michael j. morris

2010 Spring Concert (Extravaganza)

This week I have had the opportunity to see (and even participate in) so much live dance. I could not possibly write about all that these opportunities have inspired; in fact, I’m fairly certain even a partial reflection will warrant multiple posts.

To begin with, this week was the 2010 Spring Dance Concert(s) (extravaganza). Two concerts, twenty-five pieces, over four days. I will only write about a few pieces, a sampling of some of the great work being produced in the Department of Dance at OSU.

Betsy Miller’s “El Otro Lado/The Other Side” was a quirky, sultry, sassy, and often surprising exploration of movement vocabularies that recalled a range from classical character dance to burlesque, organized in lovely and memorable group movement through space (running sprints back and forth from the stage left and stage right wings, a slow counter-cross of a trio and a soloist at the end, etc.). In addition to clever dancing and beautiful dancers (Alexis del Sol, Lisa Dietz, Katy Gilmore, and Rashana Smith), Miller offered the rich opportunity of seeing beautifully hand-crafted costumes (designed and sewn by the choreographer herself) in motion.

Danté Brown’s “Chalk Boundaries” demonstrated a final incarnation of a piece long in the works. I had the opportunity to see and write about an all-male version of this piece in February, and the piece has grown immensely since then. In addition to having a cast of variously gendered bodies (which also nearly doubled the size of the cast), the complexity of the issues with which the choreography engages has grown significantly as well. Gender is one of Brown’s stated objects of exploration in the work, and in this incarnation of the piece, gender is examined, deconstructed, and reconfigured along multiple performative iterations. And on top of that, the choreography is really stunning. The opening of the piece was choreographically a reminder of the kinds of dances I love most: subtlety, stillness, punctuated by similar actions, individuated in form and timing. With beautiful lighting by Louise Eberle. The piece quickly transformed into driving group movement, in unison, perhaps offering an opportunity to recognize both a possible common state of bodiment/personhood and the intrinsic range of individual variation across bodies. In several conversations recently, I have come to recognize this as one of the values of unison: in unison we see both commonality and the inescapable disparity of individuals as demonstrated in action. The group then took on two groupings, almost organized along a binary of male and female identified bodies, with the subversion of Mair Culbreth (whose dancing provided one of the richest rewards of the evening) dancing amidst the cast of male bodies. In this simple transgression, the binary becomes subject to interrogation. Clearly bodies had been organized into two groups; the socially constructed binary would be that of gender/sex, assumed to be derived from a stable and clear division according to biological morphology. Yet this was not the division on which this binary was predicated. I was invited to question then what served as the foundation for this binary grouping, this differentiation between one group of bodies and another, demonstrated through differentiating movement material. What made these bodies different from those? Was it arbitrary? Are all binary constructions, whatever their function, possibly arbitrary? Of course I have my own conclusions to these inquiries; what I mean to articulate is that the choreography invited me to engage with these speculations.

The gamut of gender construction/subversion continued to be situated along a various groupings and relationships. Amanda Platt seemed to struggle between Chafin Seymour and Loganne Bond; might it demonstrate a sexual ambivalence? Or was this moment an address of the policing of gender along a matrix of sexuality? I saw a woman pushed between a man and another woman. It was within this configuration of bodies that they became sexual and thus gendered. A group of men were transfixed by the sensuous motion of a lone female; as she exited, she seemed to cast a kind of spell on Quentin Burley, who then became a point of resistance for Platt. A favorite moment of mine came when Platt flipped Burley onto his stomach and climbed on top of him; I had a momentary sense of her mounting him (a radical reconfiguration of sexuality and gender), a suspenseful moment that extended into Seymour’s entrance and subsequent mounting of Burley, then further, after a sequence of partnering, into Seymour’s intimate arrangement of their faces forehead to forehead. Were any of these acts overtly sexual? Perhaps not, but in the formulation of gender, sexuality and sexual orientations function as the site of production for intelligible binaries (and the subversion of these binaries). As this mini-drama unfolded, Daniel Holt entered downstage and watched. This was a powerful moment of becoming aware of my own gaze. Holt watched the play between men, touching himself all the while; I couldn’t decide if his handling of himself was an act of measuring or pleasuring, comparison, identification, or eroticism. Seymour responded by mirroring Holt, each one touching himself and looking at the other. It could have been a webcam situation, sensual, but removed by distance. Seymour’s sensuality gave way to aggression. Enter Rashana Smith and Mair Culbreth. The proceeding quartet was some of the most rewarding choreography in the piece, the relationships, the shifting mutual definitions of bodies moving so fluidly that I almost couldn’t keep up. Moments of partnering throughout became a rich device for configuring possible sexualities and genders.

