Julian Carter

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

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

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

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

How did you respond to “Paramodernities #3”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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? 

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.

July 20, “Lolas,” Ryan Tacata

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.

Lolas

sketch by Julian Carter

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.