Bridge Project

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.


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?