michael j. morris


Reflections on Dance Downtown: The Event that Comes After the Event

Last night I had the opportunity to see “Remix Culture: OSU Dance Downtown” at the Riffe Center’s Capital Theatre. There’s another show tonight, and I highly recommend it.

Although I hardly have the time for such an endeavor, I feel a strong conviction to spend more time with this experience. So often we simply view/experience art/dance (life) and just keep moving forward. While there is certainly something to be said for being fully situated in the present, I also feel the need to process how these incredibly significant experiences live with/in me. This is not the first time I have written about a dance performance or art exhibit; it won’t be the last. These are not reviews or even critiques. They are an opportunity for me to reflect on my experience, give space for it to live and sink in and develop into something more particular in which to live. I post it here on my blog as a way of sharing that reflection.

While this should be obvious, this writing is not a telling of what happened in this show. It is not even a description of the dances, per se. It is more accurately a reflection on my own experience, constructed within my perceptual experience from the materials provided by the performance itself. There is nothing authoritative, “accurate,” or “inaccurate” about this writing. It is simply a record of my experience, and it is as such that I offer it to you.

The concert began with Michael Kelly Bruce’s new work entitled Sinuous Moonlight. The rewards of this piece included the energy of the dancers, the swishy, swooping, almost sultry quality to the overall body attitude of the work, the transparency of the dance as a dance, and the persistent (but not heavy-handed) potential homoeroticism of the choreography. Bruce worked with a cast of incredible dancers (this could actually be a blanket statement for the entire concert; Dance Downtown was, as a whole, an exhilarating demonstration of exceptional dancing and dancers), and the spectacular spectrum of their unique abilities seemed to be a through-line in the piece, exemplified perhaps most specifically in Erik Abbott-Main’s expert performance of hula-hooping in the second section of the dance. The second section began with Abbott-Main’s entrance and the descent of a light-up hula hoop from the ceiling to the immediate elation of the audience. I appreciated the opportunity that the hula hoop (and hula hooper) provided for multiple readings: it could be a symbol, a metaphor, signifying some more esoteric content; or it could function as an absurdist device, throwing the internal logic of the piece into a tailspin; or it could simply be an element of spectacle, something purely for fun and entertainment. One of my favorite moments of the evening occurred during this section. During Abbott-Main’s hula-hooping, a second male dancer (Daniel Holt) entered the space, gazing at Abbott-Main. In a pricelessly (potentially) homoerotic moment, Holt (in a low lunge) rhythmically thrusts his hips while watching Abbott-Main (topless) touch himself sensually, hula-hooping all the while. It was not heavy handed, and I suppose there could be multiple readings of this particular moment, but I took pleasure in seeing what could be blatantly homoerotic content on a Columbus dance stage. This was not the only potentially homoerotic content in the piece: male-male partnering was throughout, as was female-female partnering. On the surface this could simply be “homo-social” (not necessarily homosexual) demonstrations, but situated in a long history of partnering connoting intimate relations (supported by the lyric content: “But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance/Let’s face the music and dance,” “If you say run, I’ll run with you/If you say hide, we’ll hide/Because my love for you/Would break my heart in two,” Peggie Lee talking about falling “head over heels in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world;” the lyrics provided a setting in which romance/sexuality could easily be at the surface of any reading), I simply offer that if one were to look for homoerotic demonstrations in the work, there was a plethora of choreographic content from which to construct such a reading.

In a lovely gesture of reflexivity, the dance was performed on an exposed stage space: no wings, no cyc, lighting instruments clearly exposed, ladders and scaffolding providing “set” pieces. Another recurring lyrical theme throughout the soundscore was “dance” (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Let’s Dance,” “Is That All There Is?  . . . If that’s all there is friends, let’s keep dancing”). The exposure of the stage space seemed to be a further acknowledgement that it’s “just dance,” an exposure of the reality of the situation, a spectacle without illusionism, perhaps inviting the viewer to consider the spectacular in the mundane, or perhaps offering an endorsement of the particularly spectacular quality of the “mundane” activity of dance. This reflexive frame was a successful lens through which to give attention to the activity of dancing itself, without necessarily looking for meaning beyond the dance, without speculating as to the mystery of theatricality, and to find simple pleasure in the energy and unique virtuosity of this particular ensemble of dancers.

