Filed under: Dance | Tags: charlotte stickles, from one, joshua manculich, lilianna kane, osu dance, urban arts space
Last night was the opening of a three-day run for From One, a production featuring the work of OSU Dance BFA students Lilianna Kane and Charlotte Stickles and MFA student Joshua Manculich. Presented at the OSU Urban Arts Space in downtown Columbus, the show consists of a series of solos stationed in different portions of the gallery.
So much about this show was richly rewarding to witness, and I wish that the demands of academic faculty life allowed me the time today to really trace out the contours of each of the works presented. Instead, I want to offer brief thoughts, responses, and reactions to each of the projects, participating in the aesthetic dialogue that each of these artists initiated.
The first piece I saw was a durational performance by Charlotte Stickles entitled Paradise Park. In the south gallery, a large, astroturf (or some other form of artificial grass) rectangle was situated in the middle of the floor, flanked on either side by gallery walls bearing video projections of clouds, water, tree bark, and greenery. The lighting in the gallery was dim and very, very green. Stickles was reclining on the astroturf, legs extending, twisting from the waist, gaze extending beyond the horizons of the synthetic field. At either end of the gallery space were posters with what seemed to be handwritten questions like, “What is natural?” and “What is natural in this room?” There were pads of post-it notes and pencils with directions to write answers to these questions and post them anywhere in the room. Already there were trails and clusters of post-its around walls and floor of the space. I found the questions almost rhetorical with all that Stickles had given us: the electric strips of green LED light, the artificial turf, the video projections, her own body. Nature or natural here is what looked like something we think of as nature or natural, a facsimile, a projection, a set of associations. I appreciated the interactive element, and as I read through the different responses posted on the walls and floor, I appreciated the disparity between the thoughts people had offered. As more and more post-its appeared, it became increasingly demonstrated that “natural” is dissonant, a series of disagreements and conflicting or diverging views, a matter of perspective. It is not a stable signifier or referent. I kept thinking about Donna Haraway’s useful introduction of the term “natureculture” or “naturalcultural,” which signals that anything we call “nature” is designated as such by a series of cultural, discursive productions, made into nature, usually as a strategy to support particular cultural values and formations. I wish I had spent more time with Stickles’ actual movement vocabulary; the multiple dimensions of the space she had fabricated occupied my attention.
I moved away thinking:
I wonder if her clothes are synthetic as well—polyester or some of petroleum-based textile.
Situating her body more-or-less at the center of this installation, I kept thinking about the project of “the human,” anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, the ways in which our species relentlessly positions ourselves as the center of a world that we build up around us, designating some parts to be “natural” and other parts “unnatural” as ways of validating our ideological investments.
This installation of so much synthetic nature read like a provocation to ask: how much is the very concept of nature a fabrication, artificial, something we install and put into relation with other materials in order to affirm a particular kind of world, and are our bodies a part of that critique?
Was Stickles’ body, there on the floor at the center of this installation, also an “unnatural nature”? And was there some part of the performance that introduced this question—the body itself a sedimentation of so many cultural signs, arbitrary categories, organ-ized territories, just like the square of turf on the gallery floor?
Next in the show was Monologues, a series of six solos choreographed by Johsua Manculich and performed by Victoria Alesi, Tommy Bachelor, Callie Lacinski, Kat Sprudzs, Tadas Varaneckas, and Erin Yen. For me, the dancers themselves were the real stars of this project, in both their performances and in their large black and white portraits hanging on the gallery wall alongside the performance space in the central gallery. The solos were surrounded by seated and standing viewers on four sides, our bodies and gaze framing the dancers like the frames of their hanging portraits. These dancers are profoundly articulate technicians; their capacity to rapidly shift dynamic states—from frenzied agitation to spectacularly precarious balances, from weighted and sustained subtlety to explosive momentum blasting through the space—demonstrated considerable virtuosity at an intimate scale. Sometimes they made eye contact, but mostly they danced really hard and fast sometimes only feet or inches away from the audience, and it created the effect of almost desperate bids to be seen, to be felt. Each solo had a precise structural relationship to the music accompanying the dancing, and while there were some distinctions and different tendencies in the vocabulary and style of each solo, there was a pervasive quality that permeated all six of the dances: rapidity that zigzags unsettled through mostly adjacent body parts, like ungrounded electricity firing the jolting contractions of muscles, that then finds a channel or pathways into a breathtakingly fluid turn or a bolt into some nearly impossible balance. The moments that broke from this familiar style—when a gesture was repeatedly several times or when a dancer took multiple measures of the music to adjust her hair into a ponytail or her costume—were the moments I saw more individuality between these performers. This was a central tension for me as a watched: to what extent were these portraits of six individual dancers and to what extent were these six bodies trained to “speak” with one voice? The title of the piece was Monologues, but to what extent was this a single monologue, a “speaking alone” through six bodies?
