and resonated through bodies moving, gesturing, and gazing. In Still Life No. 1+5+7, choreographed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg and danced by Stulberg, the music didn’t just fill in the dance’s movements of stillness but amplified them to generate a lingering emptiness full with potential. In Heartland, choreographed and danced by Heller, the music “danced” along with Heller, adding to messages of must-ness, persistence, and unrelenting-ness. When I asked my daughter about the show she said she liked Daybreak the best; she enjoyed how all the women danced together.
The best part of the night really wasn’t the dancing or the music but spending time with daughter watching and talking dance.
A week after seeing Hope Mohr’s newest piece, extreme lyric I, I sit down to write a response and realize I am late to the game; David E. Moreno on Culture Vulture and Dasha Bulatova on Repeat Performances have already published reviews. I admit to reading them along with Marie Tollon’s interview with Mohr. Even so, I am still sorting through the hour-long piece. Still sifting through its fragments of text, movement, and sound.
A week later, what remains? What do I remember? I remember walking into the theater without looking at the program. The performance was already in progress, the audience sitting in a square on the stage. Four dancers covered in plastic moved behind a mostly transparent curtained square. Projected on the curtain’s walls, Sappho’s fragments (in English and Greek) textualized the performance space – 31, 94, 130, 147.
I knew the piece was based on Anne Carson’s 2003 translations of Sappho, Sappho, the 7th-century Greek poet, exists primarily by the fragments of her work. In the program, Mohr and writer Maxe Crandall wrote: “In this work, we move around and through what we take to be her feminist and queer forms of erotic independence and radical embodiment.” The erotic resonated clearly for me, but radical embodiment less so. Do I need these reference points?
My notes are fragments; some are illegible while others remain mysteries.
I recall the sounds of bodies moving under lightweight plastic that gave the impression of sculptures while the voices and movement of Mohr and Crandall referenced a Greek chorus. Words passed and passing between the dancers and speakers. At one point, Crandall and Mohr laid down on their sides in the middle of the square and said we need “a different kind of protest where we lie down and moan.” They made declarations: “Sappho’s body is leaking,” “Sappho is obsessed,” and “Sappho is just out of reach.” The soundscape composed by Theodore J. H. Hulsker amplifies the space, creating a moody and muddy atmosphere contributing to a world where bodies are other-worldly but also sensual, almost siren-like, beckoning and naming their “I”s not as identifiers but as possibilities.
I don’t recall specific movements, but recall conversations in the lobby afterward that the dancing was, as always, precise, committed, and strong. I was glad when the curtains dropped and the dancers emerged from their plastic shrouds, passing into a more physical space.
The longer it takes to write this, the harder it is to collect a whole picture. But I don’t think that matters too much. What lingers is a sense that even fragments have something to say even if that something is fleeting or a wondering. For me, I might wander to a bookstore for Anne Carson’s book on Sappho. Or maybe I’ll read the one on my shelf about Eros. This is how extreme lyric I will linger for me; in the possibility of words and the mystery of fragments.
It’s been a while.
More writing than watching, which means I’m working on an essay. Right now I’m looking at Christoper Wheeldon’s version of The Nutcracker (2017). What is most interesting about his version is not the choreography, but the new story written by Brian Selzinz. Can a Nutcracker be made anew?
Selzinz’s story is set during the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago on Christmas Eve, this Nutcracker casts Marie as a fatherless immigrant longing to catch a glimpse of the exposition’s splendors and delights. The fair’s workers come together for a simple but lively Christmas party and are visited not by an uncle named Drosselmeyer, but by The Great Impresario (designer of the fair). The nutcracker doll, given to Marie by The Great Impresario, turns into a Prince (named Peter) to fight the rats that kidnapped Marie’s brother Franz. Marie, Franz, and The Great Impresario then travel on a gondola and meet the Queen of the Fair (Marie imagines her mother here) who grants them entrance to the Dream Fair. Like the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition, this Dream Fair has different country pavilions – Chinese, Spanish, Arabian, Italy, and even Buffalo Bill’s Wild Wild West Show (it replaces Russia). After watching The Great Impresario and Queen of the Fair dance a romantic pas de deux, Marie awakes from her dream back at home with her mother and brother on Christmas morning. The Great Impresario comes back. Marie’s mother seems to blush as she invites him to stay.
Selzinz describes the ballet as “Marie’s dream journey” and hopes that it “will illuminate what is special about all holiday stories…the value of love, the need for hope, and the comfort of family.” It’s a compelling message, yet told through a reference that most of us already know – – The Nutcracker ballet.
So, can a Nutcracker ever be new? I’m not so sure.
Some weeks ago, I had the honor of not only watching Still Life No. 7 but also moderating a post-show discussion about audience engagement for Simpson and Stulberg. Yes, I am behind; I call it slow blogging.
As I took my seat in a studio at Margret Jenkins Dance Lab, I gazed at the stage to take in the program notes that were projected on the wall. They included the standard information about the music, dancers, costumes, etc. I knew Simpson and Stulberg were trying a new format, but I didn’t know how much information they decided to provide. After the standard preliminaries, they offered additional notes: “Information and opinions about frequently asked questions you may or may not want to know before watching this dance,” which was followed by a series of questions (and answers):
What is a Still Life Dance?
What painting did you choose?
Is it good?
What does the dance mean?
No, tell me how to look at it. How should I watch this dance?
I don’t want to say anything stupid in the post-show discussion. Please help.
Already, Stulberg and Simpson were engaging with their audience. I admit, most of the time when I sit down to a performance on my own I comb the program, check my phone, etc. Having the program notes “live” so to speak encouraged me to be in the space with others more; I even had a lovely chat with the person sitting next to me. The streaming questions and their answers suggested that we (the audience) watch Still Life No. 7 with curiosity and by “letting the dance fall on [us].”
Looking back at the scribbles in my notebook, several threads emerged. I’ve translated them here in a form that captures how Stil Life No. 7 unfolded for me. They are not necessarily linear, but points of contact and represent how the dance fell on me.
Together, these observations reveal a dance steeped in different kinds of curiosities. Simpson and Stulberg drew us into a landscape that kept asking us to consider the stillness between light, sound, and movement and how that stillness is not empty but full of possibilities. How much light do we need to see others? To be with others? SCan it be enough to hear each other? Stillness can connect us with each other.
The post-show discussion revealed a curious audience that was attentive to the not only the dancing on stage but also the dancing in their minds. While hesitant at first, the audience eventually warmed up and engaged very directly with Simpson and Stulberg about their work as well as how they engaged. I felt we could have talked for hours. Between the dancing and discussion, it was a full evening that challenged me to draw out the curiosities between myself, the dancers and the audience. As I made my way home, I pondered the fullness of stillness, noticing the shadows on the sidewalk, the sound of feet on the pavement, the rush of vehicles on the street, and the stories in my head.