michael j. morris


Another exhilarating dance performance I had the opportunity to experience this week was a performance of Trisha Brown’s Sololos, staged and directed by Abigail Yager, performed in Thompson Library on the campus of the Ohio State University.

There is a video of the performance floating around facebook, but I can’t seem to find it this morning. I did find a video detailing the history and renovation of Thompson Library, which will at least give a sense of the architecture to which I will refer.

To start, I have seen this piece three or four times, all in different settings, and I have to say that I could not conceive of a more apt space in which this piece might be performed. I am a big fan of the architecture of Thompson Library, and its structures provided a wealth of lines, spaces and formal alignments for this dance that has itself a kind of internal architecture (I think there’s a sense in which all dance has a kind of architecture, and there has been a burgeoning mass of research exploring the relationships between dance and architecture; the work with which I am the most familiar has come out of/around the Synchronous Objects project. You can read about some of this research here. I also have a brilliant colleague of mine, Mara Penrose, is currently collaborating with architecture student Renee Ripley on an upcoming project entitled Inscription, another great opportunity to examine the interplay between dance and architecture). Sololos, like much of Trisha Brown’s work, has a very precise geometry to both the movement material and the spatial organization of the dancers. There is a linearity to the movement, and a constant sense the every point on every surface of each dancers’ body both corresponds and is aware of its correspondence to spatial coordinates. In the performance of the dance, its internal geometry enters a dialogue with the geometry of the space; the coordinates of the dance become mapped onto the infinite potential axes provided by the architecture and the viewers. There is also an architecture to the timing of the dance; it goes beyond the precision of the individual actions of individual dancers and moves into the realm of interactive precision: I experience it almost as a temporal geometry, and as dancers move through various phrases of movement, in and out of unison, there is a constant sense of correlation across time. Additionally, related to both the spatial/formal and the temporal architecture of the dance, there is also an architecture to the attention required by this piece.

Before I range too far into my own experience during Friday’s showing, I would like to share the description of the piece offered in the program of the event as a nice summation of the nature of the choreography:

Sololos is one of the purest expressions of Trisha Brown’s love affair with choreographis structure. Created in 1976, it is a study of causality–cause and effect, as well as logical processes, properties, variables and facts in which dancers respond to instructions called to them from a dancer offstage. The piece begins in simple unison, quickly unravels into visual complexity, then re-ravels itself back to its beginning prompted by instructions given by the caller. Governed by strict adherence to a set of rules and requirements, it exists in endless permutation as a function of these improvised calls. The vocabulary is entirely fixed, yet the form is composed in the moment.

“The piece is constructed of three movement palindromes. These phrases of movement material can be danced in forward or retrograde, and can be called to change direction at any time. The foundational phrase, referred to as Main, functions as a central artery delivering dancers to choreographic ‘doorways’ through which they pass to splinter off to auxiliary palindromes referred to as Branch and Spill. Whereas there is only one Main and one Branch, there are four unique Spills created by each of the dancers in response to a written set of instructions.”

These sets of rules and requirements are one aspect of what I am thinking of as the architecture of the dance. While the materials are meticulously set, the ways in which they work themselves out, driven primarily by the directions of the outside “Caller” (on Friday, Meredith Hurst and Mara Penrose functioned as the Callers for the dance), is improvised within those rules. Like the physical architecture of a building maintains a certain concrete fixity, a container for infinite possibilities of human movement through the structure, the movement itself is essentially improvised within these structures. Perhaps a bit more phenomenologically, I think there is something also to be said about the “fixity” or “mobility” of the architectural structures within the field of human perception. The way in which we experience a space is entirely informed by the conditions of that experience (others in the space, time of day, personal conditions, memory, etc.), and it is in this perceptual fluctuation between fixity and mobility that I felt Sololos primarily in dialogue with Thompson Library.