I left the piece with questions, mainly about the music that accompanied each solo. How were these pieces selected? What relevance did they have to the performer or the choreographer? How did they sit alongside one another, and what did they do with these articulately virtuosic bodies beyond provide structure for their movements? Was the movement in any way in dialogue with the content or contexts of these pieces of sound?
In this series of sound related questions, there is one in particular which continues to linger with me the day after: the sound for what I believe was the third solo, danced by Tadas Varaneckas, was a spoken poem by Andrea Gibson entitled “I Sing My Body Electric, Especially When My Powers Out.” I kept wondering how to watch a dance choreographed by a white man for a dancer who is a white man while listening to the voice of a woman, a woman who spoke about her own experiences of her body and queerness. I kept wanting to see something in the dancing that suggested the these white male bodies were trying to learn from the experiences of this woman, from the ways that her experiences are different from their own. I kept want to see her influence on the work, more than simply patterns of speech and moving emotional content to support the virtuosity of the performer and choreography on display.
The final piece of the evening was Silk, choreographed and performed by Lilianna Kane. Before the dance even began, the space was striking, a vibrant red marley floor extending from the place where the white gallery wall met the cold cement floor. The piece began with surprise, Kane rushing into the space like a quick exhale and then collapsing to the floor. As her body folded and unfolded in a repetitive sliding, her hair falling around her face and the red floor, my eyes adjusted to her nearly-naked body, clothed in a sheer white jumpsuit. The near-nudity, the not-quite-naked body that was nonetheless on full display, elicited a haptic quality in my viewing: although I could see the surfaces, curves, and folds of her flesh, the hair on her body, my attention was brought again and again to those centimeters just above the surface of her skin, held in the fibers that draped over and around her body. In a sense, my attention became those fibers, a soft barely-touch wrapping easily around her. The choreography was a deft blend of sensual, solicitous, even erotic gestures—the toss of her hair, sliding out onto all fours, the slump and sway of her spine, different places and parts of her body coming into view as she rolled across to red surface—and a minimalist formalism that held these vocabularies within a structure for our consideration. Gestures and motions were repeated, articulated at multiple scales, brought to the floor and back to standing, using compositional strategies to make what might have been initially legible within particular affective registers into something less familiar, strange even. At one point, she lied in the center of the floor, slowly lowering her foot into her hand. The increasingly proximity between parts, the tension and anticipation of flesh meeting flesh, felt like a personal embodiment of the audience/performer relationship—relationships of attention, nearness, and mediated contact. Once her foot found her hand, she sat up and began kneading the sole of her foot with her thumb as she looked around the audience with a vague smile. She made eye contact as she looked around, and it was not entirely clear if her smile was a result of this contact or the pedal self-pleasuring or both. As she gazed around the audience, her body began to twist, her foot crossing onto her other leg, her body approaching a kind of knot, edging towards something that may have been discomfort.
At a crucial moment, I think during Patsy Cline’s “True Love,” Kane stepped beyond the edge of the marley, approached a person sitting in the front row, and asked if she could hug them. They stood there hugging for a while before settling back down, the person in their seat, Kane on the floor next to them. I sat, at first turned to continue to watch Kane, then back to the empty red dancefloor. Kane eventually made her way back onto the floor, back to the white gallery wall, and leaned against it, allowing it to support her. In the final moments of the piece, she rushed out of the gallery in a grand sweeping gesture as swiftly as she had entered; the audience applauded, and Kane did not return. It felt like a citation of so many elusive, fleeting performances before her, so many sylphs and faeries and ballerinas, always rushing off, out of reach. This encounter was both intimate and an examination of intimacy within performance, and then it was over and gone. The muscles and bones and flesh, the embodied person who had lingered almost within reach was suddenly absent, and we were left applauding the space where she had been.
