Full-Length Dance

Keith Hennessy/Circo Zero, “Sink” November 2, 2019

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

I’m not an uncritical Keith Hennessy fan—are there any of those? He’s not an easy artist. He puts himself out on the edge, he asks his audience to join him there, and he doesn’t give you a spoonful of choreographic sugar to help things go down. I don’t always enjoy his shows, exactly. But I go back because something in every Hennessy performance makes me feel with a sharp clarity that lodges and persists for years. So on November 2, I chose “Sink” over significant competition: the Maryinski was doing “La Bayadere” at Zellerbach Hall, and the world’s largest queer country-western dance festival was hosting the Sundance Hoedown at the Regency Ballroom. I made the right call. “Sink” was a magical evening.

The evening began softly with a typical Keith welcome. He wandered back and forth as people were getting settled, saying hello, offering paper cups of lemon- ginger tea with an optional splash of Jamison’s. Rows of plastic chairs faced a curtain made of used blue plastic tarpaulins artfully draped from the ceiling in huge swags. As we settled, Keith made a detailed and specific acknowledgment of our presence on unceded Ohlone land; then he asked us to turn to strangers to share our hesitations, confusions, and resistances to this relatively new social ritual that asks us to consider our involvement in the ongoing history of invasion and genocide. I admit I am sometimes wary of land acknowledgments made by white people, who can use them to signal their own wokeness, so I especially appreciated the opportunity to have this discussion. And in this case, the ritual seemed vitally connected to the work. “Sink” is a summons to pay passionate attention to the enormous violence of this place and time.

The first movement began with a short solo executed atop a small stool in front of the blue tarps. Dressed in white and gold and crowned with a bright wig, Keith danced to his recorded voice speaking about the rich who are claiming our country as their own. Constrained by his tiny stool-stage, the movement flowed upward through his hands and head in complex and mesmerizing counterpoint to the sharp, even biting quality of the analytic text. When he observed that for indigenous activists an environmental award is a death sentence I felt my stomach drop. When he said “It is much easier to open prisons than to shut one down. I wish the same could be said about hearts and minds” the bodies around me rustled like leaves responding to a wind. 

The blue tarps rose on a stage-space startling in its sudden revelation of piled orange: he explained that these were life vests, from Lesbos, where he will be going to participate in Ai Wei-Wei’s 1000 person opera on the beach responding to the global refugee crisis. Keith migrated us watchers onto the floor and took the time to make sure everyone had the seating they needed before the tarps descended and we were enclosed with him on the stage. A few of us used the vests as cushions for a while; there was no chastising irony here, no sense of mockery at our presumed complacency about our unearned good fortune, but instead, a profound welcome to our place in the circle of mourning for a world both drowning and on fire.

I’m groping for a way to explain the emotional and political significance of the ritual Keith offered here. The best I can do is put the dance in relation to powerful memories of past gatherings in moments of great collective pain. At the end of October 1984, seven months after HIV was isolated as the cause of AIDS and the week before Raegan was elected to a second term, I walked a silent night path through an oak wood to observe Samhain with a temporary coven gathered by a Welsh witch. At the end of January of 2017, I joined a thousand strangers thronging San Francisco Airport’s international terminal to reject the Muslim ban’s claim that we must buy security with cruelty. On November 2 Keith gathered a hundred of us around the marley in Joe Goode Annex on Dias de Los Muertos to cast a spell for all our kin harmed, betrayed, abandoned, left to die.

Each of the dance’s six segments had its own ritual power. In one passage Keith’s movement was mirrored by a much younger body, supple muscles round and full under his white hood. They danced to abstract sound distantly derived from Nazi death metal, side by side, upside down, twining their ankles around their own feet, suspending themselves on their flanks in a gesture like a shared howl. Worlds folding into one another. In another segment, Keith sat on the floor and accompanied himself on a droning squeezebox as he chanted a long song about mass murder: “Why pick up a gun? You can’t protect yourself. You know it can happen here. It is happening here.” From my angle of vision, he was framed by two pairs of men leaning against the wall across from me. They had settled into matching spoons, one in each pair cradling the other against his chest. Their faces shone with tears. Around the room, many others were holding hands as Keith sang the litany of murder: “A knife a gun a bomb a backpack a truck that is a bomb a body that is a gun.” Christchurch, Gilroy, Paris, Charlottesville, London, Orlando. The list goes on and on. He brought us the news of our common vulnerability, the bitterness of frustration and fear, our shared inheritance of mistrust “like ghosts, like bruises, like terror.” 

