michael j. morris


The Ubiquitous Mass of Us
The Ubiquitous Mass of Us Maree ReMalia | merrygogo photo by Mark Simpson

The Ubiquitous Mass of Us
Maree ReMalia | merrygogo
photo by Mark Simpson

On June 14, 2014, the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh, PA, presented The Ubiquitous Mass of Us as part of their Community Supported Art (CSA) performance series. This piece is a new work created by Maree ReMalia | merrygogo in collaboration with a team of other artists.

From the very beginning, ReMalia et al forcefully and playfully bring attention to the physical space of the theater itself, banging and stomping and calling and responding throughout the scaffolding and catwalks that lined the upper walls surrounding the stage and audience. Large piles/assemblages of seemingly carefully constructed and altered cardboard boxes—set pieces by Blaine Siegel—are positioned around the stage. Through the acoustics, through the distribution of their bodies, their activities, and the set, and through the constantly changing direction of their own foci—where they are looking, what they are seeing—the cast brings my attention again and again to the space we all inhabit, often with amendments: each moment it does not necessarily feel like the same space from earlier. Space is part of the stated theme of the work, both in the program notes and in a monologue delivered in pieces near both the beginning and ending of the dance. If this dance is about space, it is about how space changes, how it is produced between us, an effect of our actions and reactions. To pay attention to space is to pay attention to the relationships between bodies, to how we are relating; to pay attention to our interactions, then, is also to pay attention to how we are together creating space. Space is where action potentially takes place, where something might occur; the space that we create affects what we might then do, what could then become possible. In this sense, space is an effect of what we have done together and a condition of what we might then do. To the degree that what we do—what we are capable of doing—both indicates and produces who we are, we might then say that who we are is in part an effect of the spaces between us, how we have managed or entered or shaped those spaces, and also that who we might become is in part a potentiality of what we might do with and in such spaces.

The Ubiquitous Mass of Us is an evening-length work with nine performers, a mix of people both with and without formal dance training. Over the course of an hour, the performers move individually, in pairs, in small groups, and sometimes—but rarely—as an entire ensemble. The action of the dance feels like a series of games, in which most people are playing along, but for which the rules are only partially ever decided or understood, by which I mean: the dance progresses through a series of structures that are gradually established/revealed through the accumulating participation of more and more of the performers, only to then be interrupted by someone doing something unexpected, an action that exceeds the parameters I had come to understand for the given group activity. These interruptions are not combative; they do not feel revolutionary. If anything, they feel revelatory; they feel like discoveries, as if the dancer has stumbled across some unexpected gesture, activity, or possibility. I think this has mostly to do with the unfaltering commitment of the cast: they behave in each moment as if what is happening requires all of their attention, their utmost conviction, even when it is silly, even when they’re laughing. There’s a kind of “serious play” to this dance, like playtime for adults, or adult lives lived back through the playfulness of childhood games, brief passages of whimsical regression. What is happening is never entirely clear from the outside: something that seems very much like a playground game suddenly feels like a sacred ritual; something that feels sacred swerves and might seem just a little bit raunchy, if I allow my mind to wander slightly. As a result, there are moments that come off as juvenile, even infantile in their delight with a new movement, sensation, or sound; yet other moments come off as distinctly sexual, erotic, or at provocative. One moment they seem to touch themselves as if feeling what touch feels like for the first time; the next moment, “touch” has become “stroke” or “rub” or kneed,” as if an innocent kind of carnality was potentially within anything one might do. This swirl of potential associations, ranging from childlike to salacious, keeps the dance from ever settling into fully familiar or recognizable territories.

The movement vocabulary of the dance—what they do—runs a full gamut: often bodies or limbs seem to spasm or fling, as if out of control, and the movement unfolds as a struggle between decorum and disorganization. Guttural noises escape their bodies, and their reactions seem between uncertainty and delight. At other points, their activities seem functional or quotidian: pick up this object and carry it over there. More than once, they tip-toe or scurry around the stage, as if sneaking in plain sight, almost like cartoon characters. Other movements seem driven by their attention to their own sensations, more about moving and feeling the movement than demonstrating any clear or recognizable forms. Almost all of the movements share this same quality: utterly unfamiliar, yet highly specific. Whether it is the jut of a hip, the fling of a foot, the thrust of a rib cage, the precise or imprecise measurements of steps, or small articulations of fingers, most of the movement in this dance could not be said to belong to any particular codified technique. Rather, these movements are almost always unexpected moment by moment and seem to emerge in all their specificity from this particular group of nine performers, both as individuals and with each other. At times, the cast dances in unison, either in small or large groups, indicating clearly structured and rehearsed movement, but it is in these passages of unison in which the casts’ differences surface most clearly: little shows how different bodies are more than showing how differently they execute the same movements. Related to unison is the prevalence of mimicry: the migration of gestures is a motif throughout this dance. Often an action or gesture or guttural noise begins with a single performer, and, as if compelled by curiosity or perhaps competitiveness, other performers begin to imitate and replicate what has been done. They seem to learn one another in an ongoing round of watching, showing, and mimicking. As the activities spread throughout the cast, they seem to established affinities, shared actions that unite them into something that looks like a community. Affinities and differences: it is precisely when they are the most alike that I can see just how different each of them are.