Accompanying the performance, I was incredibly moved by Kane’s comments in the program for the show, reproduced here:
“Dance training and performance offers a space to practice our ability to listen to each other, see each other, move with each other, consensually touch each other, and exist peacefully together, regardless of where we come from, what we look like, how we identify, and whom we love … Dance celebrates and relies on difference, and teaches the practice of non-judgement. To dance, to witness dance, to love oneself and to empathize with one another are political acts. Dance requires experiencing another body in relationship to one’s own. Dance is a form of political kindness.”
There are two more days of shows:
Friday, December 2 at 7pm
Saturday, December 3 at 5pm and 7pm.
For more information, visit: http://www.uas.osu.edu/exhibitions/one-department-dance-bachelor-fine-arts-master-fine-arts-concerts
Filed under: Dance | Tags: alton sterling, arts council of greater baton rouge, baton rouge, CKA, CKA: enough (2), climate change, coco loupe, Dance, enough, mina estrada, orlando, philando castile, protest, transgender
I wrote and performed this text for CKA: Enough (2), a dance performance event produced by CKA (Currently Known As) at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 15, 2016. An audio recording of the text can be found below.
Enough is enough.
I’ve had enough.
Am I enough. Am I doing enough.
When is “doing” itself already enough?
At what point have I done enough to be enough?
Which might also be asked another way: how much must I do in order to become myself? If we might understand the self as not necessarily a persistent being unto itself, but rather the accumulation of a set of activities, an ongoing repetition of stylized acts—a bit like a dance actually—a process of doing doing doing doing doing until finally—or perhaps never actually finally, but always tenuously, always conditionally, always precariously—I become legible to others and myself as I am, as a person, as a human being, specifically under the conditions that to be human, to be a person, means that I am worthy of recognition, worthy of basic care and respect.
How much doing is enough to become recognizable as a person, as human, as worthy of recognition, care, and respect?
And how much is not enough?
And Philando Castile.
And Sandra Bland.
And Freddie Gray.
And Tamir Rice.
And Eric Garner.
And Trayvon Martin.
And “Goddess” Diamond.
And “Reecey” Walker.
And Keyonna Blakeney.
And Shante Isaac.
And Maya Young.
And and and and and and and you know some of those names and the ones you might not know are the names of transgender women of color who have been murdered already this year, this year that follows last year—the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States, more than 22 reported murders of transgender people, and when no matter how much you do to live your life, you might still die, how much doing is enough to stay alive?
What will it take—what would be enough—to prevent state and social violence?
Enough is enough.
And what the fuck about Orlando? 49 people were killed and they were lesbian and gay and bisexual and queer and transgender, and on that night, in that space, dancing was enough to bring people together, but for many of them, it was not enough to keep them alive.
And the following week, members of Congress staged a sit-in in order to demand a vote to change gun laws in our country, and the sit-in was not enough, and the laws did not change.
From the Old English genog meaning “sufficient in quantity or number.” The first part ge- meaning “with, together.” The second part nog from the root nek meaning “to reach, to attain.”
With, together, reach, attain: what can we attain, what can we reach, together?
I just spent a week in Melbourne, Australia at a conference on performance and climate, and we spent a lot of time talking about artists making work that deals with the global climate crisis, and on the 15-hour flight back to the U.S., I kept wondering: is any of it enough?
Is any of this art enough to affect how we think or live our lives, specifically in relation to the planet, to climate change, to this vast world of nonhuman others to which we belong—when world leaders can’t find a way to stop the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees, when all the promises about policy changes might not be enough to mitigate global warming and major extinction events?
Enough. With, together, reach, attain.
What can we do together to reach a future earth, and who gets to come with us?
And what if we can’t do enough to be part of the “us” that reaches that future earth?
What if we cannot or will not do enough to mitigate our own extinction. When time is running out, when time might already be up, “enough” means something different.
So when is dance and dancing enough?
This dance was enough to bring us all here, to share our time and space and bodies with one another.
Dancing was enough to mobilize bodies, to put our bodies into motion, not only here and now tonight, but also for weeks and months preparing for this performance—and also for years and years, as we’ve developed ourselves as dancers.
