July 20, “Lolas,” Ryan Tacata

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

I’ve had a chance to sit a little with Ryan Tacata’s durational performance “Lolas,” held on Thursday night at the Asian Art Museum. As it filters into me I find my enthusiasm and respect growing. At the time there were a few elements of the performance that I might have questioned; but these have faded and the memory I will retain is of entering a lovely soft absorption, punctuated by moments of confrontation with sorrow, the poignancy of loss and the sobering endlessness of labor.

I had trouble parking so came whisking up the beautiful Beaux Arts amber-cream staircase almost seven minutes late. The doors into the gallery were open. My experience of the performance began with my friend Erika, who has made work with Ryan, getting up to come say hello and whisper that although they’d been told to move freely in the space everyone was sitting squarely in their seats. There were perhaps 40 people in stackable chairs ringing the room in loose groupings that established a spacious central rotunda. In the center of that space there was a large indistinct pile of brightly colored stuff, and by it, a balding Asian man sat in a white molded-plastic armchair. Somehow I had the information that this was Ryan’s father making his performance debut. He was naked but for white underpants and let his spine sag like we do when we’re home by ourselves. The posture could read as defeated if it weren’t so comfortable. Every once in a while, Ryan’s father reached between his knees, took the edge of the chair in his hand, and used it to scoot himself forward around the ring a few feet. After a full rotation, he was joined by three more white chairs populated by young brown people in housedresses and boots. This group slowly circumnavigated the central pile. The scoot-shuffle gesture grew variations and elaborations, and a hand gesture was added that also had some variants. Its essence was a full-arm scoop with a double hand flap signaling come here, come here—though in some of its variations it could just as well mean get outta here, or even move, you’re in front of the TV. It was utterly compelling.

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sketch by Julian Carter

I did feel a little conspicuous about wandering around at first but I didn’t have a chance to claim a chair anyway so took up the invitation to follow the performers around the rotunda, perching briefly on the occasional empty seat or slipping behind a pillar as I pleased. The structure of the piece and its 2.5-hour duration engendered a kind of free-form engagement that was shared, in different ways, by all observers. Groups of museum-goers came and went and a few stayed on. At one point I noticed I was getting a headache and went downstairs to drink some water and shift focal length for a minute. A handful of artily-dressed people who seemed to have come specifically for this event stayed the whole time; other equally fabulous folk came late or left for a break. A man wearing a camera split off from his tour group to watch longer and stayed until the tour leader came back to collect him. The ebb and flow of the audience in the space meant that the social and energetic frame of the performance changed from one moment to the next. Over the course of the evening, more and more people shifted their comportment in response to the long relaxed unfolding. At 7:30 Muriel Maffre balanced upright at easy attention, her elegant head poised and her elegant legs folded elegantly. At 8:30 she was leaning back, her knees slightly open with her weight behind her. One beautiful young man wearing beautiful fashion lolled sideways to rest against his companion’s shoulder, and then eventually reclined onto her lap. People got up and moved around to watch from a new place. Julie Tolentino reached up from her relaxed sprawl on the floor to whisper into Stosh’s ear, one hand broadcasting delicate yet emphatic air signals as she talked. The glamorous blonde to my left watched me watching Julie and laughed in a conspiratorial way, then mouthed to me that she knows we have met before and was it at Franconia Salon? Or Stanford?… During all this, the performers moved along their prescribed paths, either solo or in canon without any form of interaction or acknowledgment of one another’s proximity. There was a kind of reversal here, in which the audience was mobile and social, the performers comparatively contained.

The overall structure was a series of tableaux, linked together in a loose sequence that could be seen as the artist’s lola, grandmother, making a garden plot and tending it. Perhaps this was also a depiction of others making Lola’s grave in the image of her garden. However you interpret the construction project of the piece, its most prominent and consistent materials were rolls of Astroturf and white-painted rocks; its live sound score (by Derek Phillips) includes the oddly soothing repetitive clink small rocks in a clay saucer, fans whirring, a lawn sprinkler…My companion for the performance whispered that these were the sounds of remembered summers in central California half a century ago. The soundscape merged with the slow, slow movement to create a sense of endlessness, the spacious temporality of childhood and extreme old age.

