Choreography: Nol Simonse with Christy Funsch
A Conversation with Sima Belmar
ML: I must admit that you piqued my interest by your description of the dance on Facebook: “Relational unison. Rising up from demi plié so so slowly. Reindeer.” So I convinced a friend to go with me Sunday night and was not disappointed – I laughed, I wondered, I breathed. Nol was Nol and Christy was Christy and together they were so very delightful. The ease of movement and elongated phrasing was satisfying to watch. I really felt invited into a conversation.
SB: I’m so glad! When Nol and Christy danced the same phrase together, they had this way of looking at each other and expressing different feelings about what they were doing that made me think of relational unison (nod to Bourriaud). I hadn’t seen Christy dance in well over a decade and I was absolutely captivated by her performance. So clear and strong and humble all at once, as if her Christyness were going along for the ride, her ego in retreat, looking in from some distance at the wonder of choreography.
ML: I saw Christy dance last November and was struck by her dancing. A year later, I am still captivated by how she moves. When Nol and Christy danced the same phrase I was struck by the “same but different” quality of their movements – even in sameness there is difference and in difference we can find sameness. I noticed this kind of interplay throughout the piece and appreciated the honesty that sat behind it: we are not all the same, but we can try to understand how our differences might allow for connection or even change. I really enjoyed when Nol tried to copy Christy’s heaving breathing pattern. He couldn’t quite do it right; Christy noticed with a careful gaze, touched him with her finger and Nol melted to ground with a yelp. It was funny and touching to watch the exchange of emotion.
SB: I felt a visceral response of understanding or recognition when, in a couple of instances, Nol touched Christy in ways that she seemed to dislike. A blush of distaste flickered across her face. I’ve never been great at contact in dance, not just contact improv, but any kind of contact. It makes me flinch. Christy’s flinches were choreographed in ways that resonated with me. She’s such a subtle performer, balancing Nol’s more blatant theatricality.
ML: Maybe that is what made this piece so relatable. Its choreography as a reflection of dancers as dancers. The night I went I am pretty sure the audience was mostly dancers and choreographers. What does that mean to the relate-ability of the piece? Would this piece be felt in the same way with an audience of non-dancers?
SB: I’m not sure. I’ve given up on worrying about whether a dance will be relatable to non-dancers. I go into performances with my dance nerd hat on every time. I’m looking very closely at the movement. I’m trying some of it out in my mind, feeling through the technical aspects and trying to understand why something abstract and small, the twitch of a finger, the low-flying sweep of radically extended leg, moves me so profoundly. Nol and Christy made me attend to their movements and to the craft of choreography so that even when I zoned out a bit, like when the brick-laying section went on longer than I could be present for, I was eager to return to their world. Every movement mattered, kinesthetic poetry.
ML: Sometimes I get a little caught up in the audience question – sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Putting aside the audience questions (which is really more a larger question about the dance scene in the Bay Area), “The Beauty & Ruin of Friends and Bodies” was touching and funny. I realized that it had been a while since I laughed out loud while watching dance. I think we all need to laugh more these days.
Thanks for talking with me Sima!
Kate Weare Company
“Marksman” premiered at the Joyce Theater in November 2016 and features an original score by Curtis Robert Macdonald and set design by Clifford Ross. Its ideas began, however, in a 2015 piece titled “Unstruck.” As the title suggests, “Marksman” exhibited a meticulous focus and energy; the precision of movements reflected the skilled quality of a marksman. The dancers always hit their marks and their eyes kept steady gazes. Within this technical precision, the dancers respond and react to each other with simple gestures, group lifts, and articulate patterns. The organic nature of the movements seem to represent a social dynamic, yet the music and set seem to suggest a natural world that could be described as otherworldly, earthy, or watery. Where are they? It was fun to work on this question through out the 50 minute piece.
In the program notes (and elsewhere), Weare explains that part of the impetus for “Marksman” was her own experience in giving birth: “But after giving birth I felt my willfulness transform. I understood, finally, that I am an instrument of nature and not in control of it.”
This point, about willfulness, is key to how I understand “Marksman” as a giving way of willfulness to others. In a world that seems consumed by “likes” and “retweets,” are we losing sight of how we physically connect and respond to others (at work, on the bus, in lines)? How can dance remind us that we might need to do a little bit of “giving up” in order to be in community with others?