This heightened sense of difference and individual distinctiveness within a group is visually reinforced by the costumes, styled by Rachel Vallozzi; bold cuts, bright colors, and flashy patterns accomplish what might seem like a misnomer: a group of nine people in which each and every one stands out. What they are wearing—in addition to what they are doing and how they are doing it—makes each one recognizable. However ubiquitous this “mass of us” might be, it is a ubiquity that resists homogeneity (even within unison), exceeds familiarity, and achieves a careful balance of specificity and diversity. If there is something ubiquitous throughout this group of performers, it is their rarity, their heterogeneity. What if that which we have most in common is that we are invariably different [from one another]?

Throughout the dance, I am aware of the dynamic frequency of the performance, an oscillation—sometimes gradual, but more often sudden—between, at one extreme, placid periods of mostly small, subtle actions saturated with heightened attention and carefulness, and, at the other extreme, forceful, frenzied, nearing explosive movements or sounds or activities, often repeated incessantly, riding waves of urgency and pushing towards exhaustion. I feel this again and again: the dancers find themselves doing something that seems at first unfamiliar, perhaps surprising, sometimes perhaps even illicit, and then indulge in the escalation of that activity—a repeated gesture, a repeated noise, an ongoing interaction with another performer—with fervent tenacity until approaching exhaustion. Again and again, the performers come to a state in which their struggle is evident: not only struggling, but showing struggling seems to be part of what this dance is about. Then, often when exhaustion seems imminent, the energy subsides, the scene becomes more serene again, before that serenity is one more punctuated with something unexpected—a new discovery, a swerve away from anything that might be construed as narrative, a spontaneously erupting game—and the energy builds once again. This frequency, this fluctuation between relaxed placidity and almost frenetic activity, cycles and builds as we approach the end of the performance. The action on stage is perhaps the most reserved in what I will call the “faux ending,” in which the performers enter and process downstage two by two, often holding hands, as if returning to the stage for a curtain call. However, it is not the end, and while many people in the audience laugh, very few clap: although it looks very much like the end, the audience somehow knows—or at least reacts as if—it is not. I think it has something to do with pacing, the delay of each subsequent entry, the duration for which each of the pairs remains center stage. It feels like a curtain call, but not quite like a real curtain call. Following this relative calm, the stage erupts into pandemonium, an explosion of movement and noise and cardboard boxes and giant marshmallows being thrown around the stage, styrofoam packing peanuts pouring onto the stage and the audience from above. It feels to me joyful, a relentless celebration, a surprise party for…whom?

Early in the piece, one of the performers, Adil Mansoor, struggles through a monologue, his spoken delivery interrupted again and again by sudden, almost violent, gestures. I cannot recall all that he says, but I remember that in a complex explication of the concept of “space,” he somehow comes to the statement of “I love you,” which then turns into the request: “Love me.” By the end of Ubiquitous Mass of Us, I am left wondering: to the degree that each action one executes is entirely indicative of who one is—even while no single action could possibly indicate the entirety of oneself—and to the degree that every action is in a sense a re-action, both responding to the actions of others, but also re-enacting that which one has done before and that which one will likely do again—that which one perhaps cannot help but do again; to the degree that every action of oneself anticipates any number of possible reactions, but might prefer reactions that suggest sympathy and recognition; to the degree that our actions and reactions together create both space and a future—a future which is certainly unforeseeable, but nonetheless conditioned inexplicably by hope—I am left wondering: how might actions be loving? How might each act be, in part, in some sense, a request, or perhaps an even more emphatic plea, to “love me”? We each take action, and each action anticipates response, reactions. In The Ubiquitous Mass of Us, as I have come to appreciate in so many of ReMalia’s dances, I can see how the uniqueness of each individual is not only demonstrated but produced in and through their actions: their gestures, their facial expressions, the dynamic range of their movements, their preferences and proclivities in regards to their use of their own weight/force, the directness or indirectness of their movements, their approaches to time and space. If, as ReMalia and her collaborators have so expertly rendered, we are each the sum of our own actions, our capacities and preferences and idiosyncrasies—even if we are each also more than such a sum—then to watch as distinctiveness reveals itself over time, to give one’s attention to the activities of another, to go so far as to mimic another and, in a sense, attempt something that originated with someone other than oneself, to go so far as to come close, to breathe together, to hold hands, to touch one another’s bodies—understanding that bodies, in all their distinctiveness, are who we are—seems to me to figure in movement, in choreography, in dance, this fundamental double declaration: I love you/Love me. Or: This is me, for you. Can you, will you, try to see me, try to be with me, try to love me?

For more about this piece, Maree ReMalia | merrygogo, and the other artists/collaborators, visit: http://mareeremalia-merrygogo.tumblr.com

Credits:
Performers: David Bernabo, Joseph Hall, Taylor Knight, Paul Kruse, Adil Mansoor, Moriah Ella Mason, Maree ReMalia, Jil Stifel, Anna Thompson
Set: Blaine Siegel
Sound: David Bernabo
Costumes: Rachel Vallozzi
Lighting: Katie Jordan

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