And watching dancing can be enough too. It asks us to stay attentive to bodies not our own, staying open to witnessing whatever comes next, the unpredictability of bodies, the moment by moment emergence of moving bodies not our own, and in watching them, allowing ourselves to be acted on by them, perhaps even to accept them, come what may, and in this way, dance—the event of both dancing and watching dancing—might be enough—or might begin to be enough—to foster a kind of ethics, an orientation of patient, receptive attention towards others…
This is not a protest dance, but it is a dance that’s taking place in a world of protest, protesting bodies, bodies gathering in rallies and vigils, bodies gathering in the streets, as our bodies gather here, and any dancing that we do or view is not separate from this world of other bodies that gather.
Whatever else it might do, dance gives us an opportunity to move and be moved.
As we watch, “enough” remains a question: for what is dancing enough? For what is moving and allowing ourselves to be moved enough? If we are moved here and now by the bodies that we see, will that be enough for us to be moved by other bodies in other times and places?
We keep asking: is this enough? And when we ask, “Is this enough?” we also continue to ask: enough for what?
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: balthus, immersive dance theatre, rashana smith, torrence 6-36-86
It was the kind of show at which you might end up in bed with someone.
On May 27 and 28, I performed as part of an immersive dance theatre project entitled Torrence 6-36-86, directed by Rashana Perks Smith and presented throughout her house in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. This project was developed over many months, with about 17 different contributing artists generating site-responsive contributions—in the forms of dance, interactive performance art, sculptural installations, and video art—to a 50-minute production. Together we explored the meaning of proximity (to others), accessibility (of material), and domesticity (within the social constructs of a private residence in a suburban midwest neighborhood and through the retrospective eyes of a personified ninety-two year old house). Over the course of two days, nearly 90 audience members were met by an ensemble performance that began in the front yard/driveway, proceeded into the basement garage, up into and throughout the rooms on the main two floors of the house, and finally out into the back yard. Dances took place in almost every room of the house—the kitchen, the guest bedroom, the dining room, a child’s bedroom; 3D video of the house at other times and places was projected onto the walls of the study and offered to viewers through the frame of a small handheld monitor; installations in the forms of light, fabric, origami, and sound created a multi-sensory ameliorations to the space as it is usually inhabited. Each performer embodied a distinct role; some performed very clear “characters,” while others performed actions that were more reminiscent of archetypes. As an ensemble, we offered a plethora of opportunities for the audience to create their own sense of meaning for the piece. Some perceived ambiguous narratives of marriage, infidelity, and aging; others described a sense of mystery, never quite knowing why all of these figures were together in this house, but experiencing a series of moments that came in and out of focus, resonating with their own histories and feelings.
My primary contribution to the production was a series of interaction-driven performances, in which I invited select guests to come with me to the master bedroom. Over the course of four days—including our test audiences for our dress rehearsals—I invited nearly thirty people upstairs to join me in the master bedroom. The bedroom was staged very simply: the bed was the prominent feature, along with bedside tables, the indirect light of two lamps, a small stack of books (each relating directly or indirectly to eroticism, sex, desire, or love), music playing softly (a mix of Etta James and Nina Simone), and a few other pieces of bedroom furniture—two dressers, a chair, and a stool. With each of these guests, I ushered them inside, closed the door all but a sliver, turned to face them and said, “This is the master bedroom. What would you like to do?” The interaction that unfolded with each person remained unpredictable, shaped primarily by their stated desires, their responses, and occasionally by my suggestions when they didn’t know how they wanted to proceed or when they asked what I wanted. The majority of these interactions ended up in bed; many ended up in ways that were beyond anything I had imagined or anticipated. Many of these scenes were observed by other audience members or performers peering voyeuristically through the tiny opening left by the door; on two occasions, other audience members walked right into the room (uninvited but not explicitly discouraged either) to observe the intimate interactions in the bedroom. Each interaction lasted approximately seven minutes, measured out by a fairly complex cueing system between the performers in different rooms. Each interaction ended abruptly, sometimes with someone outside the bedroom pushing against the door, and sometimes with another performer rushing into the room and throwing herself onto the bed. In each case, I alerted my guest that our time was up with an urgent declaration: “We have to go.”
