michael j. morris


Dancing in the Making Room, or In A Rhythm That Excludes Thinking: Bebe Miller Company Work-In-Progress Showing
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photo by Lily Skove

I just returned to Columbus after spending a month in San Francisco at a yoga training. Tonight I saw a work-in-progress showing of a new project by Bebe Miller Company at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Previously advertised as Dancing In the Making Room, Miller informs us at the start of the performance that they are playing with a new title: In A Rhythm That Excludes Thought. I know it’s unrelated, but I immediately think of the second sutra of book one of the classical yogic philosophical text, The Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliYogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah. “Yoga is the restriction [or cessation] of the fluctuations of thought.” What would it mean to move in a rhythm that excludes thinking? I think I’ve approached this kind of state in yoga and meditation and butoh; it is a sustained, slow-moving temporality. But knowing Miller’s work, I have a sense that any rhythm that excludes thinking here will not be limited to slowness or sustainment.

As I enter the space, the dancers are already on stage, warming up, having small conversations, running through short phrases of movement material. Miller comes in and out of the space, moving a cart that holds different wireless microphones and iPods, talking with the dancers, referring to a yellow stenographer’s pad. On stage is one rectangular panel of gray felt; just off stage left is a large roll of what looks to be white felt. As the piece begins (and I will also maintain the possibility that the piece began before I entered the space, before Miller said, “So, we’re starting now…”), two more gray felt panels are added. One dancer stands on one of the panels as small, nearly imperceptible facial movements flicker across their face. As other dancers enter, they move around the felt panels, and I notice that the presence of the felt introduces the possibility of them dancing “on” or “off” of them into my perceptual framework. As their movements carry them around these felt panels in eddies of weight shifts and gestures that pull them in a new direction, the question of whether or not they step on or around the felt only becomes a question because the felt is there. I can’t yet say whether or not this is important, but I am attuned to the fact that the introduction of these materials in relation to one another—the felt panels and the movement—introduces possibilities for how I might find them significant.

The movement is both familiar to me as some aspect of Miller’s “style,” and also works itself out rather differently on different bodies: small twists become bigger twists, sometimes tossing out a limb or sometimes folding over at the waist, breaking the twist from the middle. Reaching pulls bodies on and off balance, up and over center, back down into the ground. Legs step between wide, low stances and posing up on high relevé, teetering between steadiness and falling into stumbling. Big sweeps and flicks criss-cross bodies in opposition to other gestures, wringing bodies into loose and unpredictable torsion that might fling a hip or head in some new direction. A hand softly caressing the air might suddenly burst into a thrust or punch off balance or down further toward the ground. Tiny gestures abruptly blossom in scale and momentum unit they are propelling bodies through space, alongside or into one another. There’s an element of surprise to how these bodies move. I mean this for myself as a viewer, but I also have the distinct sense that these dancers are intentionally moving in ways that can surprise themselves. [This seems related to my understanding of what is described as “Risky Weight” in the Motion Bank analysis of Miller’s work, TWO.]

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Bebe Miller, Angie Hauser, and Darrell Jones, from Motion Bank TWO

Some time into the piece, Miller says from offstage, “Was that a restart?” In just a few words, I feel disoriented in my relationship to the work. Did the piece begin again? Did a section start over? What did she see that I did not see? Was that a planned question, intended to disorient how we view, or was it actually a question to the dancers? Could it be both? This is one of countless examples of ways in which interruption occurs throughout the dance: songs or sounds interrupting other songs or sounds, with hard cuts (no crossfades). Dancers cutting into duets being danced by other dancers. A unison phrase that disintegrates or frays into solos (is disintegration an interruption? I’m not sure).

Not long after, the six performers form a circle that shifts around the space as different individuals and sometimes pairs move into the center to dance. It reminds me of a hip-hop cypher, and I wonder how many other forms of dance and ritual employ this kind of structure. The circle doesn’t really hold, not entirely. It morphs, sometimes really clearly a circle of people surrounding a person dancing in the middle, sometimes becoming more like a clump of dancers moving as an ensemble. This shifting between circle—clump—circle—clump, this uncertainty or fluctuation between who is in and who is out, who’s at the center and who’s at the edges, feels characteristic of much of what I perceive in this dance.

The dance is full of duets, partnering and pairings, sometimes at close range and sometimes multiple bodies finding partial or near-total alignments with one another with distance between them. As soon as these couplings begin to emerge, I feel like I am faced with choices about how to perceive what I am watching: am I looking at a woman coupled with a man? Women partnering with women, men partnering with men? I teach a course called “Dancing Gender & Sexuality,” in which we examine the ways that dance participates in the constitution and circulation of genders and sexualities, in part through the staging of dances and the spectatorship of those stagings. How choreographers pair bodies of different, similar, or the same genders matters. At the same time, I believe that we as viewers also have responsibilities regarding how we interpret the bodies of others—onstage and offstage. If we recognize that gender identity—the gender with and as which a person identifies—is not necessarily visible or legible based on what we see, then I really only know the genders of the dancers I know personally or professionally. If I choose to interpret aggregates of physical features as indicative of gender, consciously or unconsciously, I am choosing to operate in compliance with certain social norms—social norms with which I actively struggle as a genderqueer/nonbinary person. And so in this writing, just as in my viewing of the dance, I am left to struggle with where and how to attribute gender to performers’ bodies. Throughout this dance, as well as throughout much of Miller’s oeuvre, people partner with other people, not regardless of gender, but in many different combinations of the genders we might attribute to the performers. To the extent that we acquiesce to see women and men on stage, partnering takes place between women and women, men and men, and women and men. I consider this to be a feature of Miller’s work, this democratic approach to gender—and race—when it comes to partnering.

There is a fraught kind of justice in actively suspending the visual attribution of gender when viewing a dance performance. There is also a fraught kind of justice in allowing gender to be a factor in determining the significance of particular moments, even if that performance or presentation of gender may not be identical to the gender identities of the performers: when I see two “Black men” dancing together to a hip-hop track as a group of “women” look on, one at close range, what I am seeing is something that is demonstrative of gender and race, while not necessarily telling me anything about the bodies who are performing this demonstration. This is messy, to be sure, because to ask these bodies to carry these signifiers of race and gender is to ask them to carry a kind of burden, a burden to which they do not necessarily submit; however, an alternative, the pretense of viewing a dance without viewing race or gender, a kind of “colorblind” viewing, does a kind of injustice as well, particularly when bodies differently gendered and racialized differently experience different degrees of mobility and exposure to violence in our country and world. And so the viewing, as well as the writing following the viewing, is full of this tension, this struggle.