I had the distinct experience of the enactment of the dance re-enacting the space. A primary device of this enactment was geometrical alignment. Lines of bodies in space falling into parallelisms or perpendicularities with the formal elements of the library brought those elements into my perception in a new, previously unrecognized, way. Thompson Library is full of grids, some of which are more or less parallel (the shadows cast from the skylight, offering a grid to the floor on which they danced; the central column of the stacks, housed in grids of glass and steel which provided the backdrop for the dance; etc.), others not so rigid (the lines embedded in the floor are sometimes curving, sometimes diagonal, offering lines off of the strict grid with which bodies might find alignment). In this sense, the revelation and transformation of the dance become a frame or device for the revelation and transformation of the library’s architecture in the field of my perception. While this could be said of any dance in any space, it was between the specific linearity of Sololos and the rich complexity of geometrical forms within Thompson Library that I felt a deep affinity, and it was through this affinity that I experienced the mobility of the space itself.

Other factors contributed to this experience: I was aware of how my perception of the space transformed through the expansion and collapsing of space between the dancers’ bodies. The shifting distance between myself and each dancer functioned as a constant re-negotiation of the distance between myself and the structure surrounding us all, the space beyond the bodies.

Perhaps the most overwhelming of my sensorial experiences with this dance had to do with the formulation of spatial coordinates for the bodies in space. Coordinates are defined by a point of intersecting axes. Throughout the performance of the piece, I was constantly aware of the seemingly infinite possible axes in the space. It went beyond recognizing the situation of bodies between one thing and another; I became aware of the trajectories of lines into space, lines extending as planes, the potential to consider the viewers’ gazes/attention as axes for the situation of the bodies (in constant motion). Because of the unique architecture of the atrium of the library, spectators were fully in the round (all four sides of the dance) on four separate levels. My situation was on the first floor, level with the dancers, but I was constantly aware of the viewers two, three, and four stories above the dance, and the potential to consider those gazes as the definitive axes for the coordinates of bodies. The most explosive moments for me came when bodies fell into formal alignments with one another (whether or not they were dancing the same phrase of movement): inevitably the body of a dancer would shift dramatically in my field of perception, now re-situated due to the alignment with another body onto the axes (that I had constructed perceptually) for that other body. Similar shifts occurred when bodies fell into alignments with the library’s architecture; the recognition of the alignment trumped whatever other spatial situation I had previously constructed for that body, and thus in those moments of simple reciprocity between bodies and structure my perception of the situation of those bodies (and thus the bodies themselves) became radically reconfigured.

Through this process of viewing, I became increasingly aware of the constructed nature of these “axes,” “coordinates,” and “situations.” My knowledge of the “object” was entirely informed by my perception of its situation, and the qualities of that situation were arbitrarily constructed. On a more existential level, this offered some space for reflecting on the arbitrary and constructed understanding of “the nature of things.” If we (primarily) understand a thing because of its relationship to other things, it becomes important to recognize that the “other things” that we collect in order for the object to be consider is both limited and arbitrary. This is perhaps the value of intertextuality, recognizing that the meaning of a thing emerges primarily from its situation amongst others, and that by reformulating the situation of a given topic or object, we reformulate the qualities of what we know/experience it to be.

The alignments of bodies with one another also affected the way in which I became aware of other bodies in space and their alignments: patrons of the library walking in unison with one another, parallel spatial pathways, oppositional spatial pathways, etc. Making my way to the arching theme of my experience, the viewing of the dance in this space began to inform me experience of the surrounding activity. Along these lines, the dance and the library’s architecture mutually redefined one another for the duration of the piece (and perhaps even after the piece, if we want to range into a discussion of something like spatial memory). A significant concern for architecture/the architect is how the structure facilitates, enables, and limits the movement of bodies in space (this might also correlate to a central concern of the choreographer). The presence of this dance occurring in the main atrium and entrance area of the first floor dramatically reformed the way in which the architecture functioned by contributing additionally limiting structures (dancing bodies) to the space. Library patrons were no longer corralled by the structure of the building, but also the disruption of the structure by the presence of a dance. The flow of human motion in the building was diverted, and in this sense, the architecture augmented. Coextensively, the function of the space contributed to the dance itself. Most overtly, one woman, engrossed in text messaging, literally wandered into the dance performance space. She appeared horrified when she recognized her intrusion, but in those moments she contributed an additional body that had to be negotiated in the dance. Besides the over intrusion, it was simple enough to consider all the moving bodies in the space as complicit in the dance. Unlike the proscenium situation in which the only obvious moving bodies are those on stage, this dance was surrounded by moving bodies, and they then entered the field of awareness in which the dance could be considered.