One of the things I found especially satisfying about “Lolas” was its array of characters. Three people in housedresses, one in white underpants: at first I assumed that the housedress meant “grandmother” and accepted that the artist’s grandmother had, through some creative necessity, assumed three bodies, while the man in his underpants was representing a man in his underpants—perhaps her husband, or perhaps Ryan’s dad, her son, both of whom must have watched her working. As the performance progressed the possibilities seemed to expand. After all, Ryan was performing his grandmother; perhaps his father was too. Perhaps all the housedresses were one Lola; perhaps they were Lola plus aunties; perhaps they were the three graces, or a chorus of mourners, or both. Perhaps Ryan’s father was a Lola too. I let my attention shift to enjoying the patterns in the movement unfolding before me.

About an hour into the performance I asked Erika “why doesn’t he call this work dance?” She whispered back “too much school.” Perhaps I’m undereducated but I want to identify it as dance because I care about the artfulness, the formal intentionality, and the technique of this patterned abstract movement for ensemble with rotating soloists. A good deal of the piece was built on the movement vocabulary of gardening, as executed in old age. It featured the shuffling slow gait of bodies with bad knees, sore feet, and hips that don’t work right anymore. We watched as these Lolas built mini stages for each tableaux. Spines arched like question marks, faces pointed down, they brought rolls of astroturf from the central pile, spread it out just so, and held down its edges with the white-painted rocks. Even with three Lolas sharing the labor, moving rocks with your chest bowed and your pelvis immobile takes a long time. It was made even slower by patterned pauses: a lola would simply stop and rest while the others continued with the task at hand; then another would stop. In another section, the performers built a fountain out of their bodies, Ryan’s dad in his white plastic chair at the base, framed by the three younger performers. The two who rested their heads on his breast each extended one leg out to the side in a lovely flying-buttress kind of pose. They held this position for about 4 minutes, long enough for me to ponder geometry and line and the classical aesthetics of garden statuary, and how Jerome Bel underscores the enormous disavowed labor of transforming oneself into a decorative object.

There were moments of intensity, too. The most memorable of these for me was a sequence that began with the three housedresses sweeping the ground between their feet with little hand-held whisk brooms. Stooping over to remove imaginary imperfections from the Astroturf gradually unfolded into full-body movement, all three whisk brooms flicking in a circular gesture at shoulder height while the other hand rested in the vicinity of the heart. The abstraction and development of sweeping worked in part because the original gesture was so potent and so communicative in its literalism. I saw this as a recreation of Ryan’s grandmother’s absolute refusal to tolerate dirt out of place; in that refusal was contained a rich relationship to housework, husbands, and the natural world.

I could go on and on, like hot summer afternoons, or housework, or gender relations, or grief, or old age. I suspect that is the point. So I’ll just stop here, with a final observation about the performance’s paradoxes. It was about the endlessness of labor, and it left me feeling creatively refreshed; it explored a kind of lonely isolation in that work and yet left me feeling warmly connected to the performers and the other audience members; it gestured repeatedly toward loss, yet created a space suffused with an active love; it had a clear formal structure and temporal duration, yet left me free to engage with it as felt right to me. I left deeply impressed by what I saw as the mixture of craft and integrity in this work, and I am looking forward to Ryan’s next production.

 

 

 

June 10th, “Still Life No. 6,” Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

“Still Life No. 6” premiered as part of Yerba Buena Gardens Festival ChoreoFest, an event of Bay Area contemporary dance curated by RAWdance. “Still Life No. 6” was 3rd on the program so I also saw pieces by RAWdance and dawsondancesf. Each piece was danced at a different location around Yerba Buena Gardens. I brought by 5-year old daughter and we enjoyed walking, and watching dance on sunny Saturday afternoon.