Ming-Lung Yang presented a new work entitled No Trace. It was one of the most elegant group pieces I have seen in quite a while. My initial experience with the performance, I must confess, had mostly to do with the costumes. I work as an assistant to Mary Yaw McMullen, the costume designer/director for the department, and thus I have spent a significant investment of time, energy, and attention in these costumes. The basic forms for the women were grey chiffon kimonos, accented with colorful fabrics. From the first entrance of a female dancer (I believe this was Amanda Byers), when she spread her arms and the floor length sleeves trailed in the air, I started to cry. My sense of pleasure can be incredibly simple: sometimes chiffon carried on the air is all it takes.

But beneath the costumes was the dance. Thoughts that linger with me are an almost unthinkable precision, an attention to personal/individual detail that created a flawless support for a macro composition that was somehow equal parts simple and complex, a fluid interplay between weightiness and lightness, and a recurring sensation of “How did we get here?” The movement, transitions, and partnering were of such an expertly crafted and cleanly practiced nature that I constantly found myself witnessing arrivals with no clear sense of how the dancers came to be in such positions/formations/configurations. I think this is a mark of truly great craftsmanship.

The most rewarding aspects of this dance were the seemingly impossible fluidity and ease of the partnering and delicate subversion of a gendered logic within the movement vocabulary. The partnering was some of the most weightless partnering I have ever witnessed. The ease with which one body’s weight merged into the support of another was almost imperceptible (contributing to that sense of “How did we get here?”). On a kinesthetic level, this was one of the brightest gems of this piece. Second was the subversion of the dance’s own gendered logic. From the onset of the piece, there seemed to be a clearly gendered nature of the movement: the men moved with strength, groundedness, and weight; the women moved quickly, lightly, skimming across the stage (although still with a sense of moving through the earth rather than on top of it?). I thought of the Laban association of the feminine with the light and buoyant, the masculine with the weighted and grounded. And this gendered vocabulary was fairly consistent throughout the first half of the piece. But then I began to recognize the gentle subversions of this explicit binary: the lightness of the men as they danced with one another, the strength and groundedness as the women lifted the men, the implication of a fluidity across these vocabularies, and perhaps, by extension, across genders. The binary was never fully subverted (it was particularly concrete in the toplessness of the men, and the uniform tank-tops on the women; the costumes reinforced a binary that was never dissolved), but these subtle subversions added to the elegance of the work.

I had a one extremely particular experience while watching Ming’s dance. I had the honor of sitting next to David Gordon (of the Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union) last night at the concert. During a duet performed by Kathryn Vickers and Meredith Hurst, I was struck by the way that Vickers moves, immediately recollecting the way that Abigail Yager (Ming’s wife and technique instructor at OSU, formerly of the Trisha Brown Company) moves, which recalls Trisha Brown and the Judson period. It echoed my experience of dancing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, and I took delight in relating Vickers’ movement with my Trio A experience. I suddenly came upon the realization/recollection that David Gordon, next to whom I was seated, danced in the premiere of Trio A in 1966 as part of The Mind is a Muscle, Part 1. I felt like a puddle of myself, in awe of the intersubjective space between Vickers, my association of her movement with my experience of Trio A, my knowledge of Gordon and the decades that his body has known the dance with which I was making this association. It was a rare experience, completely unique, yet deeply enriching my experience of Ming’s dance.

