michael j. morris


Chalk Boundaries

Today I had the opportunity to see Dante Brown‘s new work in progress Chalk Boundaries, presented as part of the Wexner Center for the Arts “Super Sunday” event. The piece was presented as a response to, or illustration of, the images and expressions of masculine identity being shown in the Wexner’s new exhibition, Hard Targets, including work by artists such as Catherine Opie, Paul Pfeiffer, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and many others.

To begin with, I have had overarching concerns surrounding this term “masculinity.” It is a term that implies qualities that are typical or characteristic of men, or maleness. Because I question the essentialization of ideas like “man” or “male,” I am immediately wary of demonstrations of typicalities or characteristics of these broad categories. While I don’t have time to author or recount a treatise of the complexities of gendered identity (although I recommend Judith Butler, among others), I wanted to offer that as my disclaimer: from the start, the stated subject matter of this exhibition provokes questions concerning the viability/discursive limitations of such language/ideas.

In looking at Brown’s piece, my immediate reaction was how well developed and well rehearsed it is for a work in progress that has only been in process for approximately five weeks. I found its vocabulary to be intriguing and well developed, its overall movement qualities pervasive amongst the cast of five men, and its structural qualities (such as its use of space, groupings of individuals, the interplay between unison and partnering, all very contrapuntal) rewarding to my attention.

Thematically, I appreciated the nuanced demonstration of several facets of “masculine” identity. It is not exhaustive in its exploration of the nature of “masculine” identity, the nature of maleness, or what it is that makes this a cast of five men (besides their presumable identification as such; if I did not know these dancers, I would be less prone to make this presumption). Yet the facets of “masculinity” that it does demonstrate are articulated with a mix of subtlety and referentiality that bordered on caricature: aggression/domination, weakness/softness, and mediation between these. These qualities are demonstrated abstractly throughout the eight-to-nine minute piece in its forms and movement qualities, but are offered rather literally in an brief “scene” partway through the piece: one dancer, Chafin Seymor, turns and advances aggressively towards another dancer, Quentin Burley, who retreats across the space with lightness and softness. Seymor’s aggressive gestures, looming over Burley, eventually pressures Burley to the floor. At the point, another dancer, Eric Nordstrom, intervenes, grasping Seymor from behind while making gentle “Shhh” sounds, as if persuading Seymor to calm down and control his agression. There may be potential for reading symbolic references to power dynamics derived from who is on top and who is on bottom throughout this exchange, however, it reads most readily as a fairly literal demonstration of what I perceived as the aspects of “masculinity” being considered throughout the piece. On first viewing, after digesting my awe at the choreographic development of the work, I felt resistant to this limited consideration. I think that I felt narrowness in the spectrum of “masculinity” being demonstrated. I questioned the absence of sensuality, sexuality, and fluidity in what I was seeing. I wanted to also be presented with “masculinity” that might be classed as “femininity,” and be forced to reconcile the “uncharacteristically masculine” as the male body. So much of the vocabulary of the piece, while absolutely stunning to watch, stays in the polar spaces of strong, heavy, and direct, with punctuations of lightness, softness, and indirectness. The power of most of the movement, the strength of its execution, and the profound contrast between it and the softer moments was all captivating, a pleasure to witness. And yet I felt a desire to see more along this spectrum, demonstrations that were not so immediate in their contrast, so specifically recognizable in their qualities or potential references/meanings. I wanted to see attraction, investigation, and discovery between these bodies, not only camaraderie, aggression, and conflict.  And yet, by the third time I saw the piece, I began to appreciate the somewhat reductive, limited depictions of “masculinity” as part of the provocation of the work. The piece was shown twice today, and I had the privilege of seeing a rehearsal of the piece last week. Between today’s showings, I took time to peruse the Hard Targets exhibit. While that exhibit deserves a response all its own, I felt that there is an education in ways of looking offered through the collection of work. I was specifically moved by photographs by Catherine Opie and Collier Schorr, both offering portraits and action shots of young male athletes engaged in game play or standing in uniform. I was struck by the near life-size-ness of the photographs, and the extremely reflectiveness of the glass behind which they were displayed. I saw the silhouette of my person superimposed in their work, juxtaposed with their subjects. Just as I was being shown a forthright portrait of these young male athletes, I was being reminded of myself, my own presence before the image, and I felt the draw towards comparison. How did I see or know myself in situation with the image being presented to me? How was my stance different from the stance of the boy depicted, or perhaps more interestingly, how was it the same? What parts of myself/how I know or consider myself did I not see reflected in the figure I was being shown? These kind of questions were recurrent for me throughout Hard Targets. I identify as male, and yet I find very little of my “maleness” depicted in the work being exhibited. Yet because of that exclusion/omission, I became even more aware of those qualities. This was the way of looking that I brought to Brown’s piece on my third viewing: despite the fact that the ways of being male being demonstrated in the piece felt incomplete and not representative of my own maleness, or perhaps even because of this disparity, those qualities or attributes within myself were brought more profoundly into my awareness. I felt my softness respond to the hardness of the action, I felt my attraction to the male dancing bodies in the absence of attraction being demonstrated between them. I cannot help but feeling that this self-reflexivity becomes implicit in the piece itself. In a post-modern age in which authorship, authority, and meaning are being questioned, reconsidered, and redefined by post-structuralism, it seems even more evident that the experience provoked within the viewer, the meaning that I then in turn attribute to my experience of the work, becomes a part of the work itself.