With all of these elements contributing to the perception of both the dance and the space, it seems simple enough to assert that the Callers for the piece functioned as both choreographers and architects for Sololos and Thompson Library for the duration of the piece. The ways in which they solved the functions of the dance shaped not only the choreography but the space as well.

And this is perhaps a good moment to offer a summation of the reward this expeirence provided: The experience of the dance in the space, by way of directing fresh and reciprocal attention into the space, made the architecture of the library (a space I inhabit persistently) more alive, more dynamic, and in effect more meaningful. This then might be said to be a rare opportunity that dance in non-traditional spaces (or, more specifically, familiar spaces in which dance does not usually occur): it provides a perceptual opportunity in which the space might become reinvented, revitalized, and reinvested with meaningfulness.

I could write so much more about the meaningfulness of this experience: how shifting my position/perspective from one side of the dance to another between the first and second run of the piece dramatically reformed my experience; how understanding the functions of the choreography and my intimacy with the dancers/callers made an emotional landscape, going with them on a journey of problem solving, moving near-far-and near to the solution (getting all the dancers back to unison Main in reverse, I think); the moment at which one dancer, Quentin Burley, literally ended up partially in my lap because of where I was sitting and where the improvisation of the dance took him, thrusting me not only into the space of the dance, but also a heightened interpersonal awareness of the piece beyond the perceptual/formal concerns that dominated my experience; the potential metaphors for social/cultural mediation embedded in the function of the dance (if we were to allow the end unison to represent a cultural value for harmony, and consider elements like unison, deviation, minor and vast disjunctions between dancers, the range of flexibility that allows for synch-ups, etc. as informative to cultural configuration); but already being over 2000 words, I think I might have to conclude, with the acknowledgement that this dance by Trisha Brown, the superb work of Abigail Yager in its staging, the performance of the dancers and the architecture of Thompson Library, all the connections in between, offered a profound experience for my week, one about which I could write much, much more.

The piece is being done once more this quarter at the OSU Student Union, 4 June at 1:30. It will be different in the Union (a building I find to be vulgar on multiple levels), but I encourage you to see the piece if possible, and perhaps carry a mindfulness of its transformative potential in your viewing.

Manimals and Other Human Creatures

Last night I had the privilege of seeing “Manimals and Other Human Creatures,” the Resident and Visiting Artist Concert put on by the Department of Dance at OSU. I rarely write full reviews/responses to dance concerts, but I left with so many ideas scribbled on my program that I felt the need to put them down somewhere.

Susan Van Pelt Petry presented a new work entitled “Patterns of Prayer.” Because I work as the assistant to the costume director in the department, I had already seen this piece several times, but new ideas and aspects presented themselves in its theatrical staging. When the lights first came up, the audience was met with a line of dance kneeling at the front edge of the stage, each one working strands of cord intricately between her hands. I immediately felt as if I was at a wall of contemplative human activity, the simple concentration of the dancer’s actions demonstrating a reverence and relevance for their tasks. There is something loosely impermeable about dancers in a straight line from one side of the stage to the other, as if they have formed a barrier of some sort. But the intricacy and focus of their gestures drew me into their contemplation, creating an interesting tension, like an invitation into something remarkably exclusive, all via spatial formation and gestural material.

Spatial configurations played a significant role in this piece, moving through circling pathways, grids, lines and braiding pathways. Perhaps the most captivating passage of the piece involved the dancers’ organization into a three by three person grid. In this grid the choreography moved in and out of unison, composed of a steady stepping and continued intricate hand gestures. As their bodies moved through levels of space, from mid to low to high, etc., I had the distinct impression that there was something almost mystical in their gestures (the mystic was constantly reinforced by the sacred sounds of ancient music, the repeated movement of a continuous stepping turn, reminiscent of a whirling dervish, casting a meditative quality to much of the piece). I felt as if these intricate hand gestures were somehow unlocking passage between levels of space. The concept of enlightenment has long been represented spatially, moving upward into transcendence and illumination with the base or mundane existence being situated below. As the dancers shifted upward and downward on this vertical axis, I symbolized the gestures as somehow giving access to those various levels of mystical transcendence.

