michael j. morris


Separate Panes

I compulsively suspend my “real work” to write and reflect about significant art and dance that I have seen. This morning I am aware of (almost to the point of anxiety) the stack of Labanotation projects to grade and the stack of books to read that have taken over my desk. And yet I feel compelled to give at least a little time to reflect on James Graham’s Separate Panes: An Installation and Site-Specific Dance Work that I had the opportunity to see last night.

Separate Panes constitutes the partial fulfillment of Graham’s MFA in Dance at the Ohio State University. The piece was staged (installed) in the former Sullivant Library in Sullivant Hall above and adjacent to the Department of Dance on OSU campus. Going in to the performance/installation, there were already fascinating issues at play concerning uninhabited, vacated spaces, the history of the space as a library sharing a building with dancing spaces, a building that was formerly a historical and archaeological museum. I think going in I was also interested in the choreography of the space, the traces of former movement, how that movement is or was choreographed by the architecture, and how that choreography would be reinforced/altered/activated/or resisted by the presence of this new artistic participation in the space.

At this point I would be remiss to not address the work of Nicole Bauguss in the space.

Bauguss quite simply transformed the space (less reductively, she both transformed and revealed the nature of the space in both simple and labor intensive ways), in collaboration with projected video work by Graham and lighting designer Dave Covey, with an expansive and nuanced installation in the reinhabited spaces. Materials included an intense variety of found/reclaimed materials (including window panes, doors, wooden furniture, hanging lights, an antique bath tub, tree branches, and, most notably, book pages). Bauguss artfully forged a through-line for the piece, offering material relationships between the dance material (initially occurring in separate spaces throughout the main floor of the library, and consolidating into the formerly main reception area for the finale), the video work, and the past and present condition of the space itself. Her installations were essential in formulating the atmospheric situation of the piece, and were the significant component in my perception of the work as “installation,” creating a tangible integration of the dancers into the space/architecture, and providing material structures by which the choreography of the audience’s movement in the space developed (trails of pages leading from one room to the next, bits of seeming debris serving as a kind of trail of breadcrumbs from one space to the next). In some spaces Bauguss made the space into something notably new while still referencing the history and condition of the space: in one room the viewer was met with veil upon veil of hanging paper airplanes made from former book pages, the presence of the pages seeming to reference the former library, the absence of the books/bindings seeming to reference the absence of this former use of the space, their hanging giving an almost ghostly, haunted quality to the room. In other places pages and paper airplanes were left almost like debris, drawing attention to the space, heightening my attention of my surroundings and the participation of the dancers in those surroundings. There were also little rewards in the details: not only were the various papers and pages (mostly from what seemed to be vintage dictionaries or encyclopedias) reclaimed and re-deployed in this installation, but they were altered with images printed on them: images of the dancers, of pomegranates, of other details from the space, etc. By adding her own details, she cultivated a sensitivity to the details of the space itself. Without writing a comparative essay situating Bauguss’ work, I will say that there were what I consider to be “Ann Hamilton” qualities throughout the work, specifically in the relationship of the materials to the history and current condition of the space, and the pairings of both dense collections of materials with carefully nuanced details, all creating a charged situation for performative exchange.
(you can read more about Bauguss’ process and view additional images of both her work and her documentation of the dancers in the space at her blog)

As for the dance performance aspect of the piece, I will say that I left feeling extremely overstimulated, vulnerable, and exposed, all of which might attest to the general success of the project. The dancers in the piece were: Erik Abbott-Main, Mair Culbreth (due to an injury that occurred during the Saturday matinee, Culbreth did not perform in the piece last night; Graham stepped in to dance her part), Katy Gilmore, Leigh Lotocki, and Carson Moody. There was a broad spectrum of movement quality in the work, from introspective, quiet movement that drew me into the immediate space and condition of the dancer, to intense, violent movement of bodies colliding into architectural structures and into one another. This spectrum from soft and quiet to violent collision was somewhere between kinesthetically and emotionally dismantling. It was human drama without the need for discernible narrative. Graham offers about the piece:

“Separate Panes is a site-specific work that follows five performer’s journeys through literal and figurative spaces of isolation and community. Is it an easy transition walking a solo path towards converging with someone else? In an Installation the audience is welcome to be among the art. The audience members have choices as to what they choose to look at, for how long, and in what proximity (up close or further back).”