It’s an enormous tribute to Keith’s compositional skill that he could and did transition from this appalling encounter with violence and despair into three more segments. One featured Keith bounding goatlike on spring stilts, crowned with ivy in a bright corset woven of Maypole ribbons, matching his young partner’s grand allegro to Sylvester’s iconic “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.” The woman next to me was doing a shoulder dance. When the music dissolved into a stormy industrial grind the smiles dissipated and the performers, no longer mounted by the gods, panted hard as we all remembered gravity’s burden; but then Keith swung himself into the air, into a song of love and freedom suspended on a stream of blue and green light punctuated with silver shapes as reflective as crumpled aluminum foil. As he slowly rotated head down the people across from me looked like they were gazing up into an aquarium, absorbed in timeless blue. 

 There is no way to conclude. The world we inhabit is very far from stable – climate chaos, fascism rising, endless incarceration and inevitable extinction. Some of us are surviving and some are not. Keith can’t wrap that up for us. But he has wrapped himself around it and wrapped an audience around the work. For 37 years in San Francisco Keith has helped create and sustain a community that can receive this beautiful ranting. “Sink” is the work of a fully mature artist embodying his place and time with integrity and breadth. Happy 60th birthday, Keith. Thank you.

(in)Visible, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Thursday, Oct 3rd, 2019

Guest Blog Post by Megan Nicely

I couldn’t attend Jess Curtis/Gravity’s (in) Visible at CounterPulse (Oct 3-6 & Oct 10-13) so I asked Megan Nicely to write a response. I Posed three questions and Nicely offered three compelling answers.

Did you feel that the dance was able to engage you differently without being able to see it? In other words, how did the dance “dislcoate[d] vision from the center of your experience?

I’ve attended Jess Curtis/Gravity’s work for many years. I’m engaged by the questions Jess asks and always curious how he will address them. In general, I would say that he begins with the body and looks for ways to expand or test different thresholds of experience and perception. He often works in collaboration with performers and other artists, and more recently philosophers. Reflecting on the performances I have seen, I observe a gradual shift from a focus on the performer’s body to increasingly include those of audience members as well. The recent piece (in)Visible is designed with this perspective in mind. The promotional materials ask: “How do you experience a performance? By seeing it? What if that’s not possible?”

The night I attended I was part of a much more diversely abled audience (at least based on albeit limited visual markers), which already speaks to some of the politics of Jess’s work. Audio Description and ASL interpretation were made available, and the visual experience I did have as a seeing person was enjoyable–six dancers’ skillful navigation of the circular and narrow spaces through the scattering of audience chairs, which heightened my kinesthetic sense. Throughout the evening, I appreciated having time to attend to my own audience body. I was not asked to participate in the ways some immersive experiences demand, nor was I simply watching a spectacle. By addressing what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible,” (in)Visible speaks to the politics of dance aesthetics and challenges audiences to find meaning in new ways. 

After experiencing the work, however, I found myself grappling less with other sensory modalities than with the space left by the demotion of vision, and what came in to fill its place. I find that the above promotional questions can be taken in several ways: first, they ask how artists might expand the art form to include multiple access points and varieties of sensory awareness, but they also ask what we can learn about vision’s role in dance by destabilizing its hierarchy. Because this work was designed less to give a seeing person a new experience than to include a non-seeing audience, I did find myself constructing meaning in new ways. In this particular piece, speaking stepped into vision’s location, accompanied by some less dominant touch as air, a prop, or a performer made subtle contact. This dominance of the voice stood out to me, not because I necessarily consider dance to be “nonverbal,” but because language, like vision, is a tool of power that can make explicit or invisible certain experiences. This choice interested me.