By the time we found a seat, “Still Life No. 6” had already started; Simpson and Stulberg sat on the edge of a raised block in the East Plaza of YBCA Gardens, a cellist was playing (Shanna Sordahl). Despite the typical distractions of being outside (and trying to be still) in a public space I could sense a mood; even my 5-year old could sense it as she sat watching intently for most of the 20 minute piece. As Simpson and Stulberg mentioned in a recent interview with me, this piece did stay within the same vocabulary and virtuosic style they’ve developed. The technical precision was stunning and yet there was so much more to see (and hear) about how and what we remember.

FullSizeRender (5)Because of the site specific nature of the piece and where I sat (on the ground at an angle), I really noticed the meticulous gestural movements of Simpson and Stulberg’s eyes and heads – blinking and gazing, nodding and bobbing. At times they seemed to be following something with their eyes, signaling “it’s ok”, or articulating “yes.” These modes of seeing (and speaking) seemed to acknowledge or respond to something just beyond the audience’s reach or line of sight. Simpson and Stulberg stayed on the block almost the entire time. Close to the end, they balanced on their hips right on the edges of the block. They hovered there for a while before “falling” off and running to the opposite wall where they tired to balance in handstands while reading out loud. I knew from their interview that these were obituaries published in the paper on the same day of the performance (June 10th). When they were done reading these, they moved off the wall and around the area, even moving between the audience, to read more obituaries. They even asked two audience members to join them in reading.

I strained to hear. At first it bothered me – was I missing out on something important? I even got up and tried to move closer. I paused. There is only so much we can see and hear in any given moment. So much of our lives are about straining – to hear, see, understand, comprehend, etc. We can turn up the volume, move closer, turn a page, ask a question, press rewind. But often we can’t. In these moments, what are missing? What does it matter? How much might it matter after the moment passes? “Still Life No. 6” asked us to pause and consider how we see and hear any given moment. Remembering, whether the steps of a dance or the details of a life already past, is part of how we are in the world. I left wondering that maybe we should pause more so that we pay closer attention to how we listen or see. 

June 2nd, “Still Life No. 6”: A Conversation with Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

Simpson and Stulberg will perform a new piece, “Still Life No. 6,” the newest installment in their Still Life series on Saturday June 10th, 1pm at Yerba Buena Gardens – day 2 of the Yerba Buena ChoreoFest. I had the pleasure of catching a bit of their rehearsal before we went to the SFMOMA for a conversation about their new piece. We talked about their process for making “Still Life No. 6,” the value of technique, and how dance can be a response to living in (and with) a Trump America.

ML: As “Still Life No. 6” is a continuation of  your series, is it inspired by a still life (painting) like your other pieces?

Lauren: We wanted to develop some of the ideas we’ve been exploring in the still life series, but we also wanted to shift gears a little bit so we chose a still life installation instead of a painting.

Jenny: The installation “Still Life No. 6” is based on is “Plegaria Muda” by Doris Salcedo, which was on display here at SFMOMA. We walked into Salcedo’s exhibit and were both drawn to Salcedo’s piece: a room filled with tables stacked on top of each other in pairs with dirt in between them and bits of grass growing on top.

Lauren: We didn’t do a lot of research about “Plegaria Muda,” but we read the artist statement, and it explained that each of these double tables represents a grave site of someone that was killed as result of L.A. gang violence, which gave us new ways for us think about still life as a concept and practice.

ML: Does “Still Life No. 6” mark a shift in your work?