Esther Baker-Tarpaga premiered a new work entitled Down the Road, which also marked the premiere of its newly commissioned musical score (performed live) by Olivier Tarpaga and Michael Wall. This piece offers an intense emotional landscape of personal histories, family, physicality, and community. Last year I had the opportunity to hear Esther give a research presentation in which she discussed her choreography and video dance practices. She said of her choreography that it really emerged from the unique situations of who she was with and where she was at. In this post-modern dance era in which movement is constantly sourced from dancers, I can be extremely skeptical of this description of creative process. Often work that is described as emergent from the particularities of the dancers turns out to be without compositional cohesion, a watered-down stream of disparate movement vocabularies repeated ad nauseam alongside and amidst the phrases generated by other dancers. This was not my experience of Esther’s piece; she offered an exemplary model of the rich possibilities of sourcing individual contributions from a unique cast of dancers crafted into a cohesive compositional form. This piece found a particular (as opposed to the non-particularity that can be a danger to this kind of work) expression crafted very much in between and from these individual offerings.

The piece ran the gamut of movement from stillness to frenzy, fluidity to violence. It was grounded and wide; the partnering was rewarding in its obvious impacts, collisions, yanking, etc. I might range into the realm of interpretation and meaning making (fully acknowledging that this meaning is entirely my own, constructed from the materials provided by the dance/dancers) and say that an arching theme for this piece has to do with pulling together and pulling apart, the (sometimes violent, sometimes tender) tensions of individual identities and cohesive community. I was left with the social/cultural/physical/personal question of how we are to cultivate/maintain a community that acknowledges and speaks its difference, its diversity, while committing to co-existence, collaboration, cohesion (even punctuated by collision). I might suggest that this sense of unity with disparity was reinforced by formal elements within the work: the wedding of live music (produced by two very different musicians) with live dance; the (stunning) costumes that articulated individuality in form while adhering to a narrow, unifying palette of reds, burgundies, and pinks; the weaving of spoken text into movement without a sense of unnecessary interruption. But beyond this particular thematic interpretation, there was exceptional reward in the intensity of the dancers’ energy, the power of the physical expressions, the tension between their strength and abandon. Esther succeeded in the difficult task of creating a richly meaningful dance articulated through powerful dancing, bringing together dynamic disparity into a demonstration of the potential for unity.

Bebe Miller’s new work entitled How to Remember left me without words. Last night I actually asserted that I don’t know how anyone writes about Bebe’s work. It is so constantly shifting, continually transforming and becoming and re-becoming and re-becoming. As soon as I move to take note of what I have perceived it to be, it changes into something else, sometimes something reasonably adjacent, sometimes (more often) into something completely unexpected. This is what I consistently experience as the utter brilliance of Bebe’s choreography, it’s ability to adhere to itself as a composition, iterating its own kind of internal logic, while never exactly assuming or displaying itself as a concrete, recognizable identity. This piece expertly demonstrated this particular brand of brilliance, and it left me stunned.

And so here I find myself, attempting to put words to an experience that I already appreciate as presumable ineffable. I don’t know how to articulate my experience. But, as I hope to elucidate, the retelling of the piece seems to be necessary, an implicit request from the piece itself for a furthered understanding of itself.

One of the profundities of How to Remember is its many points of access. It can be appreciated on so many levels, and offers itself, it seems, on all of these levels. There is energetic, spectacular dancing for the viewer interested primarily in spectacle and entertainment. These dancers are fiercely capable of powerful demonstrations of physical ability and testing the limits of what is doable, thinkable even. There is a level at which it functions didactically, not in a limiting or oppressive way, but in an offering of how the viewer might consider this dance (or all dances; or living, perceiving, remembering in their largest senses). Early in the piece, there is recorded text discussing the Theory of Relativity as a philosophy of cocktail philosophers, simplifying the explanation of the theory as (simply) acknowledging that a person looks differently from the front than from the back, and that one’s perception depends entirely upon one’s situation. This theory seems to permeate the complex situation of looking constructed within the piece: myself looking at the dancers, the dancers looking at one another, the ceaselessly unfolding awareness that these people/bodies are in a constant state of transformation/construction amidst the complex field of intersubjective perception. And it is also just as simple as recognizing that my perception emerges entirely from my situation (both my spatial situation and what is visible to me from that vantage, and my larger situation of history, experience, my own identity, my unique relationship with each of the dancers on the stage, my relationship with the choreographer, my familiarity with the costumes as the costumer’s assistant, etc.). And as I find to be a recurrent quality of Bebe’s work, the situations are constantly reconsidered, recontextualized, and as I perceive those changing contexts, I recognize my implication/participation in the uniqueness of those changing contexts. Dancers move from space to space, partner to partner; particular phrases of movement are repeated again and again, across multiple bodies and various spatial/temporal situations. The recorded text addressing the Theory of Relativity offers the viewer a method for viewing, a particular concern or consideration for an attention to constantly transforming particularities of situation and perception, and the question of what “it” (the dance) is woven throughout this kind of attention.