What happened in the bedroom is beyond precise accountability. I could describe specific actions or interactions—one person wanted to jump on the bed, one person wanted to watch me as I held and stroked the pillows like lovers, another suggested that we rub each other’s feet, many ended up in bed lying next to me or spooned against my body, a few shifted nervously and made anxious conversation, for instance—but none of that exactly captures the moment to moment eye contact and shift in posture, the small smiles and laughs and careful balancing of cordiality with nervousness, the subtle actions and reactions, the words they spoke and my sultry, suggestive responses. I could fill volumes with descriptions of how people looked at me and looked away, the counterpoint of glance and counter-glance, the moments when a stranger or friend’s body relaxed in my arms or how cuddling our breathing fell into synch. I could write about the people who remained tense, anxiously looking towards the door either hoping to leave sooner rather than later or worried that someone else might enter. I read to many people from Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos and The Sensuous Woman by “J”—lines about a beautiful, cheating, disappointing husband or transitioning from vibrator masturbation to hand masturbation respectively. But those descriptions of the action would not capture the feeling of being together in a small room with the door nearly closed, the associations of reading to someone in bed or being read to in bed, the banging and thudding of performances in other rooms mixing with the rich tones of Nina Simone and Etta James as we together tried to figure out what we would do together in this situation. I could transcribe conversations about memories and stories of childhood, families, work, sex, and the performing arts, but such transcriptions couldn’t capture the way her hair fell across one eye as she laid next to me speaking through her smile or how he shifted forwards and backwards decisively, as if each movement was being choreographed moment by moment. I don’t know how to transcribe the state of attention that I was maintaining—trying to direct all of my focus on this one individual, crafting opportunities for interaction out of the things they said, while also staying attentive to cues coming from other performers in other rooms. Each interaction in the bedroom was itself an improvised dance of actions and reactions, propositions and responses, anticipation, projection, and uncertainty. With each stranger, we became more familiar, more intimate within a context; with those I knew, friends and loved ones who I brought to the bedroom with me, our familiarity became strange as we navigated a situation we had never been in before. Multiple people who I did not know before the performance afterwards described our time together as charged with potential eroticism, feeling illicit as they became intimate with a stranger in someone else’s bedroom. Several people who I did know described similar but distinct impressions: the fact that they knew me sometimes made the situation even more strange or unfamiliar, as if we had gone “off script” from the familiar relationship we both knew, inventing a new way of being together within the context of this bedroom/performance.
For the rest of the audiences—the majority of those who moved through the performance, who were not invited to the master bedroom—I was a more peripheral figure, someone who slinked around the edges of rooms, posing in a corner or perching on the edge of a desk, someone who invited the person next to them to the master bedroom then brought them back a short while later. One audience member (Angela Dufresne) described me afterwards as “a nymphette in a Balthus painting,” which I felt was an apt characterization of the figure I performed.
My interests in this performance project were multiple: first, I wanted to create a structure for scenarios that brought issues of intimacy, privacy, power, and decision-making into and out of view. I wanted to proposition people I knew and did not know, in ways that shifted their own attention to their responses, their desires, and their choices when they found themselves in semi-private one-on-one interactions in an unfamiliar bedroom. The scenarios that played out in the master bedroom—which began from the moment I approached someone and asked, “Would you like to come with me to the master bedroom?”—complicated the audience/performer roles, putting audience/participants on display for themselves. I did not know in advance what would transpire; neither did they. In a sense, the audience/participant performed for me as well, in as much as I performed for them. Although every single person who I asked to come with me did so, they didn’t have to make that decision. And yet they did: they chose to come, not knowing what would happen and also not knowing what else they might miss, perhaps not even realizing that they were choosing to have one unknown experience rather than others. This experience of making choices without all the information, as well as the experience of perhaps realizing that you had made choices without all the information, was also of particular interest for me, if for no other reason than that it utilized this performance situation to frame and accentuate an experience that is certainly germane to life beyond the performance. Most of all, I think I hoped that the audience/participants who joined me in the bedroom would leave with a heightened sense of self-awareness or self-consciousness—observing, reviewing and questioning their own behavior—mingled with what might include excitement, exhilaration, anxiety, pleasure or desire—if not for me or my company, then for the resolution of the scenario that remained interrupted and unfinished. No doubt the structure for the scene—an intimate liaison with someone in a bedroom that belongs to neither of us—creates the conditions for a number of affective responses. It was this affective potential as well as the audience/participants’ actions that followed from their immediate feelings that I wanted to put on display for each of them.
