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.



From One
2 December, 2016, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Dance | Tags: , , , , ,

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.

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Charlotte Stickles in Paradise Park, photo by Norah Zuniga Shaw

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?

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Portraits of the dancers in Monologues choreographed by Joshua Manculich. Photography by Spencer Lookabaugh. Photo of installation by Joshua Manculich.

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.

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Lilianna Kane in Silk, photo by Norah Zuniga Shaw

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



CKA: enough (2) text

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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.
Enough.
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?
Alton Sterling.
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.

Enough.
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?



TORRENCE 6-36-86
23 June, 2016, 12:14 pm
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: , , ,

It was the kind of show at which you might end up in bed with someone.

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The Master Bedroom of Torrence 6-36-86, photo by Melissa Vogley Woods

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.

Balthus_painting

“Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) Balthus

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.

IMG_2337

The Master Bedroom of Torrence 6-36-86, photo by Melissa Vogley Woods



becoming becoming becoming

This fall I am creating a new dance work in the Department of Dance at Denison University. This is both my first semester as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison and the first dance I have choreographed with these students. At the moment, the working title of the project is becoming becoming becoming, drawing from a range of references, but specifically borrowing language from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—their concepts of becoming-woman, becoming-animal, and becoming-imperceptible. These are concepts that I have previously explored in a burlesque solo entitled becoming emma, becoming imperceptible. In that piece, I worked with a minimal set of vocabularies through which my body passes: first, eroticized feminine gestures from a burlesque idiom—the grind, the shimmy—then more remote idealized femininity embodied in a balletic idiom—bourrées in fifth position, undulating arms that directly cite Fokine’s Dying Swan and Petipa/Ivanov’s Swan Lake—and finally, in my most exposed state of undress, rolling and crawling that evokes something nonhuman, something insect or creature. The balletic swan is an interesting transitional figure between the eroticized feminine and the animal: she is femininity becoming more unattainable, more rarified, but also more animal, less fully human. I think the choreography offers a proposition regarding the parameters of femininity, the erotic, and the human—where they intersect, where they dissolve, and how they move through a single body.

For this new work, I am considering similar ideas with some of the same references across a larger cast. At the moment, I will be working with twelve dancers. With this group, I will continue to interrogate a range of mechanisms through which culturally specific idealized femininities are produced, reproduced, circulated, and potentially deconstructed or deterritorialized. While working with some of the vocabulary I began to explore with becoming emma, becoming imperceptible, I am interested in investigating the movement/choreographic idiom of the fashion runway—the style of walking, the usually straight-and-narrow spatial pathways, the understated presentationalism of people just walking in order to be looked at, and how they figures subject/object positionalities—alongside continuing to work within a limited ballet vocabulary and movement derived from the nonhuman animal. I am also interested in how these vocabularies and references can be spatialized in relation to one another, as both states and spatial territories through which bodies pass. I’m interested in exploring how these spatialities are positioned in relation to viewers and in relation to particular geometries. One way this might be addressed is arranging the audience on four sides, where their seats demarcate the edges of a plane and the intersecting sight lines extrude a grid. Bodies then might move along this grid, conforming to straight lines and right angles, or they might move across the grid, in ways that do not conform to its logic. These are concepts that I began to explore in some ways in TOWARD BELONGING, a group work that I premiered in April 2015. As with that piece, I will also be investigating repetition as both a choreographic device and a fundamental property of the ontology of gender. Following Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity, we can think of gender as an ongoing activity rather than a state of being, a set of stylized behaviors and acts that are repeated incessantly, producing the effect of their own persistence and stability. Thus, the references of which this piece may be composed include philosophy, multiple movement idioms/traditions through which the feminine and the human/nonhuman are produced (fashion, ballet, etc.), my own previous choreographic work, and abstract concepts like the grid, repetition, and spatialized territories—which are, of course, already politicized in our lived experiences of them.

Here I would like to start to aggregate some specific textual, choreographic, and visual references for the work. I have collected a few different passages of text and videos that will inform my process.