I think it is important to acknowledge the specificity of the language I am using to discuss this piece. I saw it very much as a demonstration of aspects of “masculine” identity. I did not experience it as a definition or redefinition of “masculinity,” nor an exploration or investigation of the validity and viability of these aspects. This demonstrative quality, which I think is pervasive in the Hard Targets exhibit itself, insists on reflexivity. Just as I stood before a Catherine Opie photograph and came to examine or understand myself in the context of that image, I was provoked to examine myself and bring forward my own expressions/understanding/experience of “masculinity” in the context of Chalk Boundaries. This, I think, was a strength in the work.

I feel it is necessary to destabilize the potentially simplistic re-presentation of Brown’s piece that I seem to be establishing. To be clear, the piece is not without nuance or subtlety. While it has moments of literality, it is primarily an abstract piece with room for interpretation and ambiguity. I think the brief theatricality of the “aggressor scene” between Seymor, Burley, and Nordstrom serves to anchor the abstraction and ambiguity to those more literal references, but it is still a choice to consider it in such a way. There are nuanced exchanges between bodies, hands and chests reaching towards, moving away, avoiding, and circling back towards. While the overall qualities of “masculinity” depicted in the piece seem very recognizable and relatively fixed, it seems clear that the relationships or connections between these “fixed” bodily identities are characterized by hesitation, uncertainty, and brevity. There are deliciously subtle moments, such as a trio of men sitting together loosely slumping into one another, each one being caught and supported by the others. This is not the central action of that moment, but adds depth and counterpoint to the more spectacular partnering taking place at the center of the space (being danced beautifully by Brown and Mike Abbatiello). There is a wonderful shift in tone when all five dancers move from rebounding standing-forward-folds into sniffing the air attentively and moving abruptly, animalistically, as if on the scent of prey. This moment dovetails smoothly into an extremely literal and somewhat surreal reference to sports (football, I believe), with one dancer, Nordstrom, calling out “Down! Set! Go!” “Go!” seems to morph into “Goal!” or “Girl!” This was rewardingly ambiguous enunciation, calling into question the difference or sameness between going, goal, and girl. When I heard “Girl!” the men were immediately recontextualized, especially if “Girl!” might be confused with “Goal!” In naming that which is apparently absent, the female in the crowd of male, that which inscribes “maleness” becomes situated outside of the male himself, outside of the male individual, and at least partially with the object or Other, potentially even the object of desire (if one is to relate the sniffing to to “Goal!/Girl!”). Suddenly “male” is so at least in part because it is distinct from “female.” This is not the only moment in which “masculine” definition seems at least partially arbitrated by an “other.” Throughout the piece there are moments of looking, watching, gazing, men looking at men, and in doing so raising a question of that which is established, reinforced, or problematized by the gaze. What does one man see as he looks at another? Just as I found my perception of myself and my own “masculinity” brought up by watching this dance, how does each of these men come to recognize and define themselves as men through their looking?