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(in)Visible by Jess Curtis/Gravity. Photo: Robbie Sweeny

What did you take away from the dance? What questions linger?

First and foremost, as an audience member, I felt well taken care of. Prior to entering the theater we were each given a glow stick and were instructed that if at any time we felt uncomfortable or needed to leave the performance, we could simply break it, signaling a desire to exit. We were also greeted by performers as we looked for seating in the groups of chairs arranged on and around the periphery of the stage, and were reminded several times during the show that if we did not want to be touched by a performer, even if we had chosen to sit in an interactive chair, we could opt-out. These tactics set the tone for performance in the age of consent, where crossing conventional theatrical boundaries in order to shock audiences out of a “false reality” were instead approached with caution, suggesting not tamed performance so much as a new training of how to bring an audience body into a performance experience. Maybe it’s time to update Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty for today’s age?

What lingered after the performance was that these consensual audience interactions did not lend agency to the audience, except in refusal by saying “no.” Those in the participatory seats were manipulated like puppets or props, with often humorous commentary (“I am taking off the subject’s shoes,” “I am looking for the subject’s phone”). The specifics of these interactions were articulated verbally just before they happened, a skillful consent strategy. However, they were not questions but statements (although I did experience a whispered personal exchange next to me between a performer and audience member as the performer attempted a more ambitious move–standing on the audience member’s thighs–whispering as they ascended, “ok?”) I was awakened to the vast range of performance strategies for connecting with audiences without merely eliminating boundaries altogether. Here, the lines between the performance of consent and actual consent were blurred–as they often are in “real life.”

Does the dance resonate with any social/political issues out there right now?

The piece left me questioning what seems to be a problematic issue in our human social world: ambiguity. Not only are there grey areas of meaning and interpretation, but even when seemingly “factual” or descriptive, statements and actions do not always line up. Anyone who has stepped briefly into performance theory knows that the performative–when “saying something is doing something”–can either be truthful or in J. L. Austin’s words “infelicitous.” It is only truthful when socially agreed upon and repeated so that others understand it as such. While not performative per se, (in)Visible was a beautiful example of truthful alignment. Even when phrases themselves were more abstract or interpretive rather than descriptive–i.e., “I am not ignoring the subject” while dancing close by–there was little question that what was said and what was done were in agreement. 

The alignment or word and deed is increasingly rare and often not the case. Different interpretations of words and actions populate today’s headlines. Words and movements can lie, as well as tell truths, depending on context, and with the rapid changes to these contexts, it is no wonder we don’t quite trust either words or actions very much at the moment. Will removing vision–and speaking for that matter–lead to other kinds of centralized experiences, both in performance and outside of it? While a welcomed change, do proceed with awareness. Lest you surrender all visual capacities, the digital audience survey, which earned one a free drink, did not allow one to “opt-out” of any of the questions. I guess that is the price for diverting attention to other sensorial desires. 

 

The Classroom, September 7th

Alyssa Mitchel’s The Classroom is an hour-long dance that centers on Mitchell’s past frustrations as a student, her work as math skills tutor, and 26 interviews with teachers and students at 5 different schools in the San Francisco Bay area. I attended the world premiere on Saturday, September 7th at the ODC Dance Commons. In development for 18 months, The Classroom reflects the ways in which personal experiences often translate into research questions that can drive creative processes. While the piece included audio recordings from Mitchel’s interviews as well as recorded essays from students at the Urban School of SF, dance seemed to be the primary vehicle by which Mitchel sought to engage with issues of frustration, questions of intelligence, struggles with learning disabilities, and more.