At some point in the performance, one of the dancers enters with a notebook computer, and from the computer plays an interview with Toni Morrison and Charlie Rose. Morrison describes her own writing, that she does not write from these categories (of gender, of race), that she doesn’t presume to speak for anyone or represent any group, but rather, she writes in order to deal with the things that trouble her philosophically; her work is where she works it out. This is Morrison speaking about her own work, but having it embedded into Miller’s work at least asks me to consider the position from which Miller is approaching these same issues. Can one know that an audience will see race and gender on stage, and can one take responsibility for what one is showing them, while also not choreographing “from these categories,” without speaking for or representing any particular group of people?

A rhythm that excludes thinking.
I just keep thinking. Thinking during dancing, thinking during writing.
I’m trying to think through this performance, think with this dance. That’s part of how I make my life with dances, thinking with them.
What if I try to not think the dance.
What if I feel my way through the dance. I can’t describe every detail, and what would be the point of trying? What does this dance feel like? Is feeling an alternative to thinking? (I know this is a false dichotomy, but as an exercise, what does feeling about the dance turn my attention towards?)

This dance is playful, unattached, in the sense of letting things begin and then letting them go, letting them become something else. There’s an utter lack of certainty (which is not the same as a lack of clarity) throughout, not only in the structure or organization of the space, but in even the smallest gestures, the never-quite-ness of shifts of weight and establishing connections between bodies and body parts, the big movements that pour bodies rapidly from one place to another. Never certain but nonetheless deliberate; intentional with no promise of permanence. That’s what this dance feels like, very much an ensemble feeling their way together through this intentionality and deliberateness that is fervently and playfully committed to uncertainty, impermanence, and non-attachment. And it’s not just in the service of relentless innovation; there’s plenty of going back, of returning to something we saw before, or letting something become something else only to go back to what it was. If the question is constantly, “What else could this become?” then slipping back to somewhere we’ve been before is an option as well, as long as this also remains active and dynamic.

At the end of the piece, Bebe walks around the stage speaking. I retain fragments and phrases of what she says:
“…how do we live there…so much of what we’re doing is trying to figure out what’s important…what is the meaning of this…what are we trying to say, and how…so elusive”
“it’s lightening the burden…it’s not avoiding all that happening in the world, the horror…”
“…demonstrating the music…am I demonstrating—could I be perceived as demonstrating, that’s part of this too…”
“I’m going to stop this.”

And then it was over and we transitioned into the talkback.
At the end, as Miller described “demonstrating the music,” I was struck by how little I thought about the music at all. This is an aesthetic bias to some degree; I hardly use music in my choreography, and in one kind of postmodern American approach to dance (not the only kind), I see music and dance as detachable from one another. I’m also suspicious of this. Is there something about whiteness in the fact that I hardly remember the music, that I can detach movement from music so easily in my spectatorship?

As I settle into my night, I’m thinking about how this dance/dancing lives within our world today, our troubles and joys, our political unrest and injustice, our changing climates, our pursuit of ethical coexistence, and all the questions with which we move through our daily lives. What this dance offers me is this complex mode of taking deliberate and intentional action, together, and doing so playfully, without attachment to permanence, doing so lightly, even when the actions themselves might be full of strength. I am reminded of another Yoga Sutra, sutra 1:12: Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. “The fluctuations of the mind are restrained (or quieted) through dedicated practice and non-attachment.” Perhaps deliberate, intentional action that is done playfully, without attachment, is a rhythm that excludes thinking after all.

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MANCHA PRAVESH: Imani Asha Gaston and Odissi

Image by Clarence Alexander

When I enter the MLK Auditorium in Hale Hall on The Ohio State University campus, several instruments surrounded by microphones are already set out on brightly colored fabric on stage right. Just off the front of the stage, a small pedestal is draped with pink, gold, and orange fabric. On top sits a small statue with fresh flowers at its feet. I look around at the audience gathering for this Mancha Pravesh, the debut solo Odissi dance recital performed by Imani Asha Gaston: it is a much more diverse audience than I usually see at arts events in Columbus, Ohio. There are children and college students, parents and elders; the audience is a mix of African-American, Indian, and white people. This is not merely incidental. It is evidence of some of this event’s importance. As the lights dim, the musicians enter and take their places at their instruments and microphones. The MC introduces the first dance, “Vakratunda,” an invocation that pays homage to the Hindu god Ganesha. The music begins, the droning of the veena—a stringed instrument like a very large guitar that lies across the musician’s lap—punctuated by the rapid percussion of the mardala—a small drum. Imani Asha Gaston comes onto the stage, dressed in folds of red and beige silk, shining silver jewelry, and jangling ankle bells that ring in time with the music.

I have reservations writing about an Odissi performance: Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance that dates back to the second century B.C., is not a style of dance that I have studied or practiced. I already know that anything I write about it will be as an outsider to the form. The same would be just as true for a hip-hop or tap dance performance, or a performance in the style of countless other dance traditions that have not been included in my own dance training, which has focused primarily on ballet, American and European modern and postmodern dance, Japanese Butoh, and an array of improvisational techniques. Very nearly all that I know about Odissi, I learned this afternoon at the Mancha Pravesh, from the detailed program and the introductions given by the MC. Beyond that information, when watching this performance of five dances, I could not tell you which of the gestures or steps are codified within the Odissi tradition and which are inventions or innovations particular to this solo choreography. I could not tell you these ways Odissi differs from the other seven forms of classical Indian dance. I could not identify which movements carry broader cultural significance, in the way that fluttering, undulating arms have become metonymic to Swan Lake and The Dying Swan, perhaps even to ballet and its feminine ideal. I could not tell you how long histories of social structures, gender and racial politics, philosophical and religious perspectives, and globalization have potentially impacted the traditions that shape the performer’s dancing body. In short, to write about this work feels, at least in part, like exposing a particular breadth of what I do not know.