The piece as it now ends seems to offer a glimpse of its own resistance to these somewhat simplistic reductions of “masculinity.” After collapsing before other four dancers, Burley springs up into a position I read as definitively “Peter Pan”-esque. By introducing this image, the boy who adamantly refused to grow up to be a man, this maleness seems to be challenged. It reminds me of a quote I have used in the sound score for the piece I am currently making, taken from Tommy Midas in “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality.” He says:

“I definitely identify as queer, I definitely identify as a boy. I hate that, like, ‘man’ word. It’s really gross to me. I feel like there’s a separate, like, gender for, like, ‘boy.’”

The “Peter Pan” pose seems to echo this sentiment. Subsequently, each of the dancers move into postures or poses that seem synonymous with “posturing” and “posing,” a kind of pretense of “masculinity.” The stability of these forms decay as legs appear to become weak or unable to support the weight of the form. The dancers make their way off of the stage in a sequence of posing and collapsing, offering what I perceive to be one hint at questioning the viability of these “masculine” forms. The final moment of the piece leaves Brown alone on stage, walking slowly and carefully, bouncing in each step as if to question its stability. It is a moment of concern and uncertainty, and while it may not immediately offer alternative expressions of “masculine” identity, it definitely calls into question the stability of the preceding depictions.

Being a work in progress, it feels appropriate to have questions for the piece, for how it might develop or evolve. When discussing any work, especially finished work, I hesitate to discuss choices or possibilities beyond that which has been crafted by the choreographer/artist. Too often I think the critical responses to dance/art orbit what else it could have been rather than giving critical attention to what it is. However, having address my experience of the work as it is, I have several lingering questions: To what degree does body type determine role? In the literal moment between Seymor and Burley, why is the long, slender, elegant man the one retreating? Why is he not the aggressor? How might this situation be reinvestigated/subverted if the expected roles (based on body type, etc.) were subverted? While I found a fulfilling experience in echoing within myself the aspects of “masculinity” absent in this demonstration, what are ways in which other less predictable, less archetypal, aspects of male identity might be shown? Perhaps these are not only questions to this piece itself, but more broadly to dance works that address gender (and, in a sense, all dance works address gender), and to the experience of perceiving, negotiating, and demonstrating oneself as gendered. What are our assumptions, how might those assumptions be subverted, and what new, perhaps ambiguous or unfamiliar, perceptions might we discover in subverting our own assumptions?

Overall, I find Chalk Boundaries to be extremely successful. It is provocative, well developed, well executed, and a beautiful accompaniment to the Hard Targets exhibition.

You can see footage of Brown’s rehearsal process on his blog or here:

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5 Comments so far
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[…] Michael Morris already presented a blog about this subject and it really encompasses most of what I experienced slash witnessed and then some- Chalk Boundaries […]

Pingback by La Danse « Pardon My Mistakes

This post has given me great feedback to continue to develop and address some of the questions that you bring up. I felt that I did not touch on sexuality in a manner in which I think this piece needs to and I’ve noticed my assignment of body types to certain movement qualities. Those are two things in particular that I want to continue to think about and develop as I continue in this process. Thanks so much for your writing and helping me continue to grow as a choreographer.

Dante

Comment by dnbdance

[…] Wexner Center for the Arts’ Super Sunday event. I will post a more thorough experience soon. Michael Morris and Eric Falck have already posted great responses to their experience of the work that has helped […]

Pingback by Reflection After Sleep. For Now, Images. « DnB Dance

[…] Mershon Auditorium this past weekend (FREE! by the way) but you can read all about it, right now on Michael J. Morris’ Blog and on Dante Brown’s […]

Pingback by CBUS Dance is Happening NOW: sweet saturation « From One Foot to the Other

[…] demonstrated a final incarnation of a piece long in the works. I had the opportunity to see and write about an all-male version of this piece in February, and the piece has grown immensely since then. In addition to having a cast of variously gendered […]

Pingback by 2010 Spring Concert (Extravaganza) « Betwixt Thee and Me Let There Be Truth




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