Counterpulse

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

Guest Blog Post by Megan Nicely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Last post of 2018/First post of 2019

One of the last dance performances I saw in 2018 was Performing Diaspora 2018 at Counterpulse featuring choreography by Cynthia Ling Lee and Melissa Lewis (with Kim Ip and Nina Wu). It was an exceptional way to end a year of watching and writing dance. I was grateful to learn about the Santa Cruz, CA Chinatowns and Chinese labor camps that existed between 1860-1955 in Lee’s Lost Chinatowns. The layers were sometimes hard to see through, but some points resonated – the value of testimony, community, and memory. I couldn’t help but think about my grandmother, my Oma. She immigrated to the U.S. after WWII with my 7-year old Mother. How did she manage to make a home and find a place after the atrocities of war? Then I thought about how much she never talked about that time and how many stories get lost – the unspeakability of things.

It seemed fitting for the evening to end with I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father. It was poignant and funny, thoughtful and fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect (I explicitly avoided the KQED review of the piece before seeing the show). As part of the Performing Diaspora Residency at CounterPulse, I suspected this piece would be about racial identity in some way. Race was part of the conversation, but it didn’t dominate, which allowed for Lewis, Ip, and Wu to dig deeper into issues of ancestry, identity, and longing. Part dance, part theater, part movie set the pieces of  I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father added up – the dancing amplified the content along with the costume changes, karaoke singing, and spoken word. I didn’t get lost or wander too far.

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I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father, CounterPulse December 2018. Photo Credit: Robbie Sweeny

This multimedia, and multimodal piece asked the audience to consider the past as part of how we are now, in the present. What are the lineages that keep us moving, keep us asking not only who we are but who we hope to be? This inquiry, as played out by the dancers, is serious and also humorous. Writing for KQED, Gluckstern claims the piece “doesn’t lead to a greater revelation of the persistence of outmoded stereotypes.” I noticed that too, but that criticism didn’t linger for me. What lingered for me were questions about ancestry and a longing for connections between parts of ourselves that we don’t know to connect or wish we could do better.

As I walked out into the night, I thought about what I long and hope for. I can’t think of a better way to end 2018 and begin 2019.

 

First Show of 2017 – How to Write?

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

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

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

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

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

December 16th, “future friend/ships”

 

By Keith Hennessy and Jassem Hindi, with lighting designer Dennis Döscher

Last post of 2016 

I arrived at Counterpulse early and picked up the December issue of indance. On the last page was an article penned by Hennessy and Hindi about future friend/ships.  They started with this quote:

“Irony is about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method.

– Donna Haraway, First test space monkey

In their article, Hennessy and Hindi identify their research practice as “ironical” and aim for the dance to “host otherness.” As hosts, Hennessey and Hindi welcomed us on stage before we took our seats and the lights dimmed. As we walked around the stage, we were asked to look at the photos (“a partial tarot deck”) scattered around and sample food they offered on trays. This opening did resonate with the theme of hospitality that they claim “is the name of [their] game.” Later in the piece, they also invited the audience to view the tarot cards again as Hennessey and Hindi passed them through the audience. It left like we were in someone’s living room (the fabric curtain and costumes added to this effect).Another thread that became clear from the “performance/installation/science fiction salon” was the idea of Arab Futurism. A quick google search didn’t reveal much on this emerging genre (?) in contemporary art.

With all this mind, my response attempts to sort out what all this might mean in the context of what occurred (and what I noticed) on stage. In order to do so, I found myself reading through the performance zine and digging into literature about irony.

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When my friend sat down next to me, I turned to her and said, “this is a dance about language.” Reflecting back, I still think this claim captures this piece as whole for me. It is easy to point out the tangible textual elements of the performance such as the use of spoken word and its written manifesto. This piece is also about making, tinkering, and fashioning. In addition to the text, Hennessy and Hindi “made” sound and props, which seemed to fit with their directive to imagine and transform the future. The future made visible in “future friend/ships” is not yet sorted out – the tarot deck isn’t complete, the drones didn’t really work that well, and the dance movement unrefined. When Hennessy and Hindi danced their bodies moved as if they forgotten how to “dance.” They tried out steps (I noticed grande jeté en tournants and temps levé sauté), arms dangled, and bodies dropped to the floor. This movement suggested a kind of scratching-your-head-thinking, which for me is the work of language, which can be thought as a form of making or even invention. All of this might serve to remind us that making the future requires some forgetting, a forgetting that stretches out and strives for possibility.

The ironic nature of “future friend/ships” eludes me, and I wonder if the logic of irony – its movement of strategic reversal can be danced. Hennessy and Hindi might answer yes. I, however, am still wondering, which seems an appropriate way to conclude 2016.

September 22th, “The Way You Look (at me) Tonight”

Choreographed by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis

First a little thank you note:

Thank you for moving to a point to tenderness and offering a moment to reflect on how we come to love (each other). Thank you for offering emotional exchanges about bodies, looking, and feeling. Thank you for trying to speak differently about how seeing and not seeing difference matters.

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The program notes frame the piece as a “social sculpture – a sensory journey for two performers and audience…[that asks] important questions about our habits and practices of perceiving each other and the world.” For the most part, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight stays within this frame. Cunningham and Curtis move their bodies and words to confront the sometimes uncomfortable spaces between the perceptions of others and ourselves. They navigate and narrate their own experiences with disability, age, and sexuality, reminding the audience that how we look at others has consequences and that as Diana Taylor says in her book, Performance, looking can be fraught, even risky (79). 

Cunningham dances with remarkable ease (and strength); her crutches are extensions of her body that move with precision and grace. At one point Curtis lies on the floor while Cunningham walks on him with the full weight of her body. During this sequence, Alva Noë’s pre-recorded voice (the philosopher consultant) voice thinks out loud about what he is seeing. I found this to be an unnecessary interruption. Honestly, I don’t really care what Noë saw or what he thought about what he saw, and felt it contradictory to the participatory frame of the piece.

Perception is not just about the eyes and The Way You Look (at me) Tonight examines that by showing us different ways of looking and sensing each other. I think this dance has the potential for genuine learning. I even modified their “game” of peripheral fluctuation, where you keep people in your peripheral vision without directly looking at them, for one of my classes. It really got us talking about how much we are able to see, and how often we chose to not see. I can envision how this dance could be taught alongside texts that aim to explore cultural difference, rhetorical listening, and the politics of perception.  

90 minutes without an intermission is a lot to ask, but I was still happy to go home thinking about love.   

May 26th, “10th Anniversary Home Season”

Little Seismic Dance Company, Choreography by Katie Faulkner

Sometimes it’s hard to write about a choreographer or a dancer you know.  Other times it’s easy, and this evening one of those times.  I’ve known Faulkner since 2007; we met shortly after I moved to San Francisco.  I was always struck by her generous spirit and playful sense of humor, which were on stunning display Thursday night.

Aptly titled “Deep Field,” a solo performed by Faulkner, was an embodiment of profound reflection about a history of process and a particular field of communication.  The sonic and visual landscape by Michael Trigilio and Heather Stockton respectively amplified the autobiographical nature that Faulkner so clearly danced.  Even without the choreographer’s note, Faulkner’s movements spoke – each gesture, glance, vibration – from the inside out.  It was personal, but relatable – a clarity of telling that I could feel in my bones.

“Coat of Arms” induced small bursts of laughter from the audience – a kind of seismic response.  The subtle gazes and slight gestures performed with such stunning precision created a witty duet that reflected the universal quirk of relationships.

The last piece, “Don’t Worry Baby,” was harder to grasp, harder to feel.  It was more sculptural than the other pieces and as a result it felt different.  While superbly danced the piece for me seemed a little distant or disconnected somehow.

Faulkner closed her choreographers note “with gratitude,” and that is how I felt at the end of the evening.  I left the theater with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for Faulkner’s choreographic vision and courage to put so much of herself on stage. It was an honor that I can’t wait to repeat.

April 19th, “Sarah (the smuggler)”

Choreographed by Sara Shelton Mann in collaboration with Keith Hennessy

What if I don’t get it?

I haven’t seen it yet, but I read a little bit about the background on this piece.  I must admit to some hesitation.  Does it matter if I know the history or Mann’s story? 

After seeing the piece, here are my reflections:

Moving history – Moving self

A beautiful exercise in present-ness

Archive/Study/Repeating Differently

Energy – energetic

Great words

I didn’t get the whole of the piece, but I came away with something. Sometimes dance makers/collaborators make dance for themselves or small “select audiences” (take a look at Hennessy’s interview).  I get that as a process, and yet I don’t get it.  I wonder how many in the audience had seen or worked with Mann before?

March 7th, “Age and Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note”

Choreographed by Miguel Gutierrez

I didn’t know much about this show going in except for the email from ConterPulse warning me of strong odors during the show, including fingernail polish.  I was kind of disappointed that fingernail polish was the only strong odor.  Gutierrez gave his program notes live in which he mentioned that the piece had 3 titles (note: this is similar what Keith Hennessy did for “Bear/Skin“; a trend I like).  I have to disagree Gutierrez.  I think there is only one title, but it is juicy one especially if you feel like geeking out on his use of a colon and backslash.  He also mentioned some dance theory, which I appreciated because I am a geek about that too. But I think he was right, you didn’t need to know the theory in order to get something out of the performance.

The piece began with two men – one in a women’s pink bathing suit, stocky build – the other a skinny white boy dressed in baggy white workout clothes.  They danced the same movement for about 15 minutes to Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie.  It was oddly superb.  There was nothing to focus on except the juxtaposition between these two different bodies.  It could’ve been longer; I wanted it to be longer.  In fact, this section of the dance is the only part that really stuck with me (yes, even more than when Miguel’s face was in Mickey’s balls).  It might be due to the fact that I found the later part of the piece a little too self-indulgent.  So I choose to stay connected to what resonated.  I appreciated the commitment to that level of technical repetition and how it directed my attention toward the sameness and difference of these two (moving) bodies.  How could it be that a skinny white boy moved “the same” as a chunky latino?  What does this say about bodies and how we see them?  Why don’t we see sameness in difference?  I enjoyed being led to these questions and would be keen for more.