The piece involved a video being projected behind the dancers. Its imagery was simple: a white cord moved along the top edge of the projection, and a red silhouette of a dancer continuously turning in that dervish-esque fashion mentioned above moved along the bottom of the image, level with the dancers on stage. I chose to read this relationship between the projection and the live dancers as meaningful: I read the projection as symbolic of the meditative/spiritual ideal, the constant practice, the continuous action towards ecstasy. This image was literally interrupted by the play of shadows cast by the dancers on stage, as if acknowledging the interruption of the ideal by the effects of human action. In the final moments of the piece, however, the video faded, and the dancers took on the whirling, stepping action, the piece concluding with a single dance embodying the turning that had been imagined by the video throughout the piece. It felt like the achievement of a goal, or the transfiguration of the immaterial into the material, the ideal into human practice.

Melanie Bales presented a new work left untitled, set to music by Erik Satie, and danced by Abigail Yager and Ming-Lung Yang. It was a charming, intimate and skillful dance. Beautifully performed and sensitively choreographed. Perhaps most interesting for me was seeing Abi dance like Melanie. I am familiar with both of their ways of moving, and it is always intriguing to me to see movement and ways of moving that I associate with one individual coming so precisely from the body of another, especially when I have a fairly intimate familiarity with the movements of that body. I am in Abi’s technique class this quarter, I am very familiar with the way that she moves. To see her move like Melanie . . . well, it addresses my interest in the transference of movement material and the relationship of that process to the constitution of identity. Now there is something of Melanie that lives in both Abi and Ming’s bodies, and that was demonstrated with ease and precision in this piece.

Vicki Uris presented a new work entitled “Littoral Zone.” Again, I had seen this piece several times before, but it was somehow transformed into something new and yet unseen in its translation onto the stage. It may be enough to say initially that I hold Vicki as a goddess, a master choreographer, an exceptional craftsman. What she crafts is the whole picture, the dance as an arch and each moment frame by frame. When I focus in on the individual movements, gestures and actions of the dancers, they are not always movements that captivate my interest. Then I widen my scope, I take in the moment as a whole, and I am utterly overwhelmed. I can safely say that I don’t know how Vicki’s mind works, how she can recognize and orchestrate the degree of connectivity and organization that she accomplishes. All of that being said, I don’t feel that I can adequately describe this dance. I can describe my sensations of the movement, what I retained of the action of the dance, but its organization is of such a level of skill that I cannot even begin to comprehend it.

Long pulling movement with sudden flicks of action. Steady stepping or swaying or swinging interrupted by sudden holds or quick gestures. Scurrying steps that seemed to take the pulse of the dance and amp it up for moments. Beautifully odd and grotesque postures. Reaching upward as if suspended by the reach, then falling, collapsing. Grounding, stable stances giving way to flings and jumps.

The organizing structures I can recall are thus:
-A stunning interplay between ambiguous clumps and ordered lines of dancers. This was most potent in the final pass across the stage: the dancers began in a loose line upstage right. Moving in waves of falling forwards and backwards in a slow progression across the stage, the line was distorted. At any given moment, one would just see a clump of dancers scattered across the stage. But if one were to figure the spatial mean of the forwards and backwards action, the line was implicit in the clump. There was something meaningful there, about the implication of order in what seems to be disorder, an order recognizable only through careful observation over time.

-Reverberations of action via attention and observation: Near the start of the dance, there was a sensational counterpoint between a clump of dancers and a line of dancers on the opposite side of the stage. The line seemed to observe the clump and respond energetically and sympathetically to the actions of the clump. There was a wonderful atmosphere of attention as choreographic structure.

-I remember thinking that I would love to annotate the spatial alignments of this dance (re: Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced).