In Mind, Self, and Society, George Mead stated the following:
No hard-and-fast line can be drawn between our own selves and the selves of others, since out own selves exist and enter as such into our experience only in so far as the selves of others exist and enter as such into our experience also.”
Given hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, the terrorist bombing in Mogadishu and ongoing fires in Northern California, the lesson of willfulness in relation to others seems pertinent. We not only need each other, but also develop with each other. Sometimes that needing requires that we not only respond to others, but also be more open to where those responses might take us. Maybe we need a little less control and a little more attention to the visceral energies that pass between us while at work, on the bus, or in lines.
Choreography by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group
As is often the case, I didn’t know much about the piece before sitting down to the show. The stage was wide open and littered with silver tinsel; a red suitcase sat among it.
The title obviously placed the dance in the context Moses’s story. The title also hints that there is more than one Moses, more than one version of the story. At the beginning, Wilson enters the stage and smiles a the audience for a while. He almost seems to chuckle. He then proceeds to put all of the tinsel into the red suitcase (I was truly surprised that it all fit) and then rolls the luggage off stage. I’m still not sure what meant – a kind of labor? A clearing or cleansing of the space? Would Wilson smile at us again? These were not the last of my questions.
As the dance progressed, I became struck by the endurance of the dancing and the commitment of repetition within the choreography. They seemed to be working through a set of ideas or questions. It almost seemed as if there could be no “end” to the piece. The music (both taped and live) placed the Moses story within another context of African struggles and the African diaspora. These layers of context added to the depth of the piece. Yet, I wasn’t sure what that depth was. This question still lingered even after the talk with Wilson and the performers after the show. The program suggests that the piece is “a powerful investigation of the nature of leadership – who leads? who follows? – in contemporary culture.”
Who was this piece for? The dancers? Wilson? Any audience member? I didn’t feel spoken to. I wonder what it might be like to have a talk before the show as part of the experience of watching.
Choreography by Amy Sweiwert; Larry Arrington with Sandra Lawson-Ndu and Minoosh Zomorodinia; and Fog Beast
I’ve been looking forward to this evening of dance since YBCA announced its lineup for Transform Fest – 7 choreographers responding to the question “Why Citizenship?” According to Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chief of Program and Pedagogy at YBCA, “The curation of the festival is intended to reveal our artists as accountable agents in service of civic impact.” This claim merits further investigation in relation to the dance works presented so I will come back to it later. It frames the pieces on the program in a very particular (and rhetorical) way, which I found problematic for several reasons.
Walking into the YBCA lobby around 7:15 the energy was palpable. A group of people were sitting at a large table engaged in a pre-performance talk of some kind. Small groups were forming and others were exploring the Tania Bruguera, “Talking to Power / Hablándole al Poder” exhibit on the first-floor gallery. We were not allowed into the Forum space until performance time (about 8 pm). Just before the doors opened, Marc Bamuthi Joseph grabbed a microphone and welcomed us to the evening; it was odd as usually these remarks are made after entering. He informed us there would be one intermission and that the audience could expect to participate and be asked to move around. So in we went.
The Forum is a large room in which various kinds of seating had been arranged so you never know what to expect. By the time I entered the performance space, the only seating left for my two friends and I were foam cubes – they were not comfortable. In addition to these foam cubes, which framed part of the space, there were short stools on wheels placed in front of regular chairs on bleachers. After the first 40-45 minute piece by Fog Beast and an intermission, we moved and were able to sit in regular chairs. I think some folks left (I noticed that Marc Bamuthi Joseph did). I was surprised that no one warned the audience that some of the seating options could be difficult for those with mobility challenges or injuries. I was also surprised that the printed program for the evening was not listed in correct order. Usually, there is a supplemental insert or an announcement when something deviates from the printed program. These are some of the initial reasons I didn’t feel tended to as an audience member.
The three pieces on the program were framed by the question “Why Citizenship?” in different ways: reconsidering the past; exploring its connotations; challenging the present; addressing incongruity. Fog Beast, “He’s One of Us,” began the evening with a little satire. The audience was segregated into “conference attendees,” “citizens,” and “honored supporters” by Patricia West, the conference M.C. The other dancer, who was the keynote speaker, reminded us of the importance of success, privilege, networking, and belonging. This world is all about words. The dancers then shifted into a different world – one of movement and little words. I couldn’t quite grasp the message here or how this world related to the conference. Was it meant to reflect some aspects of our social life – the shifting between two different ways of being or thinking? As a result, the witty satire didn’t seem to go far enough. How might we find our way out of or around the current state of our “conference.” What other ways of living do we need to remember or recover?
I was eager for Larry Arrington’s collaboration, “Opia,” with Sandra Lawson-Ndu and Minoosh Zomorodinia, in part because I had seen Arrington’s work in the past. Arrington started with a poem of sorts. I didn’t catch all the words but understood that rather than assert an answer to “Why Citizenship?” the piece enters through the question through the back door. Arrington’s backward movements of crawling on hands and knees and tiny bourrees reflected this impetus. There was stitching, searching, and reflecting of fabrics, lights, and sound. It was at times hard to see and at other times hard to follow, but I didn’t mind too much. “Opia” was kind of dream-like and as a response to the question of why citizenship the piece suggests that maybe it is a myth, a wish, a desire. Citizenship is yet to be fully realized but perhaps we can glimpse it in our dreams.
The last piece by Amy Seiwert “The Degree to Which you are Free,” started with a white costumed duet followed by a group dressed in black that danced to protest songs inspired by acts of protest such as “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” About half-way into the piece Seiwert talked about “Danger of Speaking,” a dance she choreographed for Austin Ballet in 2011, which was not without controversy. Seiwert talked about it as her “first experience with censorship.” These three different elements seemed oddly connected and I couldn’t quite figure out what Seiwert was trying to articulate about citizenship.
Did these 3 dances answer the question of “Why citizenship?” either individually or collectively? I’m not so sure.
Was the evening just another night out at YBCA? Perhaps.
I had ample conversation with others after the show but on my way home couldn’t help revisiting Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s claim about the festival: “The curation of the festival is intended to reveal our artists as accountable agents in service of civic impact.” To me, this claim suggests that the pieces on the program would be advocating for change or engaging in civic participation. As an audience member, I do not see how these artists felt themselves as “accountable” in “the service of civic impact.” Do the messages of these dances have an impact outside of the YBCA Forum? Are these artists accountable for something other than what happens on the stage?
In his program notes, Marc Bamuthi Joseph goes on: “The question at the center of this work appears to be rhetorical, but the stakes of our social landscape don’t afford us the luxury of witness without personal implication.” As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric, I find this sentence problematic. It suggests that rhetoric is not part of our social landscape. It suggests that rhetoric is a bystander in the work of change. It suggests that rhetoric involves actors (or rhetors) that are not implicated in what they say (or do). Rhetoric is an art of potential – it is a way of being the world that aims for change. It doesn’t always aim for the “right” kind of change and it doesn’t always achieve the change it intends. Rhetoric does indeed matter, and to suggest that art is somehow different from (or above) rhetoric seems to miss the valuable connections that could be made by engaging with dance as a sometimes rhetorical art.
Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter
The 2017 NOW festival events are presented in REDCAT, a decent size black box theater with a fancy lobby. It’s on the ground floor underneath a major symphony hall (the Disney, natch) and across the street from the Broad Museum of contemporary art—a top-notch address if you judge by the neighbors, and a space making some architectural claims about its place in the art world. The promotional materials on the REDCAT website reinforce the message that we are supposed to sit up and prepare to be impressed. But that’s not why we went. We’re in LA for the weekend and our host, who is deep in the LA dance scene, wanted to come. He had to be downtown anyway to meet a young person he knows through the LA LGBTQ center’s mentorship program, and also out of personal loyalty to choreographers Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacías. He explains they’re a transcontinental couple, which means they almost never get to work together, and he wants to support their collaboration.
I agreed to tag along because I am interested in my friend’s mentorship relationship, and also because Nelson has a reputation as a truly marvelous teacher. I’m a touch ambivalent about a second piece on the program called “Butch Ballet.” My host is dreading it rather but I have some hope that its maker might be a person I met at a dance event last year and liked very much. I don’t quite recognize the choreographer’s name, but it all adds up to mean there is a consistent element of queer sociality and community in this outing. Before the show begins we’ve already agree to leave before the third piece on the program. We drove down from SF this morning, we’re too tired to stay out late, and the description suggests it’s going to be very loud.
Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacías, “C.”
The piece opens with what turns out to be its strongest gesture: the two men springing softly into low, travelling hops with their feet in parallel at hip distance and their arms loose. These carry them around the stage in a sequence of loose squares, their feet landing first slightly in front of them, then to the sides and the back. Their feet create a satisfyingly steady 4:4 drumming as they land in emphatic unison on ONE, and more softly on the two-three-four, before their legs swing forward again to mark the downbeat.
The stage is black and bare save for a large screen on which is projected a 20 minute timer and an abstract pattern in green with some movement in it. There is also a potted plant hanging from the flies on a wire. This simplicity gives me a moment to appreciate that Jeremy has a remarkably fluid hop, his legs swinging underneath him with a powerful soft economy. Two stage hands—slender white men in black—come on and dress the stage with white furniture: a table, three chairs, a standing lamp—then leave again along lines apparently dictated by economy: the shortest route on, the shortest route off. The dancers stop their rhythmic bouncing, carry the objects offstage along the same efficient routes, and resume their soft explorations. The audience appreciates this with a laughter that I share. Everyone recognizes the collision of tasks and the need to clear a space for concentration. The stagehands return and repeat. The dancers repeat and return. There is no laughter this time. I normally like repetition and am curious to see how the choreographic relationship between these two contrasting kinds of task-based movement might develop; but it doesn’t get a chance. The music changes, the image on screen morphs into a blue sky with clouds, and the men stop bouncing.
To my mind, the piece could have, and perhaps should have, concluded at any point in this opening passage. The screen got darker and developed menacing imagery. The soundscape got louder and more aggressive. Clouds. Bombs. Fire. Contentious voices talking about God and hell and being an intellectual. For all the intensity of the material, the actual movement got less and less interesting to look at, in a way that made me think they were being deliberately anti-spectacular. I tried to get interested in that but failed. The dancers never connected with one another or with the objects on the set. There were some small exceptions: Jeremy hovered in the act of being about to sit on one of the chairs, for a few almost supernatural seconds that could well have been extended; at another point Luis moved the table just in time to catch a second plant that came hurtling down from the flies and landed with a thud. At the end they turned away from the house and fiddled with devices that lit a pile of vinyl upstage. The glowing result was partially projected onto one corner of the large screen. It seemed possible that there was a technical difficulty that prevented full projection, but since the pile was not very interesting to look at, I didn’t particularly miss its enlarged 2D version.
My notes scribbled on the program say: “it’s a good thing Nelson is such an accomplished mover” and “the less pedestrian the less interesting.” It’s true. The long passages of dance-y movement (in a generic kind of downtown NYC postmodern vocabulary) were so abstract that I found myself longing for the combination of intentionality and a simpler movement. I would happily watch Nelson brush his teeth, but I could not care about this dance. These artists have sufficient sophistication about the craft of making dances that they brought the thing to a close by returning to that initial springing bounce—this time while banging on small saucepans with sticks—yet the ABA’ structure wasn’t enough to justify the fifteen minutes in between. It looked to me as though the conceptual project of the collaboration had been allowed to take over the stage, with the result that any nascent aesthetic or affective communication with the audience got lost.
Gina Young, “Butch Ballet.”
In contrast, the limited charm of the second piece derived from its absence of polished craft, which made abundant room for the performance of identity earnestness and affective bonding between audience and performers. Here spectacle attempted to compensate for lack of craft and what appeared to be lack of intention about whatever craft was at the choreographer’s disposal. Five butches—or was that 4 butches and a transman? Or two butches, a transman, a lesbian and a nonbinary person? Or…
Anyway, five more or less butch people moved through a series of vignettes “about” female masculinity. Or so the program notes told me. There was bonding in a locker room; competition in a bar; playing video games as an inarticulate form of post-breakup emotional support; a swim party apparently intended to answer the perennial question of what a butch can wear to the beach; building a campfire; and three vintage dyke anthems, two of which were sung live and well. The little dramas seemed to suggest that the essence of female masculinity is an oscillation between competition and companionship with other butches. The exception came in the most developed vignette, which featured a large pink purse on a high table center stage. One butch began cooing to it to please hold her keys, then her phone and her this and her that; the others came out to add requests to hold notebook, pen, glasses, butch tears, fragile masculinity. The punchline: all the butches say “Can you hold all that?” and walk off.