These themes were definitely present in the movement/choreography, journeys charged with connotation and frameworks in which to construct meaning, but without heavy-handed manipulation of these structures to demand the articulation of a particular narrative. As I have mentioned throughout other posts on this blog, the work I appreciate the most act as agents of “the specificity of ambiguity.” Graham’s Separate Panes definitely operated within this paradigm for me, demonstrating itself as intensely and purely itself without needed to anchor itself to something immediately recognizable/classifiable, and as such made for an extremely rewarding experience. I had strong resonant/empathetic responses to so much of the work, specifically the proxemics of separation and collision (between body and structure, and body with body), and the unmediated nature of violent impact. I have attempted to articulate this aesthetic predilection of mine before, this fascination with the violent impact of bodies. It came up in the violence of my “I Like It Rough” solo in CoCo Loupe’s click here for slideshow or 6-8 character limit, and comes up constantly in the pairings and partnering in “Autumn Quartet.” I have expressed it before as a concern with the irreversibility of the action, and in its irreversibility, its “authenticity.”  Last night I kept thinking of the words “the unmediated nature of impact.” It is of course not entirely unmediated: the structures (columns, walls, windows, floor) interrupt and intervene in the trajectory of the body. But it is something about the body’s impact, the effect of the impact on the body . . . the risk of putting more energy into movement than the dancer can control, the relinquishing of control to the structure, to the space, to the other . . . setting something into motion that must be stopped by something/someone else. That is as articulate as I can be on the topic at the moment, but the persistence of this movement/way of moving throughout the piece was over-stimulating, moving, and specifically addressed my deep fascination with the implications of impact and the body. It contributed to a kind of polarity in the dancers’ relationship with the space, at moments softening into the walls as if for solace or comfort, and other time introducing this combat of collision.

[After I posted this earlier, I felt compelled to return and add in a bit more description of my experience of more specific details from my experience of the piece, especially in the roles of the performers. The demand to navigate my own path through the the piece was not a simple task; each dancer offered so much to my attention, and synthesized with their spaces to create the kind of ambiguous but incredibly specific situations/identities to which I alluded above. Sometimes the profundity of that situation was addictive and I could not pull myself away; other moments with other dancers were difficult to endure, not because of any failure on the part of the dancer, but because the atmosphere which she or he evoked was so particular and complete, it left little room for distance or escape. One such moment was very early on with Katy Gilmore in the High Street rotunda of the library. Gilmore is a captivating dancer, a remarkable technician of movement (this is a dancer with who I have regular classes), yet in this capacity these were not the qualities she brought to bear. She moved slowly, minutely along the rotunda walls, seeming to rub out the words that had been scribbled along them (the text was overwhelming, mostly phrases beginning with the words “my body is _____,” although I think there were additional quotations as well). The synthesis of her introspective, concentrated, and seemingly corrective actions with the scrawl of the text and the chill of the space provoked such a deep despair, I felt compelled to both lose myself there alongside her, or find escape into another space. I escaped to the room which Graham occupied, quietly folding paper airplanes along one wall of a vast room. In contrast, watching Abbott-Main became addictive. The compulsion and ferocity with which he struggled in his space, thrashing about on the floor, throwing his weight against columns and walls and windows, in a perfect counterpoint to moments of near stillness and a similar introspection as earlier exhibited by Gilmore, kept me inthralled. I think it also had to do with light, the warmth of the exterior light coming in through the window panes along one side of his room, the deeper orange of the lights in the next room, and a field of hanging battery-powered lanterns offered more of an invitation to exist within that space between solace and combat, in a way that the chilly light in the rotunda did not. The intensity with which Abbott-Main threw himself into his activity, punctuated with fleeting moments of near-control in which the precision and control of his training became demonstrative (fluid exchanges of weight into and out of the floor, flowing circularity from legs, up spine, out hand or head, etc.), and in contrast to moments of total retreat, was not something I easily left behind. I was also moved by the duet that unfolded between Leigh Lotocki and Carson Moody in the next room over (I say duet because that if how I wanted to view it, the tenuous possibility that there was a connection between these discrete isolated figures, the pull towards no longer being alone as each of the other dancing figure had been framed). The range of movement quality that they explored was similar, the extremes of near-stillness softening their weight into the structures of the architecture and the almost out-of-control actions of falling, flinging, reaching, etc. They eventually came to dance together, a pair, which was then added to Abbott-Main, making a trio. It became clear that Gilmore and Graham had coalesced into a duet as the five eventually made their way into the main space for the finale, the gradual movement from isolation to a society, a community, a struggle to be a tribe. It was in this large group finale that I experienced some of the most intense encounters with the dancer, particularly Graham. As I made my way into the central space, I chose to situate myself at a column on one side of the room. Shortly thereafter, Graham began interacting with this column, throwing his weight into it, struggling as if with it. The presence of struggle between the moving and the unmovable was persistent in the piece, but this was the closest I had been to it. Sitting there against the column with Graham throwing his weight into it only inches away, feeling the heat of him, the intensity of his breath, the slight reverberations of his actions in the solidity of the architecture, the way his movement stirred the air between us, I felt very close to something very sincere. I can’t speak for his experience, and I think it best to not assume the articulation/expression of the personal in the content of the presentational, but there was an honesty of action, a sincerity of a condition of struggling against the immovable, the impossible, that struggle somehow distinct from the struggle within the group itself . . . it was an intimate moment for me.]