Mitchel’s commitment to her project is undeniable and the messages clear. The dancing by Jessica Bozzo, Jessica DeFranco, Sierra Heller, Franke Lee III, Nicole Maimon, Tayler Kinner, and Katherine Newmann was equally committed. They danced 9 different sections in various formats demonstrating their emotional range and technical precision. Most of these sections directly corresponded to Mitchel’s research. “Frustration” and “Defining Intelligence,” for example, both relied on audio from interviews with students and teachers. I had the pleasure of responding to these sections as part of the ODC Pilot Program (#70 and #71 respectively). In the current production, these two sections were altered slightly, the difference slight, but noticeable. Previously, both sections included video. This time, audio excerpts replaced the video in “Frustration” and only music accompanied “Defining Intelligence.” This change amplified the visual field of the dance and directed the audience toward the movements and dancers, creating more space to observe the kinetic relation between words and bodies.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

The inclusion of spoken word – live, audio, video – is not new in dance. Neither is research-based dance making. I admit this is an overly broad category. For example, Bay Area Artists such as Hope Mohr Dance, Keith Hennesy, Joe Goode, others often use words in their dance and performance works. So as I sat watching I kept thinking about the relationship between the audio recordings and the dancing. Why bring dance to these interviews? What (and how) does Mitchel’s choreography add to the concepts, questions, and reflections articulated by the audio recordings?

The first section, “Frustration,” as I noted in a previous response, “embodied and expressed the myriad ways frustration manifests – as small fits, exhaustion, isolation. The dance also served as a reminder that we are not alone, especially when it comes to learning and the structures that constrain that process.” The movements in this section amplified rather than duplicated the content of the interviews. For example, one dancer slowly moved backwards on their hands and feet – crawling – while the other dancers moved more freely, which highlighted the different paces at which people learn. This nuance, however, wasn’t always the case in other sections. 

In The Classroom, Mitchell included 4 sections titled after 4 students from the Urban School of San Francisco – Maia, Ben, Eloise, and Alexa. Each of these sections included recordings of those students talking about their experiences in school; they seemed to be reading essays that they wrote. The third one, “Eloise’s Reflection” really hit me as a teacher – the words overtook the stage and I didn’t notice much of the dancing. “Alexa’s Reflection,” 7th on the program, seemed to work better. Maybe because the spoken essay was more emotive and lively. Maybe because the choreography embodied more subtlety. This is the challenge when choreographing with spoken word  – not to be too literal or too abstract. The last piece on the program, “Recess,” while fun and playful didn’t bring us back to the dance’s messages about learning. Why end here? How does the concept or activity of recess offer us a conclusion? How does it send us out of the theater?

 

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

I want to close with a final reflection on audience. As a teacher and parent, I can relate to a lot of the content in The Classroom, but I’m not sure this dance was choreographed for me. Where does this dance belong? Who does it belong to? Mitchel already has an answer: “I think it would be cool to show this work in schools.” I don’t disagree and I hope that happens. The Classroom has a message that still seeks an audience. That audience, I have no doubt, is eager and waiting.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Lavender Country, April 25th Post: Ballet

Writing with Julian Carter

Post: Ballet’s Lavender Country is named after the first gay country band and album of the same title, released in 1973 and re-released in 2014. The ballet premiered in 2017 and returned to San Francisco’s ZSpace in April 2019. It’s 2.1 miles from ZSpace to the dance hall at 550 Barneveldt, where a thriving 20-year-old LGBT country-western dance community meets twice a week. Your $5 entrance fee includes access to lessons in two-step, country waltz, West Coast Swing and line-dancing; there’s a Two Left Feet Club for total beginners, Line Dance Pro for advanced dancers, and hours of open dancing. It’s home to a nationally respected line-dance choreographer and a competitive dance team. Each fall Sundance hosts the four-day Stompede, the largest gay country-western dance event in the world.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with Post:Ballet’s performance, the answer is not nearly enough. The show revolved around Patrick Haggerty, the original lead singer/songwriter on Lavender Country who performed in front of an energetic and skillful band while the Post:Ballet dancers moved in the dance space just below the band stage. Between songs, Haggerty spoke directly to the audience telling stories about coming out, talking with his father, losing friends to AIDS, finding a husband, and more. His performance of live memoir was often compelling—poignant and funny, and occasionally a little embarrassing in its earnest articulation of political visions now decades past their sell-by date. But neither the music nor the historical culture from which it sprang found reflection in the underwhelmingly generic movement.