The performers all seemed to be in their 20s, which might have something to do both with the ADHD pacing of the vignettes and with why my middle-aged companions and I felt a bit protective of them despite our boredom. We were also embarrassed, and even a little indignant. Out of kindness, we wanted to be generous; and equally out of kindness, we wanted to urge them to more rigor. But this wasn’t the place where we could have that conversation. As my friend hissed in my ear, “This isn’t Highways!”—that is, REDCAT isn’t a safe venue for queer identity work; and besides, in decades of going out we have seen this done infinitely better literally dozens of times, in community performace spaces where real creative risk-taking can land well. It was genuinely disappointing to see these people literally half my age repeating the same damn moves I and my peers made decades ago, with very minor development, despite the growth of institutional supports like the LGBT mentorship program that brought us to the neighborhood of this event in the first place, and the material and cultural resources that allow this performance to be staged in this expensive and prestigious space.
And yet at the end there was a rush of warmth from the audience, a sincerity of applause, that startled me for a fraction of a second before I recognized its inevitability. This again is something I’ve seen again and again since the 1980s: the overvaluation of predictable performance because it offers gender-minority bodies live on stage. Such offerings in queer spaces are risky because they so often rely on mobilizing a universal “we” that is easily exploded with simple questions about whose subjectivity, whose experience, whose embodiment is being offered as a mirror to the audience. And in straight venues, they risk presenting queer and trans modes of embodiment as tidbits for consumption in a way that leaves me both sad and mildly offended.
But beyond the question of presumptive audience, which is after all not entirely under the choreographer’s control, “Butch Ballet” displayed a disappointing lack of attention to the history and craft of making performances. Between several vignettes there was connective tissue provided by quotations from ballet class that seem to have been intended to highlight the performers’ butchness by presenting them in a situation conventionally associated with femininity. What it actually did for me was highlight Gina Young’s lack of thoughtful engagement either with choreographic technique or with the dancers’ actual individual capacities: several of these people were interesting to watch in different and potentially intriguing ways, none of which were drawn out for the audience to witness. For instance, in the vignette about inarticulate yet effective forms of emotional support between butch friends, one performer slouched onstage, took a seat on a bench facing us, and settled into a spinal C-curve to play an imaginary video game. The calm authority and naturalness of this posture were utterly persuasive, so that for a moment the audience got to be inside the screen, our attention focused on the competent grace of the hands extended toward us, manipulating imaginary Gameboy controls. But this performance had no interest in exploring task-based competency and the beauty it can create, preferring instead to imagine “dance” as ballet and ballet as a synonym for an outmoded system of gender discipline.
By the time “Butch Ballet” was done I was deeply relieved that we’d already agreed to leave before the third piece. Two weeks later, I’m still wondering about the imbalance between the resources that support the NOW festival at REDCAT and the quality of the arts experience we were offered. The REDCAT website is full of claims about fostering dialogue, yet the only connection I could find between the two pieces I watched was that one eschewed narrative and downplayed spectacle while the other relied entirely on those tools. Surely there’s a way to support experimental work by emerging artists while also curating potentially meaningful conversations.
I’ve started to work with collaborators on this blog. I posted the first one a few weeks ago. I look forward to sharing this space with others that are watching and writing dance. I guess I need to write an editorial policy — more on that soon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the next guest post.
Yes, it’s been some time, but I do have plans. Here are the shows I have tickets to thus far. As always I look forward to watching and writing.
September 16th Transform Fest, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery & Arrington/Lawson Ndu/Zomorodinia & Fogbeast at YBCA
September 24th Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group at Zellerbach Hall
October 5th Kate Weare, “Marksman” at ODC Theater
November 3rd – 13th Hope Mohr, Bridge Project at Counterpulse and Joe Goode Annex
December 9th Camille A. Brown, “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play“ at Zellerbach Playhouse
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.
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.
“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.
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.