Lauren: Yes, I think it does. We’ve taken more time with this piece, which we started in January, partly because we have two residencies. One at Shawl-Anderson Dance and the other with Margaret Jenkins’  CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange). This has given us more breathing room. In the past, we rehearsed everyday leading up to a performance. This time it’s different. We’re not in rehearsals everyday so our bodies remember differently, which allows more opportunity for new ideas to emerge. And because we’ve been commuting together from SF to Berkeley we talk less about the work and more about what’s been going on in the world.

Jenny: So on the surface, “Still Life No. 6” is not a big departure (same movement style), but it is the first piece we speak in and it’s site-specific, an installation. It’s an entryway into seeing where else our work can go.

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ML: Do you think your technique or movement structures are responsive to the state a world that is living in and with a Trump presidency?

Lauren: I think that in our artistic process we expend a lot of energy stringing together meaningless gestures and movements, refine them, craft them into an energetic arc, and practice doing them with a deep listening. It’s a way for us to focus our energy in a productive way, but some sort of low impact, peaceful and likely inconsequential way. What we make is no antidote to Trump, but how we make it certainly feels that way, to me at least in those long hours in the studio.

Jenny: None of the pieces we’ve made thus far have been intentionally imbued with any emotional undertones or subtext as we approach our work from a place of form and compositional elements. For this piece, however, we were interested in coming from a place of emotion or reaction to the state of world while still staying within the same movement vocabulary and virtuosic style we’ve developed. We’re obviously not changing the world with this piece, but this process has been a nice way to turn off, but also turn on.

ML: Given that, is there anything you want the audience to know about “Still Life No. 6”?

Lauren: We started to read obituaries, and noticed their form and tone, how they encapsulate a life. While driving to rehearsals we’ve talked about the unnecessary deaths we hear about, and then turn off, and get on with our day. So we decided to try and incorporate some of that into the piece. Toward the end of this work we read obituaries from that day out loud. For us, this is a kind of prayer. We are playing around with this idea and are not sure how it will manifest yet.

Jenny: I think we are reading these obituaries to call the audience to stop, notice, and listen. It’s a hard balance; you want to give full attention to news about lives that are lost, but you can’t all the time because it can be too overwhelming. With the stillness that we continue to put into our pieces we are trying to call attention to those aspects that we don’t normally give time or attention to.

Lauren: When a choreographer makes the same dance over and over again, they often get criticized for it. Visual artists, however, can make a series of the same thing over and over again and it’s ok. A series is a way to learn about what you’re doing. It’s worth it to us to keep doing whatever it is in this small gestural world if we keep figuring out what it is and “x.” The “and” is what we are trying to figure out. How does our talking and running around the space that we do in “Still Life No. 6” speak to our small gestural material?  

I look forward to talking with Lauren and Jenny after their June 10th performance; check back at here for more!

A Book Review: Diana Taylor, “Performance”

In May, Text and Performance Quarterly published my review on Diana Taylor’s book Performace.

It was a fun review to write, but not easy. I think there is a lot to say about how Taylor’s Performance moves and what it says. Unfortunately, the constraints and expectations of academic book reviews don’t always allow for the fullness of thinking about a text.

Here is a link if you’re interested in what I had to say about Performance.

May 18th, “Dearest Home,” Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion

Before the show began, Abraham offered us a choice: watch the show in silence or with music via earbuds. He warned us to stick with our choice as switching between them can be disruptive to watching. He also mentioned that the dancers rehearsed in silence, which is how they perform the piece. I found this direction distracting (almost annoying) and I ignored it. I started with the music and then at random times throughout the 70-minute piece, I turned the volume off and watched in silence – I could hear the dancers breathing and the sound of their bodies moving.

I did not read the program notes. I don’t think it would have made a difference for me. My expectations were high. I rather enjoyed Pavement  (2015) for its movement quality, and more importantly, for how it didn’t let us off that easy.  I thought I might experience more of the same. The dancing and dancers were exceptional and certain choreographic moments stood out. Yet, Dearest Home seemed to be missing something for me so I did a little research, looking for insight.