Lavender Country looked like it was made by someone who lacked connection to the material and had no real interest in the technical challenges of building dance that speaks queer culture, sexuality, and politics—present or past. It showed little awareness of country-western dance and its traditional structures, rhythms, vocabulary or spirit. Haggerty’s music wasn’t originally made for dancing but it’s expressive and emotionally vivid. It’s also fun. Vanessa Thiessen’s choreography was not. Its affective and aesthetic flatness might explain why we found it difficult to stay connected with the dancing.  

We came to Lavender Country interested in how Post:Ballet would embody gay country-western music. We’d been investigating Rodeo (both de Mille and Peck versions) and talking about gender and race fantasies embedded in musical references to the American West. We thought Lavender Country might fuel our larger conversations about heteronormativity and whiteness in dance. That didn’t happen. In fact, we were unable to discern any real conceptual structure for the piece. We were especially puzzled by a cringe-worthy sequence to the song “To a Woman.” Haggerty explained that this love song was written and first performed by a lesbian member of the original band. Then all the musicians and five of the dancers left the stage, the lights went down, and a single dancer rolled and writhed on the floor to a recording from the original album. Even well-danced, it was difficult to imagine how this exaggerated and angst-ridden isolation could possibly express anything but resistance to desire and romance between women. Instead, it seemed to recycle the tired old assumption that lesbians die alone.

When we sat down to write this response we looked for other reviews of the dance from its 2017 premiere and found nothing. This seemed strange to us given the strong culture of queer dance and performance in the Bay Area. It left us wondering why this dance was overlooked by area dance writers. To us, this piece seemed in desperate need of post-performance reflection and thinking.  After the show, we talked with a number of LGBT people who were equally disappointed. A two-step dancer of many years told us that he felt two conflicting urges–one to let his critique rip, one not to badmouth–and reflected that both responses felt like they came from a gay place. A professional modern dancer disliked what he saw as inappropriately heteronormative pairing and asked how this composition could bill itself as radical in any way. And a relationship coach, who doesn’t have much experience with dance, asked in all innocence why nobody had pointed this was a bad idea. It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is larger than this review can hold.

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The After Party:  Lavender Country, ZSpace April 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

Reflecting on “Leaving the Atocha Station,” January 27, 2019

Choreography/Direction: Hope Mohr, in collaboration with the performers

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.

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Pre-Show January 2019. Photo Credit: M. LaVigne

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?

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Post-Show January 2019. Photo Credit: M.LaVigne

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’.”

Nov. 13th Aura Fischbeck Dance, “Dusk”

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

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.

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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

October 5th, “extreme lyric I”

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.

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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.

April 28, “Still Life No. 7”

Choreography by: Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

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.

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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.

  • Bodies on the floor.
  • Light from stage left creating shadows.
  • Synchronous feet and leg rocking.
  • There was often no sound and space between movements, which allowed time for catching up or reflecting.
  • Then I noticed the sound of the costumes rubbing on the floor and then sniffs, coughing. “Yep” and “yeah” seemed to say “it’s ok,” “I get you,” or “I am with you.” Here, life breathing into the abstract.
  • The repeating verbal nonsense (purple church, tractor, Trader Joe’s) reflected how the stories in our heads can keep us from finding pauses or stillness in the everyday.
  • Coming to the piano, signing at it but not playing it.
  • The film at the end directed the gaze, directing us to see the particularities of movement, bodies, costumes.

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.

PARAMODERNITIES: A SERIES OF DANCE EXPERIMENTS, NETTA YERUSHALMY ODC THEATER, FEB. 23RD

Installment #3 – A Conversation with Julian Carter, finis.