In posing the question, “What would you like to do?” I hoped to give audience/participants an experience of articulating or giving voice to their own desires, however mundane or rarefied those might have been. For those who did not know what they wanted or who asked for suggestions or asked what I wanted, I think I wanted to give them intimate experiences that maybe they had not had before, or maybe they had not had in a semi-public space before: lying in bed or cuddling with someone they did or did not know—a friend or former student, a stranger, someone whose gender presentation is ambiguous—having someone read to them in bed or seated in a chair, slow dancing together to Etta James, watching me dance at the foot of the bed, etc. It is a questions perhaps many of us have not asked before: if someone took us into a bedroom and closed the door, turned to us and asked, “What would you like to do?”—how would we respond? What desires would we be capable of naming? What actions would we give ourselves permission to venture? How far would we let ourselves go into our own fantasies?
I was also interested in the experience of exclusivity, both for those who came to the bedroom with me and for those who watched other people go to the bedroom, without knowing what happened there. Multiple audience members commented afterwards that they were disappointed that they didn’t get to go to the master bedroom; conversely, quite a few people who were with me in the bedroom expressed worry that they were “missing something” elsewhere in the house. Several people asked why I picked them; several people also expressed something like jealousy after having been to the bedroom with me then watching me take someone else after them. All of these reactions interest me, and they are the kinds of affective responses that I hope became palpable elements in the audiences’ experiences.
Each audience member’s experience of Torrence 6-36-86 was different. Of course, this is true of any performance—in that each viewer occupies a position/perspective entirely their own, and brings to the experience their own associations and meaning—but here this difference/uniqueness was heightened, with the audiences separated into different rooms, different positions in different rooms, seeing different parts of the performance in different sequences, sometimes experience a part (like mine) that few others experienced, sometimes missing something that many other people saw. For me it was an experience of following someone else’s desires, sometimes entangling them with my own, and somehow finding our way into one another’s arms and into bed—but only for a short while.
Filed under: culture, Dance, dance review | Tags: classical Indian dance, cultural exchange, Dance, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, higher education, imani asha gaston, kaustavi sarkar, mancha pravesh, odissi, osu, osu dance
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:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar
Filed under: Dance | Tags: counterfeit madison, eve hermann, justin fitch, osu, osu dance, phil brown dupont, the ohio state university, TOWARD BELONGING
On April 29 and 30, I premiered a new dance work entitled TOWARD BELONGING, featuring performers Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison. Over the last several years, while working on my PhD, my choreographic practice has been almost entirely focused on developing solo queer burlesque pieces, dances that I choreographed for me to perform on burlesque stages in and around Columbus, Ohio. TOWARD BELONGING was a step back into the studio, working with people I care about on making something meaningful and critical together. If you were not able to see the performances, I have finally gotten documentation posted.
April 29 in the Barnett Theatre in Sullivant Hall in the Department of Dance at the Ohio State University, videoed by s lumbert:
April 30 in Studio 290 in Sullivant Hall in the Department of Dance at the Ohio State University:
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: 20 rue jacob, burlesque, charli brissey, courtney harris, gender, genderqueer, left of canvas
On May 22-23, I was part of an event called 20 Rue Jacob which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Courtney Harris and Charlie Brissey. It was a multi-media event that was simultaneously a live performance, an art exhibit, a dance party, and a contemporary salon, featuring dance, video, installation sculpture, text, and burlesque. You can read more about the event here; in this post, I want to reflect a bit on my own choreography and performance, and share the text that I wrote for the solo that I performed.