As I consider this, I realize that this situation is probably not so dissimilar from the majority of audience members at any dance performance. While a vast number of people—particularly those socialized as girls when they were children—have grown up taking dance classes, most people in the United States do not have any education or much experience in watching dance and thinking critically about it. Most have not studied the dance forms that they view, let alone the historical, cultural, and political conditions from which those dance forms emerged. In many ways, the extent to which I am not familiar with Odissi resembles the extent to which most American audiences are not familiar with many forms of dance. As a result, for me to write about this performance takes me—an “insider” to much of the concert dance that I encounter, as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar—outside of my expertise, pushing me to rely almost entirely on what I perceive about the performance that unfolds in front of me. In this sense, the performance itself will have to be my education in the form. Perhaps this itself can be instructional.
[I do realize that even how I write about what unfolds in front of me with disclose elements of my biases, my dance training, and my education. This will no doubt be simultaneously productive and potentially problematic in ways I do not yet understand.]

As Gaston enters, her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. Her steps are steady then quick, shifting her weight rapidly and often leaving her balanced on one foot. Her feet strike the ground forcefully with her heels or the balls of her feet in the rhythm of the music. Atop these strong, direct steps grounding her movements from their base, her torso is poised vertically—held but not rigid. Although the placement of her body demonstrates constant control, she remains mobile; throughout the dances, her head and shoulders incline and twist, her ribs and her hips circle and roll. Around the careful placement of her torso, Gaston’s arms trace intricate patterns in the air, swinging and gliding and circling gestures that orbit her center like spinning constellations. These gestures fly across a dynamic range of speeds, but even at their fastest, they are not flung out of control. They remain precise, somewhere between shooting stars and needlepoint, always arriving emphatically in clear, distinct postures. There are no details that are not choreographed: Gaston’s eyes cut from side to side, up and down and straight ahead in complex patterns, and even her fingertips dance as her hands shift from mudra to mudra in rapid succession. Intricacy and complexity compound as the dancer’s feet and legs and hips and shoulders and arms and fingers and head and eyes all accentuate the rhythm of the music, sometimes articulating multiple distinct cadences that move across and support each other, and sometimes settling—softly or swiftly—into a single posture, pose, or pulse, bringing disparate parts together into a common unity.

Alongside and yet part of the dancer’s movement, the music crests and falls, accelerating with the beat of the drum, the bright clang of hand cymbals, and text that is spoken in rapid syllables, then dissolving again into ringing drone of the veena and the longer tones of the singing vocalist. None of the text that is spoken or sung is in English, which holds some part of what is happening in mystery, reminding me that my access to what I am experiencing is always partially limited by my own history and situatedness.

There are five dances performed in this program, all choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Each one differs in intent, as described by the program: following the invocation to Ganesha, the second piece unfolds through a series of sculptural poses strung together with steps in varying rhythms in honor of Shiva, the cosmic Lord of Dance. The third piece evolves through accelerating tempos of gestures, postures, steps, and movements of the eyes, demonstrating the dancer’s skill. The fourth piece is part of a narrative, in which the dancer embodies multiple characters in the story of Radha and Krishna. The final piece, entitled “Moksha” which means “spiritual liberation,” represents “a spiritual culmination for the dancer who soars into the realm of pure aesthetic delight.”* Each piece shares a different facet of Odissi as well as the dancer, which is appropriate for the event. This Mancha Pravesh is a debut dance recital, a transformative moment in the life of the dancer as she becomes a professional solo Odissi performer. In a sense, this recital is a ritual, not only marking but also enacting the transition of the dancer from one phase as a student to another phase, as a professional performer. Moving from the opening invocation, through various demonstrations of skill, and culminating in a dance of liberation, each piece embodies a step in the dancer’s journey.

While each piece is clearly within the same style of movement—focusing on idiomatic uses of the eyes, the hands, the subtle control in the torso, the forcefulness of the steps, all closely following the music—each also has subtle characteristic elements that make it unique. The first piece feels very much like an address, performed mostly facing the audience, the palms of Gaston’s hands opening and closing in gestures that feel both sacred and welcoming. There is more turning in the second piece, more acceleration in the third, more looking side to side in the fourth, and a spaciousness and stillness in the final piece that is unlike all of the others. I think the final piece is my favorite. While still threading between intense phrases of rapid, driving steps and gestures, the dancer also moves through passages of pause and sustainment. Her body gradually rises and sinks, and the slower transformations between gestures and mudras almost drift around the soft and steady current of her weight. In the final moments of the piece, Gaston balances in what I would call in my yoga classes Virabhadrasana III—Warrior Pose III—balanced on one leg with her other leg and torso parallel to the floor, first facing stage right, then left, then the audience. She lifts up into what I would call Tadasana—Mountain Pose—her feet flat on the floor and her arms lifted above her head. Slowly, her hands drift downward, shifting through different mudras, and carrying her into a low squatting position. This is where the performance ends.

But this is not the end of my thinking. Between the third and fourth pieces, several people spoke, offering a few words about the performance, including Kaustavi Sarkar—Gaston’s Odissi teacher who is a doctoral student in the Department of Dance at OSU and an accomplished Odissi dancer, choreographer, and educator—and Gaston’s mother, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the Vice President for Student Life at OSU. Both speakers were moving, but Dr. J—as Adams-Gaston is affectionately known on campus—spoke to something I was feeling since I first arrived. In addition to honoring her daughter’s accomplishments and Sarkar’s important work with Odissi at OSU, she offered that this performance also told the story of the university, what it allows students to do, and what she described as “what we mean by higher education”: bringing out the best in each student by allowing them to see themselves as bigger than their backgrounds or the perceptions and perspectives with which they arrived. She said that the university can be a place where we become global citizens, citizens of the world, and that the dancing we saw today embodies that potential.