“Paramodernities #3: Afterlives of Slavery” A Response to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (1960)
M: For me, Thomas DeFrantz’s performative lecture was the central element in “Paramodernities #3: Revelations: The Afterlives of Slavery.” In my research and writing about repetition I’ve thought a lot about Revelations; it is the single most-repeated concert dance, done even more frequently than the Nutcracker. I have studied this piece for years (watching, reading, reflecting). Yet DeFrantz’s commentary allowed me to see its constant repetitions in a different way. For one, he gave me access to what it might feel like to dance Revelations. I am a white female body sitting in an audience but watching this performance I was able – for a moment – to be on the inside, and able to place myself differently in relation to the piece.

The movement vocabulary, performed by 5 dancers, visibly referred to and sometimes copied iconic moments in Ailey’s piece. For DeFrantz, the reason to repeat Revelations is not only that audiences expect it (which they do), but also that it needs to make its claims again and again in a world that continues to perpetuate racism in its social systems and philosophical thinking–and also in its performances. I was struck by DeFrantz’s explicit commentary on the pervasiveness of racism in dance performances, histories, and theories. Repeating Revelations lets African American bodies re-inhabit and reimagine spaces of black power. And Yerushalmy’s white body, performing these movements alongside Black-identified dancers Ayorinde, Engel-Adams, Gambucci, and Leichter, created a moment to consider Ailey’s role and legacy as the bearer of Blackness in modern dance.

How did you respond to “Paramodernities #3”?

J: Honestly I was blown away by it. We’ve been so busy digging into these dances we haven’t stopped to say how powerfully we responded to them–how much we loved this whole evening. Both of us wanted to go back the next night, and both of us are talking about making the pilgrimage to Jacob’s Pillow in August 2018 so we can watch the whole cycle. This is extraordinarily intelligent dance-making, deeply thought through and compellingly performed.

For me, the Ailey segment was the most viscerally powerful of the three dances we saw because its academic and kinetic components were most closely interwoven. Each of the other scholars had something rich to offer–I don’t mean to suggest that their contributions were insubstantial or unimportant. But DeFrantz is a performer as well as a scholar, and he entered his bodymind into the dance with a fullness and passion that made sparks fly.  

One comment he made in passing was that “slavery called for difference, in order to allow for an exploitation of energy as labor.” This resonates for me with your interest in repetition. Because one of the things Revelations does is enshrine Blackness in the white-dominant modern dance canon, it is always a performance of racial difference; and as concert dance, it exists in the transformation of energy into labor. Its celebration of a US Black creative tradition is also the repetition of enslavement’s wounding work. DeFrantz asked at one point whether that repetition is inevitable; I am not sure whether “Paramodernities #3” answers the question, but the question itself would seem to be what Yerushalmy and DeFrantz are driving at in subtitling this Paramodernity “The Afterlives of Slavery.”

M: The audience was asked to sit around the stage; we opted for the floor, others were in chairs and some stayed put. This closing in reflected a kind of intimacy that ran through all three of these Paramodernities. In #1 the audience lights were kept on, in #4 the dancers directly engaged us with questions, in #3 we were invited to frame the dance. Overall, I felt invited into a conversation. I wish the talkback at the end of the show was organized differently so that conversation could continue.

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There is much more to respond to “Paramodernities #3” – DeFrantz’s script; Yerushalmy’s dancing white body; the impact of the men dancers performing gestures from roles composed for women.Two weeks later we are still eager to continue this conversation! Yerushalmy’s work continues to resonate with us both. We haven’t really circled back to how modernity is articulated through these three Paramodernities, nor did we dig into ideas about gender, legacy, and sexuality that came up for both of us. For me this reflects how these dances don’t really seem quite “done.” They are alive–the task of reworking, refashioning, and reimagining is never really over.

Yerushalmy seems to agree–at least, Paramodernities continues at Jacob’s Pillow this August. I would welcome the opportunities to see these three dances again and continue our conversation. Perhaps that is the best way to end our conversation – a yearning for more watching and writing. Thanks for talking with me J!

J: Thank you so much for letting me play in your blogspace, Michelle!