There were other relevant (and exquisite) texts in the piece (in the program, the text is attributed to Richard P. Feynman and Ain Gordon). I wish I had a transcript of the particular language of these additional recordings; my own paraphrased reconstruction of them will not do justice to their beauty. The ideas I took from these additional texts were a consideration of the nature of the event, and memory. Something occurs (at first this seems as if it is the start of a narrative), and then the event has passed. The event now becomes the recollection of the event, the retelling of it, the reconstruction of it from memory. The event changes over time, particular pieces are lost, the event becomes lost; the place and people originally involved in the occurrence of the event fade from existence, and we are left with a road to take us somewhere else. Again, this text seemed to offer itself as potentially didactic, a way of considering the dance, its performance, and where “what it is” exists between its doing, the seeing of the doing, the memory and subsequent retelling of what was done. [And now I find myself implemented within the scope of the dance. The event is gone, the event of the dancing in the Riffe Center’s Capital Theatre last night; now the event has become a person sitting at a laptop computer in Starbucks, surrounded by a flurry of activity and noise, remembering, recollecting, reconstructing the particularities of my experience of the dance; pieces are lost, the original event becomes lost, and now the event lives in the scurry of fingertips across keyboard keys, pixels and text providing the road to somewhere new.] This notion seemed articulated throughout the choreography, phrases of movement recurring throughout the piece, across various bodies, in new contexts/situations. It became not only a nod to the Theory of Relativity and an opportunity for attention to the nature of perception; the dance became an act of corporeal memory, phrases recalled, changed, no longer as they first occurred, but now dancing spaces for something new.

Which leads to what I found to be perhaps the most intoxicating point of entry/level of appreciation, that which I experienced as a dancer, informed by a significant detail from the program: “Our process includes choreographic contributions from the dancers; their creative energies are an integral part of this piece. The work also contains choreographic references to past Bebe Miller Company repertory. As such it reflects the peculiar and mysterious process of experience and knowledge passing from dancer to dance, over time and generations.” As I watched, I am drawn into a saturating sympathy with the processes of memory, dancers in a studio reaching back and reconstructing the past in/as their own bodies. I am breathless at the physical act of remembering, negotiating the spaces of what has occurred before and what occurs now within this new, unique event/situation/context. I am suspended along the incredible attention to what each thing is, each action, and the spaces between the dancers and their actions. It is a quality of attention to each action as it is NOW, fully within the present, but knowingly constructed to what it was before, as it occurred in/as the past. This sympathy for the practice of memory, the transformative legacy of the event(s), fragments of dances from the past recreated in/as new bodies, practiced (each repetition both a reiteration and an evolution), performed, lost. The event now lives in memory, the retellings of it.

That seems like a perfect conclusion, but I also feel the desire to acknowledge the particular body attitude of the piece, something I can only describe as recognizable as very “Bebe” (a kind of restlessness of position, an energetic fascination with possibilities, asking, “If I am here, where else can I be? Can I get all the way to there from here?” paired with a willingness to exhaust the possibilities of what a thing is or might be), infused with the less familiar, the contributions of this unique community of dancers in this piece. I had a sense of Bebe as danced through each of these dancers, but also these dancers as danced through one another, as understood and composed through Bebe. The layers of hybridity, the sense of corporeal/kinesthetic identities articulated in/as/through multiple bodies was stunning.

And so Dance Downtown becomes an event of memory, of re-telling, a reflection of my experience becoming my experience.

The show runs again tonight. If you have the opportunity to see it, I highly recommend that you do so.

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