I appreciated Dr. J’s discussion of what the university can provide. As an educator working in one university who is starting a new job at a different university in August, at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly privatized as a business of buying and selling and debt, I feel a lot of gratitude for Dr. J giving voice to what higher education can provide not only to its students but to the world in which they live, the world that they are making. I don’t want to diminish the specificity of what happened today, Imani Gaston and Kaustavi Sarkar’s labor and exceptional work. Rather, beyond my descriptions of the dancing and the music, I want to acknowledge that part of what made this work remarkable was seeing an African-American woman becoming an expert in an Indian dance tradition, working with an Indian woman who herself is studying, practicing, and teaching within an American university. One important aspect of this joint project relates to how we share culture: at a time in which I see the words “cultural appropriation” again and again across Facebook, twitter, and blogs that I read, I would like to point to Gaston’s work with Sarkar as one model for responsibly participating in a different culture. Months and months of hard work, hours and hours of dancing, the careful, strenuous training through which a dance tradition from India comes to live within the flesh and fibers of an African-American woman’s body, all participate in a form of rigorously responsible cultural exchange, becoming so embedded in a practice that the practice then becomes undeniably embedded in you. Our world could benefit from more of this kind of exchange.

Finally and also remarkably, in response to the inter-cultural situation of Sarkar and Gaston dancing, teaching, and learning together, an audience of friends, family, community, and academics, a multi-generational audience who was Indian—and potentially Indian-American—African-American, and white, showed up, shared space, and shared an experience of witnessing something that ranged from a deeply treasured cultural tradition for some to an art event in an unfamiliar medium for others. I can’t help but think that in the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves, in which race and class continue to stratify our society in ways that continue to result in unacceptable violence, today I saw something—was a small part of something—that performed a different socio-cultural paradigm. Many of us had different reasons for attending Gaston’s Mancha Pravesh today, but perhaps—like the different parts of the dancer’s body moving in different rhythms yet somehow finding harmonic resolution as one—by finding focal points that we can share from different perspectives and organizing ourselves around them, something personal can becomes communal and in turn becomes something global. I would like to think that in as much as this performance enacted a transition in Gaston’s career as a dancer, it also marked a potential for transformation at other, larger scales, not only in concept, but in practice: a way we might move towards a more just world in which we want to live.

*Quoted from the program notes.

Additional Program Information:

Musicians:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar



PARTIALLY NOTHING + WHOLLY SOMETHING

There are many reasons that I love living in Columbus. Tonight I was reminded of one of the most prominent reasons: people here make things happen, and other people show up. I had the opportunity to see the opening night of Partially Nothing + Wholly Something, a new dance work by Kat Sauma | Assembled Hearts, presented at MINT Art Gallery. The project was choreographed and directed by Kat Sauma, a recent graduate of the Ohio State University Department of Dance. Sauma’s project moves into an important, necessary role for our city: the production of dance by independent dance artists. I believe that this is the first dance performance that MINT, a relatively new space in the Columbus scene, has hosted, and I am delighted to see Sauma partnering with this art collective. The evening of dances unfolds through multiple spaces inside the MINT warehouse; there are always multiple choreographies, enmeshed and pushing into the next. In addition to mobilizing dancers through a series of small vignettes—duets and trios and solos alongside other small groupings—the piece moves the audience through multiple rooms and facings and configurations. We are quite literally moved by the dancers, sometimes given verbal directions—”You can go to the center of the room; you can line up against the wall”—and sometimes following tentatively as dancers weave through darkened doorways and down dimly lit hallways. The dance is certainly comprised of moving bodies, but it is also heavily inflected by innovative uses of simple, lo-fi lighting—courtesy of Ethan Schaefer. Most rooms are dark, but the minimal lighting with bright flood lights on the floor or colored fluorescent bulbs along columns and walls fills the spaces with atmosphere and a flurry of shadows cast above and around the performers and the audience.

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

As the performance begins, the overhead lights are cut off, and the crowd gathers facing two stools lit in the corner of the space. Two dancers—Anna House and Tyisha Nedd—make their way through the crowd and sit down facing the corner. They dance a duet of reaching arms, twisting torsos, and turning heads before standing, picking up the stools, and moving to another wall. They sit down again, this time facing us. More reaching and twisting, elbows pulling their shoulders and faces away and towards one another. These seated duets are tender and intimate; at moments, their fingertips brush against each other, and at other moments, their faces are so close they are almost kissing. They stand again, relocate to a third wall, and dance in unison, mirroring each others’ movement. Now standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, facing each other, turning away in complimentary opposition, their unison offers sameness while their skin—House’s light and Nedd’s dark—and hair reminds me that there are differences even when they move as if the same. These three brief vignettes escalate in openness—first seated and facing away from the audience, then seated and facing us, then finally standing and facing each other—and as we move into the second room, I feel that we are moving into something somehow already more vulnerable.

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

The second room is lit with bright pink fluorescent bulbs. The audience is directed to gather around a column in the center of the room and along the outer walls. We create two rings of viewers facing each other, and between us, two dancers—Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore—circle the room, walking in opposite directions. Already their is a simple complexity to this arrangement, four circles—the two rings of viewers and the two dancers’ pathways—overlaid into each other, and somewhere between or across these circles is the dance. The dancers’ walking becomes stylized—skipping and rocking steps. Moore stops in a single spot and rotates, jostling her hips in tiny thrusts with her arm lifted straight and rigid in the air, while Bendernagel lurches in a heavy skip, as if tossing his ribcage forward after which his body follows. Moore provides an anchor to the space, a fixed point with a strong, direct gaze; Bendernagel is more difficult to pin down. The precise articulation of his feet, his torso tipped forward at the waist, his eyes turned downward, his path wavering: I think that the quality is like a tipsy doe, something elegant and potentially excessive, something not-quite-sober and not-quite-tame, timid and not-quite-threatening. The two eventually meet and walk facing each other, each looking into the others’ eyes as they make their way around the room. They partner with each other briefly, then a line of other dancers enter and move us into the next room.

In the third space, the only lights are tucked between the dancers’ hands. The effect is something like fireflies swarming in loose patterns or constellations pulling back and forth into each star’s gravity, with hints of surfaces following in their wake: the soft glow of fleshy arms and legs and the swish of black chiffon skirts trailing behind the tiny lights. One by one, the starlight-fireflies process down a long hallway, and the audience condenses and follows after them.

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

The next room is lined on one side with rows and rows of metal scaffolding. The dancers are lined up beneath it, their backs against the wall. One begins to move, and the others follow in turn. Eventually they are all moving as a pack from one end of the scaffolding to the other, swinging and pushing against the metal structure like an industrial jungle-gym for serious play. Their movements are sudden and layered, twisting and leaning through the gaps between the beams, and where their hands strike the metal, it gives off the sound of a heavy clang, an irregular gong. They do not dance in unison, but once they are all moving, they are held more or less together by an elastic proximity to each other. The fluctuating give of the relations between their bodies stretches in contrast to the heavy rigidity of the scaffolding around and through which they move. However, while they stay near to each other, I never see them touch; for as much as this sections presents a group of people and their flexible relations to others within a fixed structure, it also presents them maintaining some distance.