 

Paramodernities: A Series of Dance Experiments, Netta Yerushalmy ODC Theater, Feb. 23rd

Installment #2 – A Conversation with Julian Carter Continued

“Paramodernities #4: An Inter-Body Event” A Response to Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest, Sounddance, Points in Space, Beach Birds (1968-1991)

M: Eventually, I want to talk about how modernity is articulated through all three of the Paramodernities we saw. It’s interesting that we can’t make the segments of the dance line up in our conversation about them. Everything we consider seems to take us forward, or back.

J:  Right. I like how this nonlinear quality in our response amplifies Yerushalmy’s complex construction of time. I also like your observation that history is a locational technology. It’s part of what I find both interesting and disjunctive about Yerushalmy’s beginning with Nijinsky: unlike Cunningham or Ailey–the other dance-makers she took apart for San Francisco audiences–Nijinsky’s movement isn’t part of routine training anymore, which is why she had to go to reconstructed work to get its components. The early twentieth-century modernist avant-garde habitus is the dance equivalent of an archaic dialect. From our moment it’s easy to confuse its archaism with its simple pastness. But in its moment this aesthetic was simultaneously “modern” and also intentionally “primitive.” Rite of Spring was in its time shocking in part because it refused to maintain a safely superior distance from an imagined cultural past in which white Europeans were not yet “civilized.” I thought about the Orientalist racial fantasies embedded in the sheer awkward angularity of Nijinsky’s choreography and wondered why the lecture text didn’t draw on postcolonial theory at all since it could imaginably help us think about the connection between dance and the specifically racial underpinnings of the nation-state and its imperial metastasizations. I see what you mean when you suggest that some of the theoretical themes of “Paramodernities #1” might have resurfaced in DeFrantz’s lecture in “Paramodernities #5” One way this happened in his explicit introduction of racism as the condition within which both dance and theory are made. But we’ll get back to that later.

At the end of “Paramodernity #1” Yerushalmy came downstage center and whipped out about 10 vertical jumps landing in that knock-kneed pigeon-toed stance: wonderful and terrifying, her evident athletic capacity no guarantee that her ligaments would put up with that abuse. The last word on the modern was recklessness. Maybe it was also despairing, and maybe that’s hindsight. In 1913 we didn’t know World War was coming. One, let alone two. In any case, the contemporary dancers of “Paramodernity #4” appeared from upstage while she sprang into the air. Their bodies seemed very much of our current moment. About the same height and equally elongated, the chief visual difference between them was that he wore a greenish shirt and hers was red; and she wore her hair natural, which made her silhouette resemble an upside-down exclamation mark. When did Yerushalmy’s more compact body leave the stage? Three readers came from the center of the house to thread their way between the dancers, taking the straightest line across the marly to sit against the back wall the way one might hang out in the studio watching a rehearsal.I felt as though I was somehow in or behind the mirror toward which the dancers were performing.

M: I felt a jump into “Paramodernity #4” – all of a sudden we were transported into 1960’s Cunningham-land. I wonder what the piece would have been like with music (at the end the dancers noted its absence due to some technical glitch). Their movements were very clear references or copies of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary, which they called their “dictionary.” I like this idea and wonder if encyclopedia might even be a better term. I’m recalling an essay by  Charles Van Dore, “The Idea of an Encyclopedia” (1962), which advocates for a rethinking of the American encyclopedia that is “dull” and unimaginative in its purpose. Van Dore proposes that encyclopedias “should create a synthesis where none is thought to be possible. It should carve a new order out of the chaos that has swept away the old. It should think of itself as an important – perhaps even the most important – tool for the reconstruction of a world that has meaning.” I am drawn to thinking about how “Paramodernity #4” created a “new” version and vision of Cunningham and what it teaches or instructs us about modern thinking. Aside from Cunningham’s place in dance history, what do his dances say about how to speak?

I’ve always felt that in a different version of my dance career I could have been a Cunningham dancer. There is something timeless about his movement for me, something that my body physically is drawn to.

J: I haven’t had that feeling– but it is interesting that from such different places we each had a sense of being solicited to join the performance. I also liked the movement dictionary–and I see what you mean about the encyclopedic element to Yerushalmy’s project. When the dancers demonstrated their dictionary they simultaneously described its classification system: here are the movements that bend to the left, and here are the movements that travel backward. I found it oddly charming that they kept executing new “entries” after they stopped naming them.