Inspired by the work of painter Romaine Brooks and the famous salons hosted by Brooks’ lover, writer Natalie Barney, on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s, 20 Rue Jacob was intended as a contemporary reimagining of a queer past, the communities and spaces in which gender and sexuality, their fluidity and performance, have been explored. Since Courtney and Charli first invited me to be a part of this project, I knew that I wanted to create a piece that referenced the culture of an intellectual salon while also drawing on my own work as both a scholar and a performer. The piece also emerged from a kind of characterization, if not a character: last year I performed in a short film entitled Left of Canvas, also directed by Brissey and Harris and also inspired by the life and work of Romaine Brooks. In that film, my role is intentionally ambiguous. I am an unnamed figure at a kind of historical queer dance party, a femme-androgynous person who moves promiscuously through those in attendance, exuding sensuality and eroticism through glances, touches, brief dances, lingering embraces, roaming hands and tender kisses. In the film, I am all desire and desiring, drawing close and closer, drifting away, and coming back again. For 20 Rue Jacob, I wanted my characterization to retain both the ambiguity and effluence of eroticism that I perform in Left of Canvas—which was projected in a series of video installations throughout the Hoffheimer Building where 20 Rue Jacob was staged—while also embodying the hybrid figure of a genderqueer scholar and burlesque dancer. The foundation for the piece is a spoken text, something between a manifesto and a lecture, the kind of text one might hear from a philosopher at a salon sharing provocative or innovative ideas about society and culture. The text was also an exercise in articulating the fairly complex critical theory of gender and sexuality that I study in a relatively succinct and accessible format. In doing so, I wrote a series of statements, my own words, without quotations or direct citations—while also carrying the undeniable influence of scholars and writers such as Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Sandy Stone.
During my delivery of this text, I moved around a central space surround by elegant antique seating within a huge ballroom on the second floor of the Hoffheimer Building. Dressed in a floor length satin gown, black satin evening gloves, black heels, a brocade shawl and strands and strands of pearls, I walked around the space, making eye contact with the audience. My movements accompanying the text were choreographed, simple, demonstratively gendered gestures abstracted from the self-touching and teasing of a burlesque dancer or strip tease. I say “abstracted” because I think, at the beginning, it was potentially not quite clear that this was a strip tease, that I was or would be a burlesque dancer; in a sense, this revelation itself was part of a “reveal.” As the text developed, I began to remove layers of clothing, first the shawl, then a glove, then the other glove, unzipping my dress, slipping the straps off of my shoulders, then eventually letting the dress fall to the ground. The strip tease was intended to supplement the text and also provide it with dimension: these spoken words are not merely “theory.” I am talking about real lives, real bodies, the living flesh of my own body. My presentation of my genderqueer body was there alongside and beneath my words; receiving the gaze of the audience as I undressed, it could also be overwritten, re-dressed by the text that I spoke.
There were also moments of interaction in the piece. During one line, I approached another performer, came up close, pressed my body against his as he wrapped his arms around my waist. During another line, I approached another performer who—at very specific moments—slapped me in the face to punctuate the reality that dissenting from the gender binary risks punishment, even violence. At the end of the piece, the performer who slapped me—John Domborski—retrieved my dress crumpled on the floor, brought it to me, then helped me as I got dressed there in front of the audience as the next performance began, with a text written by Gertrude Stein. These fleeting interactions introduced to the piece that the ideas delivered through the text are not only theoretical and not only liver by real bodies; they are also social, relational, entangled with intimacy and conflict, desire and disdain.
I hope to provide photo and video documentation of the piece at some point, but for now, here is the text that I wrote/spoke, annotated with descriptions of the choreography:
[Entering the space, I pause and pose at the center of the ballroom: elbows back, shoulders down and very slightly twisted to narrow my silhouette, leaning into one hip, my hands lying lightly on my chest. Posture is integral to gender presentation: how I stand, how I move, how I hold my arms and shoulders and hips are all mechanisms that participate in what will or will not be perceived as feminine. When I begin to speak, I move through a series of gestures, stroking the satin and skin of one arm with my fingertip, my arms swiping seductively across my body.]
“Gender is an activity, something we are given to perform and that we continue to perform repeatedly over time.
[I repeat this series of gestures in three directions as I speak, moving with the text and also moving through silence. Each gesture takes all of the time it takes, luxuriating in the air and lingering across my body. The sustained pacing invites anticipation. With each gesture, I allow my shoulders and hips to push and pull in counterpoint to each other, a continuous tilting and twisting to produce postures that seem to sink into repose.]
By performing it constantly, gender appears to be static, stable, or fixed. It is not.
[I face the fourth direction and slide my hands lightly, sensuously down my bosom, my waist, my hips, my groin.]
No one was born a woman or born a man. These are roles we are assigned.
[I spread my arms wide, opening my shawl, letting it drape across my back, and then fall to the floor. I walk towards the audience, each step careful and measured, crossing one foot in front of the other, and my eyes lock with a man I do not know in the crowd.]