Other themes that emerged for me between the dancing, the video work, and the installations of materials in the spaces were: an insistence on personal agency (the freedom of the viewer to move through the space as if a museum) amidst a series of structures to influence that agency (the anchoring of the dancers and videos in specific spaces, the trail of materials and light and sound from one to the other, the unfolding of the soundscore over time, etc.). This insistence on personal agency structured within the installation of the piece itself seemed to echo aspects of the “human drama” that I felt being addressed, specifically the freedom to come and go as one pleases. Even without reading specific narratives, I could not help but construct/recognize the mutability of the interpersonal relationships established in choreography, and this quality of “come and go as you please,” a kind of spatial/physical promiscuity, an ambivalence of attention, seemed to be demonstrated in the proxemics of the dancers and echoed in the insistence on “audience agency.” There was also a sense of insanity in isolation, something between cabin fever and inconsolable loneliness (I felt this most acutely in Katy Gilmore’s dancing of the rotunda space, amidst charcoal scribblings covering the walls, Erik Abbott-Main’s thrashing about the floor and walls and windows, like a caged bird, and James Graham’s almost obsessive repetition of making paper airplanes in the space already filled with hanging paper airplanes; there was a kind of insanity in the excess). I had a sense of insight into the private, personal practices of individuals left alone (this was perhaps most acute in the video of Abbott-Main alone in the bathroom, the video of Carson Moody alone in theater space, the nudity in both videos), thrown into harsh relief with the almost intrusive recognition that the “private” moments I was witnessing were not private at all, compromised by the invisible presence of the videographer and video editor. This tension of presence and absence was also persistent in my experience, of both the video work and the dancing in the space. There was a remove to the work, the dancers sometimes being incredibly close to the audience (there were moments in which I found myself only inches away from trashing, sweating, gasping bodies), but never fully acknowledging the presence of the spectator. This was echoed in the videos, the figure in the videos never directly addressing the camera/viewer. This lack of acknowledged viewership heightened the sense of privacy and almost voyeurism.

For all its intensity, the piece was not without the possibility of humor. At one point the soundscore (the soundscore for the piece was composed by Anthony Vine and was a pervasive contribution to the situation of the work) introduced a Justin Timberlake song. The dancers present (Abbott-Main, Lotocki, and Moody) moved slowly from one room to another, in an almost trance-like state of attention. The potential for humor was in the shift of the audience following them, a crowd moving slowly, as if blindly, mindlessly, to see where they would go and what would happen next, all underscored by the pop music. My connotations were mostly zombie related in that moment, watching the crowd as much if not more than I was watching the dancers, the choreographic manipulation of the spectators via the dancers and soundscore; it would not be difficult to parlay that into a fleeting commentary on the nature of popular culture.