The other thing I responded to about “Paramodernity #4”  is its formal elegance, both spatial and conceptual. I appreciated how Claudia LaRocco paid tribute to Cunningham’s explorations of chance: she brought two other people onstage with her to read materials she hadn’t heard until they performed them next to her (a different pair performed their equally fresh and surprising texts the next night). The writers – both in their entry and in their little row at the back of the stage – seemed to me to do some of the work of a corps, strung out in a comparatively static row that provided a kind of counterpart to the continuous kinetic work the two soloists were doing.

M: “Paramodernity #4” had a meditative quality to it but seemed a little long, as if I could almost close my eyes for a minute and not miss anything. It is interesting to think of the speakers/writers as a kind of corps de ballet. The Ancient Greek chorus moved, spoke, and sang to help move the drama along. Why did words matter to creating “Paramodernity #4”? I’m not exactly sure what Yerushalmy was trying to do, yet I thought maybe the addition of the writers/speakers was an attempt at closing distance. One way I’ve thought about Cunningham choreography is how is large and distant it feels and looks: the reach of bodies in space, the vacant stage, large backdrops (e.g. in Pond’s Way). Even the dancers maintain steady and long gazes. So maybe the speech in the piece is an attempt at breaking up that Cunningham distance. At the end, the dancers came downstage to talk to the audience, prompting us to ask questions while they moved, which further broke this distance — we learned about how the movements felt and what the dancers were thinking. While all this speech enlivened the piece quite a bit, I’m not sure how much it added conceptually. Cunningham choreography, to me, always speaks for itself.

J: The meditative element you describe reminds me of an essay called “We Are All Very Anxious” that proposed the characteristic affect of the “postwar” US–when Cunningham was making the dances Yerushalmy worked with– was boredom. I don’t mean that as any kind of dig. When I’m teaching people how to go to live performance I explain that letting yourself drift is one of your available options, and noticing when and how that happens is part of the experience of audiencing, full of information both about the art and about you as the substance in which it lands. I tell them that the performance is what happens between artist and audience. That is why it’s usually theorized as ephemeral. Yet performance can also contain some traces of its own past, some information about the world in which the piece was made and the contours of past ephemeralities. That is, the way I drifted in response to  “Paramodernity #4” might reflect something about the specifically midcentury modernity to which it responds. When Cunningham’s movement speaks for itself, one of the things Yerushalmy has it say is that the present is all there is: and it stretches to fill every moment. This might be part of why at the end of the piece the dancers came downstage–to the same place that Yerushalmy did her knock-kneed jump sequence in fact–and repeated one phrase about 30 times while chatting with the audience.

I want to circle back to LaRocco’s opening observation that everybody calls Merce Merce, like calling Cher Cher. I found this distracting both because I don’t (I call him Cunningham, or Merce Cunningham–I know it’s old-fashioned of me but there’s something about presuming a right to social intimacy with strangers that rubs my feminist sensibilities wrong) and because we never revisited the themes of pop celebrity and feminine glamor that the comparison raised. Was LaRocco suggesting something about Cunningham’s gender? If so, was that a displaced acknowledging of his gayness? The suggestion flashed by and was gone, resurfacing only in the dancers’ later acknowledgment that Merce preserved standard gender roles for lifts and supports, while they undid these through the simple device of having the person we were supposed to receive as a woman learn the parts Cunningham choreographed for people we see as men. As though we can now, from our postmodern state of constant war, look back at the compositions of “postwar” modernity and make compensatory adjustments to Cunningham’s choreographic closet. As though his gayness weren’t an open secret then too. As though he needs us to recuperate his decision-making, the things he didn’t leave open to chance: who lifts, and who is lifted.

M: We haven’t touched on the questions Yerushalmy projected on the screen. These asked us to consider repetition, legitimacy, modernity, and racism. One of these–“Are the modernities of the body always white?”–was the starting point for “Paramodernities #3: the Aterlives of Slavery” A Response to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.