Any person who is called a man performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has already failed.
[Peeling off my left glove as I speak, sliding my hand across my chest, I hold his gaze with mine, knowing that while my gesture is potentially seductive, my words are an indictment. As I speak the word “failed,” the glove snaps softly off of the tips of my fingers.]
Any person who is called a woman performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has also already failed.
[Moving around the edge of the audience, my eyes meet those of a manly woman. I peel the glove off of my right hand as I speak and hand the gloves to the woman.]
Gender categories are aggregates of characteristics—behavioral, physical, chemical, sartorial, choreographic.
[I move back towards the center of the space and pose with each word: miming putting on makeup; stroking my hands down the front of my body until I am bent over, fingers at my ankles; sliding my fingertips back up my body; pressing my hands into my hips, my elbows forward, my belly concave, a model in the pages of Vogue; leaning forward slightly, my left hip jutting back, draping my right arm overhead like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose.]
The more characteristics correspond with a given gender, the more successful the approximation of the category. The more the code does not add up, the more the approximation fails.
[I turn and face another direction, repeating the series of poses.]
These gender codes do not stop at the skin. Biological sex is the attribution of a set of meanings to a body. When we say, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” we are saying: we have already decided what your body means, and that set of meanings will constrain and enable what you can do, how you can live, how you can desire, how you can love. Or be loved.
[Here my voice gets louder as I walk in long strides perched precariously atop six-inch heels around the edge of the audience encircling me. On this line, my voice and presence feel rallying, more like a suffragette than a lecturer.]
Yes, gender is also a matter of desire: Who or what would you be if you found yourself desiring someone whose gender is ambiguous or shifting?
[I approach one of the other performers, Nikolai McKenzie. I look into his eyes, our faces almost touching, then turn, press my back against his front as he wraps his arms around my waist. As I say the word “shifting,” I take a few steps forward, and his arms drift open, trailing behind me as I move on. I turn and walk towards another performer, John Dombroski.]
You can fuck with the codes, but do so at your own risk. Those who dissent from the gender binary are usually punished. [When I say the word punished, he hits me, open palm, across my cheek. I stumble under the force for a moment, recover, then stand back up and look him in the eye.] Repeatedly. [He hits me again, this time with even more force, and I have to pause to recover myself. When I speak again, it is now with a near manic brightness, the voice of a person trying desperately to behave as if everything is completely as it should be.]
What if the codes were to break down? What if bodies refused the codes? In a society built on a gender binary, in which bodies are made to live within one of two mutually exclusive categories, all for the benefit and privilege of—let’s not forget—one sex, what would happen if gender and sex were made matters of not one or two but many?
[As I speak, I waltz back into the center of the room, stepping beneath myself, turning, waltzing around myself, to come to face a stranger. I slowly unzip the back of my dress, revealing the flesh beneath and the hint of a black g-string.]
As a body comes into view, remember that what you see is already overwritten with what you have been told it means, how that body, its gestures, its pieces and parts are allowed to signify.
[Slipping my arms out of the straps of my gown, I hold the top of the bodice with my finger tips, leaning forward and shimmying my shoulders as I speak. Finally, I lowering the dress, sliding the satin down my body, and letting it fall in a soft heap on the floor. Standing, wearing only black pasties, a black g-string, strands of pearls and black heels, I lift one fist high into the air, a rallying gesture, as I lean into one hip, cross one knee slightly in front of the other: a feminine posture.]
What if when assigned one of two genders, our collective response was: My Body Does Not Mean What You Say It Means.
[During one performance, a woman in the audience stood up and lifted her fist into the air in solidarity. I felt like we were sharing something, a gathering force, the seeds of a revolution stirring in this sophisticated salon, amidst the twinkling lights and sparkling wine.
After a moment of stillness and silence, I cross to the edge of the circle. John brings me my dress and I step into it; he zips it up. This is for me the most intimate moment in the piece: stripping is a performance, a show, a spectacle. Redressing is always in the aftermath, after the clothes have come off, after whatever stage show or tryst, perhaps the same night, perhaps the next morning. There’s a kind of exposure in dressing oneself in front of others, and it felt necessary to share that tender moment with the audience as a counterpoint to the density of the text, the confidence of the strip tease.]
[text by Michael J. Morris]