In the next space, three dancers—House, Nedd, and Sauma—begin in one corner, bouncing lightly on two feet, the left foot flat on the ground and the right heel pushed up off of the floor. The room is a dim blue, and the audience forms a loose, irregular semi-circle around the corner that the trio occupies. Their bouncing is interrupted by a sudden jerk in one direction, a twist and reach in another. Their arms fling up and wide open, and somehow the trio splits, becoming a pair and a solo. Sauma, a few feet behind the others, performs similar choreography, but her version is heavier, smoother, and more sustained. She is set back from them, a bit of an outsider now, but performing similar gestures; her movement quality knits her dancing to theirs, carrying across and filling in the gaps of their staccato execution. All three eventually move through the audience, and just as I think we are moving on to the final space, they swerve back into the crowd, dancing again now in the middle of the audience. I can’t see them from where I am, but I can see a crowd turned in on itself, watching something at its center that not everyone can see. To the degree that we as viewers are made into a community by the commonality of our experiences—we’re all watching this dance together and we’ve all been led through this building together—here our community takes on a kind of mystery at its core. Suddenly we’ve become members of a secret society with different levels of initiation, and those of us at the outer edges look inward, trusting that those closer to the center are seeing what we do not.

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

In the final room, back where we began, all six dancers occupy the long space of the MINT gallery. Although the space is still dimly lit, something about the use of the wide open depth and white walls make it feel bright. Tommy Batchelor stands at the center of the space, and when he begins to dance, it is acrobatic, leaping and spinning through the air, a dazzling spectacle here at the denouement. The dancers move through different groupings—Batchlor’s strong solo set against the gradual sweeping gestures of a trio, Sauma roaming at the edges of the space. There’s a moment with Bendernagel and Batchelor face each other and arch their hearts forward, then all of the dancers find their ways back to their partners from their previous vignettes—House and Nedd, Bendernagel and Moore. Sauma continues to stroke her hand along the outer wall, and House and Need come to Batchelor in the center of the room as the dance finishes.

As the lights come up, I am left thinking about two elements that pervade the materials of this work: throughout the dancing bodies and different rooms and innovative lights, what carried me forward was a sense of anticipation. I knew that we would move on into another space, and while there were sometimes clues as to the timing of these developments, each moment of each vignette persisted with the question: when?
The other element that inflected how I experienced everything I saw was an edge of sado-masochism  suggested by the costumes. The dancers were barefoot and each wore a mix of sheer and solid materials. There was a lot of bare skin, and even with my own three or four layers of clothing, I was very cold in the MINT warehouse. As I watched them dance, I couldn’t ignore the strong sense that these dancers were putting themselves through something. Their bare skin against the cold air, their bare feet against the concrete: the effect for me was a solicited concern, the way one might feel watching someone you love insist that they deserve to suffer, somewhere between empathy and care. To be clear, I take no issue with dancers putting themselves through something difficult or painful; I have danced through bruises and broken skin and blood and tears like most dancers. In a sense, this is a part of our art form. And: tonight, as these six dancers moved through their pairings and trios and solos and groups, as they moved us through the MINT spaces, endurance and empathy were tangible materials that tugged my own body along with theirs. As I hugged several of the dancers goodnight, I said, “Have a great show tomorrow night,” but what I meant was, “Thank you. I see you. Take care of yourself.”

Partially Nothing + Wholly Something will be performed once more, Saturday, March 7 at 8pm at MINT, 42 West Jenkins Ave, Columbus, OH.
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/227394634097889/



Watch From Here: Part 1 | Elsewhere and Trace Forms

Tonight was the opening of Watch From Here, the 2015 OSU Department of Dance MFA Concert Season presented in two parts over two weeks. Part 1 features the work of choreographers Ani Javian and Megan Davis, along with their collaborators, at the Urban Arts Space in downtown Columbus.

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Javian’s Elsewhere was the first piece of the evening:
When the audience is allowed to enter the performance space—a long corridor with cement floor and high ceilings on the south side of the Urban Arts Space—four dancers are already present, their bodies crumpled softly on the ground, all at different angles, their limbs askew. Above them, sculptural elements by Leah Frankel are suspended at many different elevations: the sculptures, what look like wooden dowels painted different tones of beige hanging from filament, all hang parallel to one another, running along the length of the gallery space from east to west. The audience sits or stands on all four sides of the space, and small, almost tentative rocking and swaying actions shift through the dancers’ bodies.

A fifth dancer, Shannon Drake, runs suddenly into the space, making her way through the bodies on the floor to the far end of the gallery. Whereas the four dancers on the floor move almost beneath the threshold of perceptibility, Drake’s movements are strong and full-bodied, their force pushing impatiently through the duration of each passing second. She runs back and forth along the longitudinal length of the space, across and around the bodies on the floor.

As if stirred by Drake’s rapidity, the four on the floor—Abby Carlozzo, Kelly Hurlburt, Sarah Levitt, and s.lumbert—quickly move towards each other and line up, horizontal and side by side. Their tiny shifts and swaying now press into each other, and I am drawn into soft places when flesh presses into flesh. Their costumes—sleeveless tops and pants all pieced together from multiple shades of beige and tan—along with their skin—all of the dancers are white—give the group of bodies a kind of homogeneity. The skin, the costumes, and the multiple beiges of the sculptures hanging overhead comprise a narrow consistency across multiple elements of the dance; the dance develops as bodies push and roll and speed up and come together and apart all within this narrow space.

Over the duration of the dance, the dancers roll over and alongside each other; they lift one dancer into the air and maneuver her around the space; they crawl and dance in pairs and other small groupings; they drift in and out of unison with each other; they inhabit any number of levels of space, moving high up into the air, down flat on the floor, and many elevations in between. Across the group, the choreography introduces a range of dynamics and speeds: legs and arms slicing and flinging through the air, rolling quickly across hands and knees and hips, and also standing still and slowing down, the dancers carefully circling limbs in their joints, as if never fully deciding where they could move next. My initial reaction to the dance is that it shows something about the multiple dimensions of variability within a presumably narrow range of possibilities, the speed and intensity and spatial configurations that are possible within the limits of various approximations of beige.