The text that accompanies the promotion video (about 1 minute in length) on Vimeo states that:

“DEAREST HOME is an interactive dance work developed in a multi-year process, focused on Loving and Longing, Love and Loss. Comprised primarily of solos and duets generated in conversation and collaboration with a variety of age groups and self-identified subcultures, HOME interweaves movement, in its most vulnerable or intimate state, with cross-cultural conversation and community action.”

I could feel the sentimentally of loving and longing, love and loss. At times the mood was melancholic, even dramatic. Yet, I did not feel the embrace of conversation or community. The stage was set for it; an intimate in-the-round space where you could see others watching at times.  

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Dearest Home is deeply personal. Yet, I also think of home as a concept and social construct that is also deeply political, particularly in San Francisco. Perhaps I was expecting or even needing, the dance to think more critically about home. I did not stay for the talkback after the show. Instead, I stayed out late (for me) with friends to discuss our mutual dissatisfaction. I was thankful for the conversation, for the chance to share reactions and tell stories. And, I was thankful to for a home to go home to.

Watching, But not Writing

 

I must confess. I’ve seen some dance and performance that I haven’t written about. Some of it was just too dull. Some of it just didn’t inspire. And others I couldn’t find the time to write the fullness they demanded. So here is a list:

May 7th Rioult Dance NY, “Bach Dances”

May 6th ODC School, “Uncertain Weather”File_000 (28)

April 28th Risa Jaroslow & Dancers, “Touch Bass”

April 21st San Francisco Playhouse, “Noises Off”

April 6th Wooster Group, “The Town Hall Affair”

February 21st, San Francisco Ballet, “Frankenstein”

February 18th Mike Daisey, “The End of Journalism”

I’m looking forward to Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, “Dearest Home” (May 18 –  20) and Hope Mohr 10th Anniversary Season, “Precarious” (June 1 – 3). And I’m looking forward to writing.

April 15th “Prescription Drug Nation”

Here Now Dance Collective

Joshua Kosman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, said that “Prescription Drug Nation” didn’t have “much to do with either the corporate or the sociological aspects” of prescription drug use; it wasn’t “a crusading, big-picture slab or reportorial nonfiction.” He claimed the piece was a more intimate look at six of the most common medications on the market: Adderall, Ambien, Xanax, Prozac, Vicodin, and Viagra. I don’t disagree.

Fletcher carefully explores how these drugs affect the body with delicate gestures and attentive facial expressions. These subtle indicators seemed to speak nuanced truths about these drugs from the inside looking out and about how they impact the social field. While there were clear markings between the different scenes (and drugs) such as costume changes and text projections it was not always easy to notice the differences between them. Perhaps that was part of Fletcher’s message. Might she be asking us how these drugs “do the same thing.”

The superb music by Aaron Gervais that was performed by Mobius Trio added moods, tempos, and sounds to the landscape on stage. The music contributed to the waves of alterity that moved in and out of consciousness, elation, attention, and confusion. And yes, the dancing was strong. 

I’m not sure I had any expectations walking into the theater. I did notice the stack of pamphlets about drug safety and awareness on a table in the lobby.

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Their presence seemed to suggest that “Prescription Nation” just might try to say something or intervene in someway. When it didn’t I was a little surprised. I did leave the theater wondering how many of us experience the world under some kind influence. What might that matter to how we live and are living?

Antigona, February 25th

Where is Antigone?

Whenever my brother comes to town we go see some dance. This time, we saw a flamenco version of the Greek tragedy Antigone by Noche Flamenca. It was a feast of sound, rhythm, and drama. It had dancing like I had never seen before. It held my attention from start to finish. I wanted to see it again. I wanted to talk with the director, choreographer. I think there are a lot of questions to ask about this piece.

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I have a history with Antigone and ancient Greek tragedy. I’ve studied and taught about Antigone. I also wrote about tragedy in my dissertation. So my response is an extension of this history and heavily influenced by my field of study – rhetoric.