If I can secure permission, I am also hoping to include recorded spoken text by Juliana Huxtable, originally written for the Hood By Air Fall/Winter 2014 runway show (video above), which addresses a range of body ideals in relation to gender:

Lastly, these passages from and discussing the work of Deleuze and Guattari are informing this process, and it may be that recorded readings of these passages also become part of the final work:

“In [Deleuze and Guattari’s] view, the binary couple Man/Woman is one of the interlocking sets of coordinates on the categorical grid defining the person. They correspond to Nobody. They are empty categories. ‘Woman’ is simply the oppositional term without which ‘Man’ would have no meaning. It is simply that in contrast to which what is designated ‘Man’ is deemed superior. It is a patriarchal construct … No real body ever entirely coincides with either category. A body only approaches its assigned category as a limit: it becomes more or less ‘feminine’ or more or less ‘masculine’ depending on the degree to which it conforms to the connections and trajectories laid out for it by society according to which coordinate in gender grid it is judges to coincide with. ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ as such have not reality other than that of logical abstractions … ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ and their many subcategories designate stereotyped sets of object choices and life paths (stable equilibriums) promoted by society. They are clichés that bodies are coerced into incarnating as best they can. No body is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ One can only come to one’s assigned cliché, like metal to a magnet that recedes father into the distance the closer one draws, in an endless deflection from invention. The only end is death. Gender is a fatal detour from desire-in-deviation (every body’s secret potential and birthright) … A body does not have a gender: it is gendered. Gender is done unto it by the socius … Gender is a form of imprisonment, a socially functional limitation of a body’s connective and transformational capacity. Although thoroughly social, gender is not of course arbitrary in the sense that bodies are assigned categories at random. Gendering is the process by which a body is socially determined to be determined by biology: social channelization cast as destiny by being pinned to anatomical difference” (Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, 86-87).

“The feminine gender stereotype involves greater indeterminacy (‘fickle’) and movement (‘flighty’) and has been burdened by the patriarchal tradition with a disproportionate load of paradox (virgin/whore, mother/lover). Since supermolecularity involves a capacity to superpose states that are ‘normally’ mutually exclusive, Deleuze and Guattari hold that the feminine cliché offers a better departure point than masculinity for a rebecoming-molecular of the personified individual. They therefore recommend what they call ‘becoming-woman’ for bodies of either biological sex. Becoming-woman involves carrying the indeterminacy, movement, and paradox of the female stereotype past the point at which it is recuparable by the socius as it presently functions, over the limit beyond which lack of definition becomes the positive power to select a trajectory (the leap from the realm of possibility into the virtual—breaking away)” (Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 87).

“Yes, all becomings are molecular: the animal, flower, or stone one becomes are molecular collectivities, haecceities, not molar subjects, objects or form that we know from the outside and recognize from experience, through science, or by habit. If this is true, then we must say the same of things human: there is a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, that do not resemble the woman or the child as clearly distinct molar entities (although it is possible—only possible—for the woman or child to occupy privileged positions in relation to these becomings). What we term a molar entity is, for example, the woman as defined by her form, endowed with organs and functions and assigned as a subject. Becoming-woman is not imitating this entity or even transforming oneself into it. We are not, however, overlooking the importance of imitation, or moments of imitation, among certain homosexual males, much less the prodigious attempt at a real transformation on the part of certain transvestites. All we are saying is that these indissociable aspects of becoming-woman must first be understood as a function of something else: not imitating or assuming the female form, but emitting particles that enter the relation of movement and rest, or the zone of proximity, of a microfemininity, in other words, that produce in us a molecular woman, create the molecular woman. We do not mean to say that a creation of this kind is the prerogative of the man, but on the contrary that the woman as a molar entity has to become-woman in order that the man also becomes- or can become-woman” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 275-276).

“The question is not, or not only, that of the organism, history, and subject of enunciation that oppose masculine to feminine in the great dualism machines. The question is fundamentally that of the body—the body they steal from us in order to fabricate opposable organisms. This body is stolen first from the girl: Stop behaving like that, you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re not a tomboy, etc. The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 276).

“…it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all other becomings” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 277).

“If becoming-woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becomings-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing toward? Without a doubt, toward becoming-imperceptible. The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 279).

“A line of becoming is not defined by points that it connects, or by points that compose it; on the contrary, it passes between points, it comes up through the middle, it runs perpendicular to the points first perceived, transversally to the localizable relation to distant or contiguous points. A point is always a point of origin. But a line of becoming has neither beginning nor end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination; to speak of the absence of an origin, to make the absence of an origin the origin, is a bad play on words. A line of becoming has only a middle. … A becoming is always in the middle; one can only get it by the middle. A becoming is neither one nor two, nor the relation of the two; it is the in-between, the border or line of flight or descent running perpendicular to both” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 293).

“This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segement by segment, have a small plot of land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bringing forth continuous intensities for a Body without Organs” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 161).



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



documentation of 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: