michael j. morris


taking back the short end

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Last night I had the opportunity to see two new dance works by Abby Zbikowski and Paige Phillips in their shared production Taking Back the Short End at Skylab. It was an intimate showing, the audience sometimes only inches away from the performers, giving both works a heightened immediacy that amplified their distinct intensities.

Zbikowski’s work Unstable Stable, with performers Fiona Lundie, Jen Meckley, Clara Martinez, and herself, is exemplary of characteristics that I have come to treasure in her choreography: rigorous athleticism and minimalism, utilitarian functionality in the movement, rhythmic patterns that emerge in silence entirely from the coordination of bodies and their parts, and an exhaustion of possibilities for what a body—these bodies—can do. There’s a “no bullshit” punk-rock quality to Zbikowski’s choreography and the performances of the dancers with whom she works: the movements are stripped down to their necessary parts, even when there’s a lot of movement vocabulary. As I watch her work, I see her in the lineage from early postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer—if Rainer choreographed a parkour workout. The movement is usually difficult and always seems to have a function, whether it is to complete a rhythmic structure, recover from a fall, test the limits of an action, or a more abstract utility: doing this so that it is done. Specifically in Unstable Stable, I see experimentation, repetition, and careful measured attention to the space. Whether it is Lundie and Meckley falling forward and running/stumbling to stop their momentum at the other end of the room, or Martinez and Zbikowski struggling with accomplishing a series of tasks with the soles of their boots duck-taped together, or spinning in circles with head and torso arching through space before quick drops to the floor, the movement feels like an experiment—a repeated experiment—testing the limits of specific actions and bodies. Like experiments, these actions must be repeated, in order to verify the findings, or perhaps in an ongoing investigation, still trying to figure out what this movement or this body is. Some of these actions are small and rhythmic, quick steps and shifts of weight or arms flinging wide; others are more brutal, shoving whole bodies full-force through space or into the floor. But even when the dance edges towards violence, even interpersonal violence, it does so in ways that seem quite practical. Again, this is a credit to the performers as well as the choreographer: they approach the movement with absolute commitment and conviction, and even when they dance together and I could imagine so many layers of psychological metaphor—these two people duck-taped together, dragging and carrying one another, supporting each other, pushing apart, pulling back together—I can never quite escape the practical, mechanical reality of these bodies, their interpersonal tumult an expression of bones and joints and muscle as much as any narrative I might construct for myself. Essential to this piece is also its very precise attention to the space, which gives an almost installation site-specificity to the dance. For Zbikowski’s piece, the audience is asked to stand at the edges of the room behind lines of blue tape on the floor. Throughout the piece, I watch as bodies moving with often extreme force come just up to the edges of the performance space, their momentum perfectly calibrated to the size of the room. Or a dancer moves to a seemingly arbitrary position, then swings a foot or a leg, just brushing the surface of the wall. The dimensions of the space are incorporated into the choreography; perhaps this dance could take place anywhere, but it would no longer be the same dance. It would be reshaped, re-calibrated, a forceful yet fine-tuned measurement of space in movement.

Phillips’ work, Après moi, le déluge (After me, the flood), is more theatrical; after the show, I told one of the performers that it felt like some of Meredith Monk’s work, some of Pina Bausch, with pages out of Grimm’s fairytales, like Where The Wild Things Are, but more gruesome. The dancers in this piece have distinct characterizations, even if they never fully disclose themselves as characters: two giggly tarts making eyes at the audience and winnying like horses (Jill Guyton-Nee and Gabby Stefura); a small community of three people who seem both childlike and savage, somehow both prior to and after the fact of some civilization (Owen David, Ani Javian, and Tyisha Nedd); a grizzly man who lurks blindfolded in the corner, then chases the child-savages, pins one of them to the ground in what feels like a simulated rape, and eventually becomes a figure who is devoured at the conclusion of some myth (Preston Witt). There is a narrative quality to the dance without its story ever becoming entirely clear; it doesn’t feel linear although it is unfolding in time. It feels like a mythology or a morality tale abstracted into grunts and shouts and gasps and gestures. At times it feels playful or innocent: children playing a game of tag or hide and seek; but then it takes a sinister turn as the movements become more abrupt, more startled; the unintelligible sounds the dancers make sound more terrified, and it is no longer clear if any of us are safe. In another scene, a dancer simulates death, perhaps by drowning, gasping for air and collapsing to the floor. In several moments, the figures interact as if discovering or inventing their own sexualities, suckling at one another’s bodies, shouting with one’s mouth pressed to the belly of another, undressing and redressing, rolling over and around one another, dragging each other across the floor. The dance is esoteric, mysterious, like only part of a story—the most intense parts, the parts most epic. The dancers feel a bit like archetypes, the kind that populate antiquated tarot cards: the Hanged Man, the III of Cups, the Chariot. Like Monk’s work, it feels very period and of a specific culture, but from a time I cannot quite recall and a culture that has either been lost or yet to be discovered. In that sense, it evokes a very specific timelessness, somehow both vaguely familiar and almost otherworldly, evocative of something I am trying to remember but cannot. It has a dreamlike quality, where figures and situations seem like people and places that I know while also seeming to not be what they seem. The dance is episodic, moving back and forth through the rooms of Skylab with the audience moving along with it, the performers alternating through different scenes. It gives the dance a tidal sense of a journey, literally moving back and forth through the space, requiring the audience to follow along as this cast of characters drift and transform from one vignette to the next. By the end of the piece, I feel somewhat displaced, as if I have been partially initiated into some kind of tribe through a rite-of-passage ritual, while still feeling on the outside of the performers’ gestures and relationships, executed with a fervency that feels almost religious, a lengthy pagan mass, traces of a secret society that will not make itself fully known.

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