I’ve always been drawn to the story of Antigone as told by Sophocles. In 2015, there were 3 productions of the tragedy in the San Francisco Bay area; I saw two of them but only wrote about one. There is something timeless about this tragedy – we keep coming back to its multiple struggles between public and private rights; human laws and law of the gods; duty of kinship and religious obligation. The program notes explain that Antigona addresses the themes of “catharsis, issues of dictatorship, repression, loss, the strength of family and female empowerment,” which are also strong themes in flamenco. The notes end with a reflection on the character of Antigone as a “poster-child for civil disobedience and free speech.” The words behind the piece suggest that Antigona will show the strength of Antigone as a female hero through the language of flamenco.

I was disappointed.

Antigona begins with the story of Creon and his family, and it is not until the 6th scene (out of 15) that the Sophocles’ tragedy actually starts. Sophocles’ Antigone starts with her words, her voice. Antigona’s beginning features the male characters – Creon, Tiresias, Polyneices, Haemon. Even though Soledad Barrio dances a powerful Antigone, her part seems diminished somehow along with the politics that drives the drama. 

Might Antigona rely too much on the language (and culture) of flamenco to tell Antigone’s story? I’m not ready to answer that question for I’d need more knowledge of flamenco not just as a dance form but as a way of thinking. It is a question worth asking especially when so many of us claim Antigone’s story as our own. What is gained? What is lost? Why does it (still) matter? 

2nd Show of 2017 – Slow to Write

Lucinda Childs, “Available Light,” February 3rd.

This post is very, post.

It’s been a busy February. Since seeing “Available Light,” I’ve also been to a play, the ballet, and a flamenco performance piece. So there is more writing to come.

There are several aspects of “Available Light” by Lucinda Childs worth noting and worth reflecting on, but part of what I think makes this one writable for me is how much I enjoyed the planned and unplanned conversations that unfolded throughout the evening. As many of my previous posts reveal, my reflections often are part of conversations that still linger and those I have yet to have. My response to “Available Light” is no different; it is imbued by conversations I’ve had since seeing the show on February 4th. Here are a few brief reflections:

  • There is beauty in repetition, which compels a different kind of focus that directs attention to the cracks and gaps between movements and dancers.
  • The music composed for the piece sounded of waves and other earthly utterings.
  • The piece held together; it seemed like a conversation of movement, sound, and light.
  • I didn’t understand the title until I heard Childs and John Adams, the composer, talking after the performance.

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While I enjoyed the performance I still left the show wondering why bring this piece back. It’s rarely been seen since 1983. It’s not as though Available Light is a timeless piece; its aesthetic age is evident. And as Childs made clear, the dance apolitical and without “a message.” What does Available Light matter to now? Is it’s beauty enough of an answer?

First Show of 2017 – How to Write?

Meg Stuart, “An evening of solo works,” January 20th

A good friend pointed out that maybe after 2 years, I don’t have to write about every dance I see anymore. He pushed this point a bit further: “maybe you’ve gotten what you need out of that practice.”

He might be right, but I still strongly believe that this writing practice enables me to participate in the dance community in a way that (I feel) is meaningful, thoughtful, responsive. So do I write only about the dances that inspire or challenge me in some way? Do I write only when asked?

Another thought as I type is to write every week or so either about a dance I’ve seen or something about dance. I’m not sure I can keep up, but it would be a different kind of practice and writing.

As I ease into the possibility of writing more (and less), I offer a brief response to Meg Stuart’s show, “An evening of solo works,” at Counterpulse Jan. 20th. I went with a few friends; they knew more about Stuart’s work. We all agreed that “Blanket Lady” (2012) was the most compelling dance of the five performed. The music, costume, and choreography came together in such an interesting way. I wanted to see the entire piece (maybe I did). That said, what I enjoyed the most about the evening was being in the company of friends, talking dance and resistance.