Questions of gender came up for me throughout the piece, but most notably in the finale, in which all five dancers moved together in the large central space of the former library. There were several moments of boy/girl+boy/girl pairings, and a trio of all three men. These were not gender choices I would have expected, at which point I reminded myself that Graham was dancing the role of Mair Culbreth. Until last night’s performance, one of those girl/boy pairings was a girl/girl pair; the trio of three men was a trio of two men and a woman. And while questions of gender can’t be conflated with questions of sexuality, both came into play due to my familiarity with the dancers. The presence of gay and lesbian identities, the substitution of a gay man into the role previously danced by a lesbian woman, all created fascinating structures for the perception of individuals, pairings, and group dynamics.

Overall, I found Graham’s Separate Panes to be a great success, a moving address of spaces and human drama, richly supported and defined by its collaborative creative team of makers. It was rewarding to see work so expansive in its space and scope coming out of this department at this time.

Also, check out the nice article on Separate Panes in The Lantern.

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2 Comments so far
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I found the most “ghostly, haunted quality to the room” to be in the room that felt less manipulated. It was a room that I feel was removed from the rest of the instillation. It didn’t have things that didn’t belong: Hanging window panes, books on the walls, pictures. The room just had backpacks and a box of graham crackers. It wasn’t until I walked into this room that I understood the isolation and sadness.

I think there is something that Graham brought out by understanding an audience’s lens of dance. In the beginning I was going ‘crazy’ just waiting for something to happen. And having to walk through the rooms and having a sense that I was going to miss something made me even more anxious- the cabin fever you discussed.

And when ‘Cry Me A River’ came on I laughed. then I watched the group of people following the trio slowly into the next room. I felt anger at this body of people because there were so many doors to go through so I went around a different way, but I suppose it doesn’t matter because I still ended up in the same place as them.

-EPF

Comment by epfalck

Sorry I’m just now making the time to respond. Not that your comment necessitated a response, but I am always thrilled when these posts provoke some sort of further dialogue/exchange/time spent with the event.

I came to the same room with bags and shoes and crackers. I almost immediately walked out and thought to myself, “Oh, that’s not part of the piece.” Then I went back in. The door was open, the lights were on, why wasn’t I to consider it? It felt a bit like a confessional, a space of mediation between the “remove” of the performers’ lack of acknowledgement of the spectators and they as I know them, their “real-people-ness.” They were absent from the empty room, but I was left with evidence, and the opportunity to discover that evidence. A far less mediated reflection of what was taking place.

In considering the lens, I agree. It was as if through the almost glacial crescendo towards the frantic/frenetic, I as a viewer was lulled into that same state of trapped-ness, cabin fever, etc. I felt like the installation work was offered as at least a partial remedy for this provocation towards a kind of insanity. With very little “dance” to look at, I was being given the opportunity to engage with the other materials, the details of the space, the architecture, the videos, all of which contributed to the inevitable unfolding of further movement. I became saturated with these additional elements, and when the movement finally exploded (in a sense), it was then being perceived within the incredibly specific space with which I had become acquainted. If the action had unfolded more readily, my perception of the space/installation, and thus the movements /dancers themselves, would have been different, perhaps profoundly so.

The fear of missing something– Yes, I felt that this was getting at something extremely existential (I feel this about most work that demands choice on the part of the viewer; in reality we are always making choices/selections/arbitration with our attention; work like this foregrounds this condition, I feel). It forces us to confront out finiteness, it demands that we take responsibility for our path. It might be seen as an education or elucidation of living. We may move through such an experience with agitation, anxiety, resignation, etc., but the way in which we experience the necessity of our own agency (and its interplay with the organizing structures of the piece itself) becomes part of the experience that we are being asked to consider.

And your last paragraph– I think there is something about a frustration with conformity there. And yet no matter our path, we still all found ourselves watching that particular trio in that particular space. We could have considered anything else in that moment, and yet we found ourselves amassed together. I think there is an interesting address of the tension between a non-conformist ‘spirit,’ and finding our own ‘choices’ still implementing us in a collective.

Thank you for giving me more opportunity to mine my experience of this beautiful work.
-M

Comment by morrismichaelj




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