Dave Covey performed a perfect solo entitled “For Merce and John.” It was elegant, delightful, reverential, with an atmosphere that felt much like a séance. I think for most of the audience this was a humorous piece, but for me there was more pang to it. Yes, there was an unmistakable humor in the characterizations that Dave embodied, but those characterizations could never be separate from the fact that this was in memory of two men who have died. In his delightful appropriation of these physicalities that were not his own, there was an atmosphere of almost possession. I found myself wondering . . . if the body is the site of identity and movement or ways of moving that emerge from that body might be considered extensions of that identity, how might this sort of representation, this reanimation of those ways of moving constitute a living presence of those who have passed on? How might Merce have been alive in Dave’s movement, Dave’s body? This summer marked the death of both Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. I am curious about the continued life of their ways of moving in the bodies of those who have danced for them. It recontextualizes methods for accessing movement such as Labanotation as well. To what degree does inhabiting ways of moving relate to inhabiting a specific being? Reconstruction via Labanotation as séance, embodying and reanimating the departed . . . what an interesting notion.

Back to Dave’s solo, what I found most intriguing was his focus and attention, his concentration on what he was performing. Performers committed to what they are doing are so much more interesting to observe . . . because it becomes real for them. At that degree of concentration, it is no longer an act; it has become real, and I the observer am then present for their experience, not for their imitation of experience.

There was also the beauty of the references. The piano solo in homage to Cage had an overt humor to it, but beneath the humor for something far more profound. It had to do again with attention, with attending to the mundane as meaningful, as relevant, as worthy of being called art. Yes, there was humor in Dave “playing” the squeaks of an old piano’s keyboard cover, but there was also something beautiful about finding the simple and mundane meaningful, giving time and attention to them, perhaps even appreciating them as an art experience.

John Giffin presented a new work entitled “Manimal House,” set to Camille Saint-Saens Le Carnivale des Animaux. It was an over-the-top piece of humor and dance theater. It had so many sections and characters and gimmicks and punchlines, it feels impossible to describe it at any length. I will take the opportunity to rave about Maree ReMalia. I have no objectivity when it comes to Maree; she is one of my dearest friends. But I truly felt like she stole the show when it comes to this piece. She played a tortoise-esque old lady, and I dare say that she was the nucleus of the piece. In what might otherwise been a configured chaos of characterization, a veritable zoo of characters and action and humor, Maree provided a subtle center to the piece, a simple gravity around which everything else could spin (at points almost out of control). Having her in the piece, the way in which she embodied the movement persona of her character, gave everything else more significance.

Meghan Durham presented an excerpt of a larger work entitled Lunar Project. It was a charming solo with a cameo appearance by Shawn Hove. It is always so rewarding to watch Meghan move. She has a fluidity and specificity that she navigates and even interrupts expertly. Last night she did so in the presence of a enchanting sound and set: her set piece involved a collection of hanging lights, like flashlights suspended from the fly at various levels in space. The set itself had the feel of an art installation. I would have loved to see her dance just in the company of the lighted set piece, with no additional light. It was so elegant, as was her movement. I felt myself longing for there to be a more simple relationship between these sites of beauty.

Finally, John Giffin and Vikci Uris performed a duet choreographed by Susan Hadley entitled “Companions.” I hardly know what to say about this dance. It moved me to tears, but on the cusp of John and Vicki’s retirements, this was to be expected. I was moved by knowing them. I was moved by the care, precision, and almost perfect unison of their actions. In the series of actions/gestures/emotions, I felt the inescapable indication of temporality, that each thing lasted only for a time, to be followed by something else. Moments of pause seemed to indicate that movement would follow. Moments of smiling seemed to indicate that moments of not smiling would follow. It was an interesting journey through not only what they were doing but something like the constant foreshadowing of what they would next do. I found myself wondering how someone who doesn’t know them saw this piece. I treasure both Vicki and John, and I have only known them a little over a year. I wonder how those who don’t know them saw that dance, and I wonder how those who have known them for years, decades even, saw the dance. Intimacy was implicit in the choreography; I wonder how that intimacy played itself out in the various viewers. The final moment was just light on two empty chairs. A simple yet potent play of presence and absence, the passage of time, memory and loss.

If I was left with an arching thoughts from the concert, it has to do with this final question of intimacy. I find dance so much more enjoyable when I know the performers, the choreographers. Because the dance is then functioning within a framework of familiarity. Through the dances I am expanding or recreating my knowledge of someone I know. This of course relates to the ongoing theme in this blog, the integration of dance and life. Movement, dancing, ways and degrees of knowing, how the knowing affects the dancing and the viewing of the dance. Resisting objectivity and reveling in the subjectivity of my own experience. That’s how I left this concert.