But it is more specific than that. It is not only the colors of the costumes and dancers and sculptures that suggest narrow possibilities: the parallel alignment of the sculptures, their cumulative adherence to the longitude of the room, and how they mark out a collection of singular, rigid elevations in space, all introduce systems of measurement, lines and levels that organize how I perceive the dimensions of the space and the bodies moving within it. The sculptures establish a three-dimensional grid, striations across the space that refer to global(izing) perspectives for the linear demarcation of position within a given frame—longitude, latitude, elevation away from the center of the planet. The architecture of the space, its four walls, its floor and ceiling, already iterate these dimensions; Frankel’s sculptures extrude these dimensions into the air and give a constant frame of reference for determining how these dancing bodies do and do not line up within that frame. Sometimes the dancers literally line up, flat to the walls or ceiling, all in a straight queue. But more often, they move across and between these straight lines and planes; they accelerate and decelerate over and through curving pathways and diagonals that cut the space in temporary, renegade formations. And most importantly, they do so together.

Not only does the choreography the dancers perform never fully or permanently conform to the geometry of the room or sculptures—or the rigid linearity that those structures impose—neither do their connections. This dance is full of bodies coming to one another, pressing against each other, sometimes moving apart, but then keeping up with each other as they move. The soft places where bodies come into contact, the shifting dynamic relationship between two bodies that may not be in contact but nonetheless attempt to move with each other in some direction, map out a different geometry, a fleshy, sweaty, pulsing spatiality that knows nothing of rigid structures or hard lines. Where and how bodies meet and stay with each other exceeds the terms of the grid above them. Even in the final moments of the dance, all five bodies have once again crumpled to the floor at various elevations, more or less in line with each other along the length of the room. But their lines are multiple, soft, and loose, curving smoothly around their shoulders and hips and spines, facing in directions that are not fully one way or another. The right here-and-now of bodies with each other refuses to be constrained within totalizing frameworks of rigid spatialities; bodies, it seems, are already elsewhere, even when they are right here.

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis’ Trace Forms, developed in collaboration with the performers—Lilianna Kane, Maddie Leonard-Rose, Claire Moore, and Stacy Shelts—involves both a dance and an exhibition of various forms of documentation of dancing. The walls are lined with sketches, drawings, video documentation, and writing about dancing that came out of the choreographic process through which the dance was developed; the dance takes place surrounded by these various traces of dancing in several media.

The dance begins, and from where I am sitting on the floor, I can see two dancers leaning against a wall, rolling against it, and sweeping their hands over its surface. A foot emerges from behind one of the large columns in the middle of the gallery, and gradually two more dancers come into view. These first few moments are very tactile: the contact between the dancers and the wall seems more important than the specific gestures or movements that they are doing. The movement seems to come from the contact, to support to tactile encounter, to experiment with it.

Eventually the dancers move out into the space, and form a line at the east end of the gallery. In front of them, two monitors display video of these dancers in rehearsal. I don’t know if they are watching themselves in the videos, but I am watching them, their actual bodies in space, the images of their bodies on the screens beyond them. Their line turns, and they begin to move as a pack, maintaining degrees of proximity to each other. The movement is simple: walking, assuming a position, gesturing from that position, the arms or legs extending in lines or arcs around where they began.

Two dancers move out into the space with a long roll of paper, and as they unroll it, I can see colored lines looping and curling and streaking down its length. Given the context of the exhibition materials, I understand these lines to mark out some piece of the choreographic process, some trace of movement—drawing, if nothing else—that has been recorded along this scroll. The dancers circle around the space, carrying the paper into different spatial orientations, twisting it, folding it, manipulating it. In a way that is quite literal, they repurpose this history, rearticulating this record of something that occurred before in a new way for new purposes in the present. As I watch, I am thinking about the records that we keep, these lines on paper, the gestures of dancing images on video monitors, the lines and shapes the dancing bodies make in space that disappear as quickly as they appear. Within moments, the paper is rolled back up, and I realize that whatever may be retained from the past may not remain accessible. Davis and the performers are dancing at the edges of archives—how we retain what has happened, how we use or access what we have retained—moving with and between these records, these lines and paper and digital images and words.

Later in the piece, the four dancers create a loose circle, and one by one they each dance as the others watch. As a viewer, I am not only watching a dancing body; I am also watching three others watching her dancing. I cannot avoid the fact the this body is viewed/viewable from multiple perspectives, and no one perspective can provide a full view. This multiplicity of perspectives—or my attention to it—is compounded as the dancers move forward, and the rest of the audience comes into my sightlines. As we are watching them watching each other, we are also watching each of them and each other watching them: more perspectives of more perspectives.

The dancers break into pairs and move in contact with each other, reminiscent of the opening dancing in contact with the wall. Here they dance with their eyes closed, their bodies feeling and following each other. Moments before, we witnessed them witnessing each other; now their witnessing has become entirely haptic, tactile, touching and feeling touching, body to body in a much more personal, intimate way. Gradually, they drift apart from each other, each dancing on their own, and I feel a wave of sadness: I continue to watch them, we continue to witness them in their eyes-closed dances, but they no longer see or feel each other. We witness them and we witness them no longer witnessing each other. Like the scroll that was rolled up and taken away, like the limited access to records, witnessing, it seems, has its limits and will not go on indefinitely. There comes a time when each body is left to itself, its experience of itself and no other.

One by one, the dancers open their eyes, make their way out into the audience, turn, and join us watching the others who continue to dance. At last, the space is empty, and we are all looking around at each other looking around until the music ends and the clapping begins. These final moments are crucial as the dance directs us from seeing the dancers perform back towards seeing each other.

