michael j. morris


Bound (Southern Bound Comfort)

Bound (2010)
Artistic concept & choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Material devised & performed by: Gregory Maqoma, Shanell Winlock

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This evening I had the pleasure of seeing “Southern Bound Comfort” at the Wexner Center for the Arts, a double bill project of work by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Gregory Maqoma, perfomed by Gregory Maqoma and Shanell Winlock. As I continue to make a daily practice of writing, I decided to give attention this evening to writing my experience of the second piece on the bill: Bound.

This piece was for me an unraveling and re-ravelling of semiotics and interpersonal entanglement (and in some senses, the semiotics of interpersonal entanglement). The ropes that comprised the set and properties with which the dancers performed (many hanging from the ceiling, others coiled or piled on the floor) functioned as the materials for a shifting play of references and representations. It was not that the piece had a singular narrative organization, but instead that it made use of a series of symbols (and symbolic structures) that alluded to poignant recognizable situations enacted between two people, entwining, colliding, supporting, containing, dividing, etc. At the start of the piece, I had the experience of being led through a kind of childhood playtime: Winlock explored a range of possibilities with a short length of rope, how it swings, how it wraps around her body, how it pulls, etc. There was a coolness and ease in the way that she moved, but also a sense of attentive exploration, as if seeking the unfamiliarity of what was (most likely) “set” movement material. Even in these earliest moments of the piece, I experienced hints of danger in this “playtime.” Each time the rope was wrapped around her neck, I felt my breath get shallow. But it never lingered around her neck, and I felt as if the neck as a danger zone was being denaturalized, demonstrated as a possible formal configuration alongside a plethora of other entanglements between body and rope. What (and where) we think of as dangerous is perhaps less specialized than we might think. This denaturalization of the familiar in its deployment was a theme that lingered with me throughout the work.
This playtime took on a more representational (almost make-believe) quality as a long coil of rope on which Winlock stood was transformed into a pathway unwinding towards a pile of rope in the upstage left corner of the performance space. The pile of rope (an island perhaps? this edging towards the symbolic, the representational, was not overt; although I recognized the pile-as-possible-island, I didn’t feel as if that was my only choice. It was perhaps a make-believe island, but it was also self-evidently a pile of rope). From the pile emerged the second performer, Maqoma. He sat up, still wrapped in ropes–almost as a deity or holy man–and more I began to feel invited into something between the playtime of children and a ritual from an unfamiliar culture. Either way, I was in a semiotic space, in which materials and bodies (even, perhaps, the materiality of bodies) were simultaneously both axiomatic and symbolic. I was aware of trained dancers in a particular theatrical situation that had been choreographed and costumed and lit, for which tickets had been sold, of which I was a participating spectator; these were ropes configured in various ways to create scenic designs and even costumes. But I also felt the symbolic potential exceeding the immediate context/actuality of what I was seeing. I do not often look for symbols in stage dance works, so as I felt myself ushered into a landscape of shifting signifiers and allusions to situations beyond our immediate experience in the context of the performance situation, this joint experience of both axiom and symbol became for me a significant portion of the content of the work, part of what it was “about”. From the rope island, Maqoma moved to the center of the space amidst the hanging ropes; Winlock soon followed with a small rope doll, being handled like a child. Maqoma began to connect the hanging ropes, building a hanging structure that soon emerged as a “house”—the outline of a house, a recognizable symbol for the form of a house. More make-believe. Playing house. A house made of hanging ropes; rather, an outline of a house made from hanging ropes. Where/how do these forms collide? Ropes, they bind (as suggested by the title of the piece), they tie, they are woven and wrapped, they hang and support, they ravel and unravel; a house that binds, a house that ties, a house that is woven and wrapped, a house that hangs and supports, a house that ravels and unravels. House as symbol begins to slide into ideas about “home.” Home as entanglement, as formed out of our entwining lives, with all the properties suggested by these ropes. And here I took a [post-structuralist] step back, and asked myself why I recognized this configuration of tangled ropes as a house/home, why it is that the entanglement of lives (and the suggestion of a child) takes this particular representational form, for me as a viewer, and for people in a more general sense. To what degree are all houses/homes a kind of “playing house(home),” and why does that play take on this (recognizable) form? Why is it that I see this tangle of rope, these two people, a rope-doll, and also see a [heterosexual, procreative] home? From what is that fantasy woven? Moored in part in the shifting sands of questions of social constructivism, I return to the dance.
The dancing that took place in this rope-house was a tangle of weight and limbs and supports; it reminded me of watching partnering developed from well-figured contact improvisation, but it took on additional meaning (or potential signification) because of the ropes. Here is a house/home built from ropes entwined; inside we find bodies/subjects/lives entangled/entwined. There was an odd exchange of the rope-doll with a larger rope puppet performed by Maqoma. And then the house became unraveled. In a strobe light, Winlock disentangled the ropes that had formed the outline of the house. The house/home/symbol undone, and with it a question concerning the residue of what was in what then remained. How have these materials been marked by their symbolic deployment? These were no longer just hanging ropes; now they were hanging ropes that had been a house. They are the remainder of a house/home/fantasy undone.

