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.

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

Installment #1 – A Conversation with Julian Carter

Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project brought Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities to San Francisco. Yerushalmy describes this work as a “meditation on modernism.” These dance experiments are generated through “systematically deconstructing landmark modern dance choreographies” that are “performed alongside contributions by scholars from different fields in the humanities, who situate these iconic works within the larger project of modernity.” Paramodernities explores foundational tenets of modern discourse – such as sovereignty, race, feminism, and nihilism – and includes public discussions as integral parts of each installment.

I was lucky to watch this dance alongside Julian Carter, who graciously accepted an invitation to have a “diablog post” with me. Because we have a lot to say about Paramodernities, this will be a series of 3 installments on each of the three dance experiments.

“Paramodernities #1: The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred” A Response to Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913)

J: “Paramodernities #1” opened with a scenario you might find in any number of contemporary art spaces: a youngish man, sitting at a white AV table slightly to one side of a large white screen a few feet away. Over the speakers, we heard him say “I am sitting on a stage operating a cassette tape recorder. These are my words, but this is not my voice.” Then he stopped the tape, rewound it, and pushed play again–four times.

This repetition points to nonspontaneity and repetition are and nonlinear temporality as core themes of this work. When Netta Yerushalmy entered she was almost unobtrusive, energetically coiled into herself, hopping and shuffling in highly deliberate but uncommunicative patterns: a huge stomping circle, a triplet of small vertical jumps, a sideways scuttle with the head tilted to one side and framed by the forearms. After she’d been dancing for a minute the recorded voice told us “Netta will dance movements she did not invent.” She was moving more or less in place, parallel with the theorist-sound guy-person, between the table and the screen; here she repeated a short movement sequence while he described her compositional process, in which she extracts vocabulary from dances and reassembles its elements. Something about this sequence seemed like a microcosm of the piece. Yerushalmy kept returning to her in-between place – neither authentic nor innovative, neither organic nor technologically avant-garde, neither reverent nor skeptical about the past. Right from the beginning, Netta enacted a version of modernity that simultaneously mobilizes and questions many of its core premises and assumptions.

Netta Yerushalmy. Paramodernities, ODC Theater, San Francisco, 23 February, 2018. Photo: Michelle LaVige

Some such distancing may inhere in the performance of vintage choreography. These movements (Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring) were composed 105 years ago, and they manifest a relation to the modern that isn’t part of any living dancer’s active cultural repertoire. But where reconstructed dances typically devote themselves to accuracy, this one is more interested in its non-approximate identical intimacy with remobilization of its source material. While Netta carved herself into shapes like those Nijinsky used to make, the projected images of Descartes with Queen Christina gave way to engravings of Leviathan and we were treated to a lecture on the overlapping history of ballet and the modern nation-state. Was the scholarly performance part of the mimicry of the modern, where mimicry is understood as repetition-with-a-difference? If so, I could have used a little more weight on the difference side. Nijinsky’s transformation of ballet in Sacre shows us that the geometry of rationalized space can be radically reimagined, and all dancers know that space can’t be separated from time; so why leave the smooth path of Western political and intellectual history uninterrogated? I was disappointed that the textual aspects of the performance treated the linear sequence of European political and intellectual history as immune to creative recombination; I’m ready for some formal innovation there. Given the rigorous examination of multiple temporalities in the rest of the performance, it seemed sad to ask the past to keep on bearing the sober burden of the Real.

One additional observation before I hand this over to you: keeping the house lights up the whole time was an interesting choice. I wonder whether that’s part of why we didn’t cuddle up the way we usually do while we watch dance together? There’s something about sitting in the dark that makes such intimacy seem easier. With the house lights up, I’m more alert in the work of audiencing and less likely to retreat into dreaminess or to let myself drift here and there. My boyfriend said it made him feel like he was with the performance more than at the performance.

M: The lights for me were also an interesting choice – as if we were looked at as much as we were looking at the performers or as if we were in a lecture hall instead of a theater. It made sense given Yerushalmy’s framing of these pieces as “dance experiments.” They might not “belong” in a darkened theater. During the talk-back, Yerushalmy acknowledged using Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Rite of Spring to develop her movement vocabulary. She seemed a little shy about this admission; I wonder why. Is it because there is no “true” Rite of Spring to deconstruct and rework? Even the Joffrey Ballet version, which was impressively researched, involved speculation and estimation.

To me, “Paramodernities #1” seemed to reflect back to us, show us, that history (dance or otherwise) is a practice of thinking about where we are. The use of an old slide projector and cassette player was smart — it played with the possibility that the past is not fully past and that the old can be made anew. I was struck by the repeating nature of Yerushalmy’s posture. The carriage of her body was rigid; it seemed hard for her to bend in certain ways. Her arms flexed sharply at the elbows toward her abdomen and her legs bent inward, making her knees knock and her feet pigeon-toed. This posture created a restricted and strained quality in her movement; how much could she actually move? While she danced around the space, sometimes flat-footed and other times in a turned-in relevé, she kept repeating the same vocabulary in different directions. After a while the phrases began to suggest (even embody) Stravinsky’s music. It was as though Yerushalmy’s movements were serving as a kind of score. The history of Nijinsky’s dance is unavoidably tied to the history of the score so it’s interesting that “Paramodernities #1” didn’t need the music. I found the lecture that overlapped with Yerushalmy’s dancing to be a little fragmented. Were some of those historical and conceptual threads picked up later in Thomas DeFrantz’s lecture, or in the speaker/writers that Yerushalmy incorporated into Paramodernities #4″ somehow? Does it matter? 

I’ve Been Watching

First Performances of 2018.  

Another slow start. I have yet to process all the dance from 2017. I saw a lot and wrote a little less. I did an interview, had a conversation, and invited a guest writer. I had fun.

My first show of 2018 was back in January. I caught Fresh Festival Performance Weekend #2 at the Joe Good Annex with choreography by Gerald Casel and Keith Hennessy; Sara Shelton Mann; Rachael Dichter and Allie Hankins. It’s interesting to look back – what do I remember? What lingers? Here are two lingering memories:

In” A Dance in a Theatre” Keith Hennessy kept all his clothes on!

Loved the refrain at the end of “FramesFrames/The Revolving Door II” by Mann. It was a satisfying repeating of song and movement that brought some of the audience on the stage – I couldn’t help but smile.

I also snuck in A.C.T.’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I loved all of it – the acting, storytelling, the humor. I didn’t mind being out past my bedtime. 

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December 22nd, “Nutcracker” Washington Ballet

Choreography by Septime Webre

I took my daughter to her first Nutcracker. I’ve lost track of how many different versions I’ve seen or danced. I have not lost track of my growing fascination with it as a repeating feature of U.S. dance culture (that will have to wait until next year).

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This time, it was enough for me to watch my daughter be enthralled with the dancing toy soldiers and the swirling snow scene. It was aptly “D.C.” with cardinals instead of ribbon candy and dancing cherry blossoms. It had many kids and a local celebrity. It had nutcrackers and more for sale in the lobby. The tradition continues.

For now, that is about all I have to say about the Nutcracker.

October 29th, “The Beauty & Ruin of Friends and Bodies”

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!

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October 5th, “Marksman” at ODC Theater

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.

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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.  

September 23rd, “Moses(es)”

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.

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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.

September 16th, Transform Fest at YBCA

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.

Audience

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. File_000 (31)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.

Dances

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.

Curation

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.

August 10, New Original Works Festival at REDCAT, L.A.

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.

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Screen Shot Retrieved on 8/30: https://www.redcat.org/event/now-festival-2017-week-three

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.