From the dance to the exhibited materials and back again, Davis examines traces, records, the accounts that remain from the multi-faceted experiences that each of us undergo, on our own and with others. Whatever is happening right now is only part of any story; it is a point along a process—or any number of processes—that extend in any number of directions into the past and towards a future. In Trace Forms, Davis shows that no action or event fully discloses its own history of formation. No moment of any person can reveal that person in any entirety. Across multiple media, marking out pieces and outlines of what has come before, pushing into what is unfolding right now, and holding up some possibilities of what might remain, the dance and the exhibit together offer not a singular, authoritative record of happenings, but an account—or several—of experiences from a collective of perspectives. There is no total account of what has happened, what is happening, where it came from, or where it might lead. Rather, accounts are multiple and partial, incomplete, and rely on countless points of view;  they never add up to a complete record, but accumulate traces that we share, tracing what and how we share what can be shared, and opening up any number of possibilities for where we might go from here.

Watch From Here: Part 1 continues at the Urban Arts Space on Friday, February 6 at 6pm, and Saturday, February 7, at 1pm.

watchfromhere_poster



TAKING PLACE

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photo by Emma Frankart, from Peter Kyle's Yet even in that silence

photo by Emma Frankart, from Peter Kyle’s Yet even in that silence

Tonight I had the opportunity to see the opening night performance of Taking PLace at the Garden Theater in Columbus, Ohio. Taking PLace is “a choreographic residency and experiment in creative process that brings inter/national choreographers to Columbus for the creation of new work with local dancers and a world-premiere concert event at the Garden Theatre.” Tonight’s concert marks the culmination of this residency and festival, conceived and directed by Nicole Garlando. Featuring the work of choreographers K.J. Holmes (NYC), Peter Kyle (NYC), CoCo Loupe (Baton Rouge), Bebe Miller (Columbus), and Claire Porter (NYC), and local choreographers Shannon Drake, Nicole Garlando, and Kent de Spain, the almost two-hour concert offered and invited any number of views on dance and dance making.

Before the show, I was contemplating what it means to “take place,” both in the sense of “to occur,” but also in the sense of occupying a space, taking a place. I was thinking about Judith Butler’s essay “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street” (http://www.eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en), where she thinks along with the writing of Hannah Arendt about what it means for bodies to gather together, about the efficacy of politics in public spaces. She writes: “For politics to take place, the body must appear. I appear to others, and they appear to me, which means that some space between us allows each to appear. We are not simply visual phenomena for each other – our voices must be registered, and so we must be heard; rather, who we are, bodily, is already a way of being ‘for’ the other, appearing in ways that we cannot see, being a body for another in a way that I cannot be for myself, and so dispossessed, perspectivally, by our very sociality. I must appear to others in ways for which I cannot give an account, and in this way my body establishes a perspective that I cannot inhabit … No one body establishes the space of appearance, but this action, this performative exercise happens only ‘between’ bodies, in a space that constitutes the gap between my own body and another’s. In this way, my body does not act alone, when it acts politically. Indeed, the action emerged from the ‘between'” (italics added). The situation of the concert dance stage is one space in which we practice and exercise appearance, showing up for one another, seeing and hearing one another, providing a view of one another that no one can provide themselves. When bodies appear for others in public spaces, they establish perspectives from elsewhere that they cannot inhabit, for which they cannot give an account. As I write about this performance, I do so with the awareness of giving such an account of bodies that they could not give themselves—in the same way that as I sat watching, I was seen and apprehended and recognized is ways that I do not know, that I cannot control, for which I cannot give an account. Certainly, as Butler notes, there is a politics to all of this, but that is not the focus of what I write here; I write here to take part in what it means to take place, to offer one, partial account of what has taken place in Taking PLace.

Brief recollections:

1. :r//end/l//ent/e/r/ing//less by K.J. Holmes in collaboration with the dancers
As the piece begins, I see two grids: the prominent white backdrop superimposed with heavy black lines, and a grid extruding into space from the facings of the six dancers. Facing stage left and stage right, up stage and downstage, each one seems positioned along longitudes and latitudes running across the surface of the stage. The lines come into and out of their bodies: reaching and stepping and leaning and rolling along this spatial grid, conforming in any number of ways to these invisible but nonetheless forceful lines—a conforming that is also an enacting, a producing. The grid that I perceive between these bodies does not precede their actions; I see it because of what they do. And yet it does seem to organize their movements from the start, from before they begin, both coming into being and already having been there. Then the grid begins to unravel: in small ways, dancers start to align with one another, matching the lines of arms and legs and spines and gestures, walking and running alongside one another along parallel pathways; even when there is distance between their bodies, they establish connections with one another through shared lines, facings, directions, and momentum, swinging their arms together, reaching along the same trajectories, and eventually spiraling into a larger, running circle. If what held them together at the beginning was the suggestion of a shared grid, what holds them together at the end is the ongoing question of how they might find, follow, and feel each other, through touch and alignments, through what they share.

2. when we are not sinking or swimming by CoCo Loupe in collaboration with the performers
This is a duet, with Eric Falck and Scott Aaron Kaltenbaugh. They face each other, then relocate, then face each other again. Falck dances, all swoopy and sequential gestures, arms and legs like sinewy tassels sweeping around torso and hips; Kaltenbaugh watches, then Kaltenbaugh dances—moving through bits and pieces and textures that resemble Falck’s dancing—while Falck watches. This establishes the overall structure of this piece: one dances while the other watches, then they trade roles; the second one mimics the first, but only ever partially, then the exchange starts over, taking turns. Dance, watch, stop, see one another, dance, watch, see. I wonder to myself: what does it mean to see, to be seen, to show that you have seen, to see that you’ve been seen. Later they lean into one another, off balance, both supporting and being supported as they move through space; it reminds me of Trisha Brown’s Leaning Duetsbut leaning towards rather than away. Music begins, and they groove together, away from each other, back towards the other, then suddenly cling to one another. I think Loupe’s piece is a hypothesis about how we move with one another, for one another, near or towards one another, and how we show that other that we have seen them and what we have seen.

3. Yet even in that silence by Peter Kyle in collaboration with the dancers
Six dancers, some who begin on stage, others who enter from the back of the audience. In the center of the stage, Nicole Garlando carries two towering shoots of what looks like bamboo. The stage is basically still except for the fragile motion of the trembling bamboo leaves, so small and so constant that it shifts the scale of both activity and time throughout the piece. There is a lot of standing, slow walking, pausing, reclining, leaning: waiting. The pacing of the piece, accompanied by a minimal percussion score composed and performed live by Noah Demland, has an intermittency: activity, pause, waiting, another activity, another pause, more waiting, and throughout it all, the trembling of the bamboo leaves, the delicate reverberations of Demland’s terra cotta pots and chimes. Across and throughout the almost-stillness and almost-silence, there are these tiny motions and tiny sounds—which, of course, are also motions—and alongside these delicate reverberations, human activities take on considerable proportions. There is no possibility of stillness here, no possibility of silence, and the incorporation of such minute motion makes even a step seem momentous.