Later in the piece, each dancer gathered up a bundle of the hanging ropes and wrapped them tightly into vertical cords spreading out into the ceiling above. The divorcing of the previously entwined ropes, the deconstruction of one form and the reconstruction of another, had an immediate “first layer” symbolism (separation, the rending of lives, shared spaces, the materials from which two people made a home together, etc.), but more interesting to me was the shift in how the ropes came to symbolize. Was I now looking at two trees? Was there a relationship between seeing first a house and now two trees? I never fully escaped the self-evidence of the situation (dancers, theatre, ropes, costumes, lights, etc.), but in a space suspended/removed slightly from the immediate actuality of the performance event, I found my “scene” had changed, and that scene change had been accomplished by the redeployment of materials from which symbolic forms were constructed. This redeployment was significant for me, a suggestion that one thing can be reconfigured to become something else, and in doing so, the entire situation changes. The two danced and returned again to their bundles of ropes. They brought them together in the center of the space, and wrapped their “trunks” together, merging the separate “trees” into one larger “tree”-form. Aside from the “separation-reunion” symbolism, I found myself thrust into a different situational register. Specifically, I was confronted with (most likely unintentional) references to the racial politics in Jena, Louisiana in 2006. In a series of incidents involving escalating and horrifying racial tensions, nooses were hung from a tree on the grounds of Jena High School, a tree that was referred to as the “white tree.” Within a few moments, this image was dramatically reinforced in the performance when the two performers hung nooses from the large bundle of (white) ropes, and put the nooses around their necks. This was a tree; those were nooses; and the symbolic potential of the image exploded beyond the constraints of the immediate/actual circumstances/context of the performance.
And yet another layer of symbolism was still lingering beneath the surface of what was striking as an overtly political/racialized image: I could not ignore the fact that these were the same ropes that formed the “house” and the separate(d) “trees;’ a narrative was forming for me, a narrative concerning the entanglement of lives, the fantasy and imitation of particular social ideals (heterosexual, procreation, etc.), the rending of that fantasy/ideal, the reunification of separate lives into a new form, and that form providing the support for this hanging/joint suicide.

All of this was immediately subverted by a comedic turn in which a musician provided a sound score for a series of gestures that evoked a bickering husband and wife (all while still hanging loosely in the nooses). While the drama/tension of the moment was diffused, the bickering couple did reinforce for me the unfolding narrative of particular relationship ideas/ideals.

The piece “resolved” in an illusionary game of double-dutch. A long rope was stretched between the two dancers. The exchange began as each one whipped the rope, sending a forceful ripple down the length to the other (terminating in demonstrative impacts, as if thrown by the force of the other’s impulse). Symbols here abound: references to distance and attachment, exchange and injury, etc. These impulses escalated into a rapid swinging of the rope between the two. The lights shifted again to a strobe light, creating a visual effect of two ropes swinging opposite one another in double-dutch style. Again, potential symbols abound: the discrepancy of one or two, the discrepancy between actuality and illusion, difference across distance, etc., and what each of these association might have to do with human entanglement/relationship. All the while still, these possible signs were informed by the unique propertied of the ropes: ravelling, binding, hanging, tying, etc.
The ending was perfect. A sudden break: simultaneously, the music stopped, the rope hit the ground, and the lights went out. In a dramatic shift, all of the materials from which the scene was crafted (sound, props, lights) were abandoned, and all we were left with was darkness and silence (or approximations of darkness and silence).

As beautiful as their dancing was, I am not left with crisp memories of their movement. Rather, the piece functioned for me as a playground—sometimes tender, sometimes sentimental, sometimes terrifying—for recognizing the constructive/deconstructive formations of [performative?] semiotic potentials; the ways in which material properties suggest meaningful content when deployed to symbolic/representational ends; the redeployment of materials, and the residue of previous significations in the newly shaped/recognized signs. This theatrical exploration of semiotics was not removed from the bodies by which it was performed; in fact, the bodies themselves as never purely axiomatic matter may have been central to my understanding of the work. The bodies, like the ropes, were never stable in their signification/representation. They were never only the bodies of dancers (as if that position in itself could be considered simple or non-referential, non-discursive); they were deployed in formal configurations, in make-believe scenarios, in domestic(ated) ideals, in interpersonal relationalities, in socio-political scenarios, etc. The redeployment of bodies throughout these shifting “scenes” was perhaps less overt than the transformations enacted through the ropes; but the bodies were not circumstantial: it was a body-based performance, and as such the bodies became implicated in this internal logic of signification, representation, construction and deconstruction. The situation in which I found myself bound, then, was not as simple as the binding capacities of ropes or bodies (although certainly these properties were demonstrated), or even the “bind” of human relationships; rather, what I am left considering is the binding capacity systems of signification. The recognizability of the images deployed on stage, the relative stability of symbols put forward, and the demonstrative arbitrary instability of the materials that comprised them. Arbitrary should not here connote meaninglessness, not randomness; rather, the arbitrated/mediated stabilization of what is essential unstable associations between form and content, signifier and signified. Bound within [performative] conventions of [symbolic] meaning, cultural ideals and social realities surfaced, and I was left to observe myself associating signifier with signified, referents couched in custom and normative convention. Herein, for me, was the bind.

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