4. to never establish heavy-balance by/performed by Shannon Drake
This is a solo. The lights come up, and I think: glamour. Her face is made up, and she is wearing a sparkly black-gold mini-dress. Accompanied by music by The Knife, she reaches and pulls and flings and steps, constantly off balance or sequencing away from her own center, until she is suddenly on her balance, weight firmly planted on both feet. When she stands steadily or walks along diagonals towards the audience—walking like a model, but more hyperbolic—she is impossibly, uncannily strong. Rolling across the floor, rolling through her hips and shoulders and ribs, her elbows and knees, she is grinding through her own insides. And even when her fingers beckon, as if to say, “Come here,” it is strikingly evident that she is more than capable of getting the job done all on her own.

5. Beside Myself Deciding by Claire Porter in collaboration with the dancers
The piece begins with five dancers seated at the front edge of the stage, all wearing black and white dresses. They start talking, to the audience, to each other, to themselves.
“So what do you want? What do you want?”
“Me?”
“I want to drive somewhere…”
“…should we stop for coffee?”
“…the MFA or the PhD?”
This is what Susan Foster calls a talking dance: talking while dancing, dancing while talking, a dance with a lot of talking. The talking and the dancing occur alongside one another, intersect, sometimes seeming to inform or illustrate one another, sometimes merely simultaneous. They talk and move through things as if they are figuring them out: each gesture has an indirect, not-quite-hesitant-but-not-quite-certain quality to it, an undecidability, we might call it. They come together in gossipy little clumps, they touch one another—everyone touching someone, no one touching everyone—they lead one another, maneuver each other’s faces and bodies like puppets.
“Who will decide where to go?” is a question that stalls, confounding them, again undecidable.
The text turns towards engagement parties, dinners for two, breakups, marriages, divorces, arguments. Unions and separations and conflict are on the table here. Often the dancers are pointing, often in the same direction, and often they then move in a different direction. Pushing, pulling, directing, and redirecting themselves and each other, the piece ends with them moving downstage as a group, each one manipulating the face and focus of another; if they’ve decided where to go, it’s only between the incessant push and pull.

6. ()()()()()()()()() by Nicole Garlando in collaboration with the dancers (multiple casts)
The dancers are dispersed, all wearing white or beige or gray, moving through small gestures, sometimes quick and sometimes gradual. They form impermanent duets, small alignments with one another, mimicking each other, them moving on. The soundscore is a collage of people talking, but it isn’t until later in the piece that I begin to make sense of what they are saying. It offers a kind of explanation: it isn’t about coming together as a unified group; it’s more about their differences and making connections. In ways, this piece echoes the first by K.J. Holmes (although I believe it was choreographed before the other), with dancers along different facings and trajectories finding connections and relationships—spatial, temporal, touching, etc. But the connections here feel fleeting, a matter of moments. One moment something becomes shared between one or more dancers, and the next it’s gone. They are on to something else.

7. Intervention for Two by Kent De Spain, with Leslie Dworkin
Two people seated in chairs facing in opposite directions on opposite sides of the stage. He wears a suit, and she wears a sexy red dress. They are accompanied by scattered sound bytes—music and dialogue—from “classic Hollywood films.” Gestures and interactions are timed—with the slightest sense of delay—with the text as if they are together both the jokes and the punchlines.

8. Watching the Watching by Bebe Miller assisted by Rashana Smith
A single dancer is on stage facing a laptop computer on a stool. She makes faces and small head/body movements while watching the screen. She gets close to the screen, and a larger group of dancers enter. They are accompanied by recorded text by Ain Gordon. He speaks about six people gathered together; something happens, and they each tell their own story of what happened. There is no one story; the stories proliferate, and with each telling, there are more and more versions of what happened that circulate.
“It happened, it was thought about, it was told and retold, until it gets lost.”
All of the dancers are watching the screen, moving along together: circling shoulders, small head movements, circling through the torso, their foci anchoring them in the direction of the screen. Suddenly, most of the dancers exit, and six remain. They are dancing together, all watching the computer that one dancer is carrying, and when she turns, I see that they are following a video on the computer screen. They are watching the screen and following along; I am watching them dancing, and their dancing is their following, the telling of their own watching. The other dancers re-enter with a second computer, and they are all dancing while watching the screens, following along with what I cannot see. As the piece progresses, the dancers divide up: there are those watching the screen and moving along with what they see, then there are other who are only watching them, following those dancers who are watching the screen, then others following the dancers following the dancers following the video on the screen. The stage is full of stages of translation of the same movement as it migrates across bodies, across intervals of time and space. They are all doing some version of the same movement, but as the stages of translation increase, so also do their differences. There are slight delays, subtle canons now, and more variations on how the movement lives out differently in and across different bodies. There is not just one version; there are many. I am watching them watching them watching what I cannot see…

And now here I am, at my own screen, watching myself writing what I saw, what they could not see.
And here is how something takes place, how it can be said to have taken place: the stories that we tell, the accounts that we give, and how they do and do not add up to a total view of what it was that took place. Like Loupe’s when we are not sinking or swimming, Miller’s piece stages the experience of watching, seeing, being seen, and showing what was seen. Not everything carries over; there is no single, total, authoritative view. Every event, every occurrence, every performance, every dance—every person even—always occurs between any number of partial positions, any number of limited views. No one of us can give the full account of a dance, of another, of ourselves, of what has taken place.
These brief recollections of these eight dances are a view from somewhere, from only one position/place. There are more recollections, views, somewheres, positions, and places; there must be. And such multiple views together—what we see together, alongside one another, what we can see of one another that no one of us can see for ourselves—is how we go about taking place.

You have two more opportunities to see this show: Saturday, July 12th at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are $15 at the door. For more information, visit:
https://www.facebook.com/events/870036403013345/
http://takingplacecolumbus.com



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



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.