The conclusion of the piece functioned for me as a contemporary remix of Nijinska’s Les Noces. Holt and Smith stood down stage right holding hands, observed (and approved) by the crowd that surrounded them. Repeatedly they broke away, throwing themselves into the arms of homosexual counterparts, to the revulsion of the crowd. Here is where the piece concluded, thrown back and forth between the accepted heterosexual union and the transgressive homosexual embraces. I was left wondering where the range between and beyond these two configurations might be, and if we were to attempt to choreograph that range of those places between and beyond, how might that be demonstrated?

Amanda Byars’ presented a charmingly powerful duet danced by Mair Culbreth and Erik Abbott-Main, entitled “If I were a weathervane and you were a flower.” Without going through a systematic description of the progression of the piece, I will offer that it was fundamentally a recognizable “love story,” a simple, home-grown, just a little outside of the school yard romance. It was subversively heterosexual, a configuration of which I could previously hardly conceive, yet Byars, Abbott-Main, and Culbreth enacted it both simply and expertly. It was consistently heterosexual, and yet there was not a single moment in which it was simply what it seemed, or what was expected. At every turn the relationship, the ways of interacting, the function of each body in contrast to the other, shifted into the unexpected. The subversive. Variously tender transgressions. It stayed light and easy, but with moments of pang: the revisiting of knocking one another to the floor, the moments of separation and coming back together, the sense of having built something (a life together?) in stacking the benches. Even in the final moment, there was a sense of separate beds, but not out of a lack of love. There was the space between, but there was also movement towards within that space.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the exquisite performances of the dancers in Byars’ piece: Culbreth and Abbott-Main were a joy to observe. The nuance and clarity with which they not only danced but invited me into the experience that they were sharing was unmatched in the course of the evening. Describing “performance quality” can be so problematic . . . but what I think I experienced from them both was a simple kind of sincerity. It was not that the representation of a relationship was “believable;” it was that there was no mask in their actions. They were simply doing, and being with one another, sincerely it felt. There was a naturalness and honesty to how I experienced what they were doing. This was a factor that was profoundly significant to the success of the piece.

Kristen Jeppsen’s duet entitled “Solve” was expert. On the surface, it was a pair of power femmes (of the Bette Porter variety, re: The L Word), dancing fierce and virtuosic movement in near unison. They were dressed in elegant blouses and tailored pin-stripe slacks. They could have been senators or CEOs, clearly evocative of some sort of upper administration. But there was much more to this piece. In addition to the sound score for the piece, the dancers (Jeppsen herself and Giovanna Andolina) spoke to one another throughout their dancing, cueing and almost, it seemed, coaching one another through their movement. It was in this speaking alongside the dancing that the real profundity of the piece revealed itself for me. They enacted a closed circuit exchange of power; their cueing and attention to one another was as if to indicate that they check in with one another and no one else. The exclusionary nature of their interaction disrupted the spectacle of it. The consistent inter-referentiality left the viewer (the legendary “male gaze”) displaced, outside of the equation that they demonstrated. The viewer’s presence felt neither necessary nor of consequence. The piece was being viewed, but felt as if it was not explicitly intended for viewing. Their dancing was for one another, and for themselves. The “dancing for themselves” was a significant attribute of my experience of this piece: these dancers took a palpable pleasure in these ways of moving; the delight of the movement was visible in their bodies. This personal and interpersonal pleasure functioned to reinforce this sense of its exclusiveness.

The speaking served other functions for me. There was a disruption of the traditional hierarchy between choreographer and dancer. The movement may have originated in/as Jeppsen, but in its transmission to Andolina, and in the democratization of its mobilization (both seeming to take on the responsibility for cueing and directing the movement during its performance), the potentially problematic power dynamic (not only the choreographer/dancer relationship, but the further complex situation in which the choreographer is also a participant in the performance).

The speaking also seemed to reveal something of dance practice, taking a kind of coaching into the performance itself, sharing an aspect of how we as dancers work in the studio into the demonstration of the dance itself.

The sound score also offered materials for further contextualization of the piece. Lines that stayed with me were something like “I can’t quire articulate . . .” and a description of a person’s fascination with a machine being more interesting than many conversations with people. This text seemed to emphasize an ineffability of the functioning of certain mechanisms. It brought me to a place of asking, “How does the mechanism of this dance function?” This question was partially answered by the speaking of the performers; but the speaking was to and for one another. I as a viewer on the second row still only heard bits and pieces; it was as if to say that the articulation of the mechanism’s function can only be known from the inside, as part of the closed circuit that the duet demonstrated. You can only ever know it in part from outside of the doing of it. Its function, its purpose, its pleasure, is all situated within the doing of the dance.

The final reward for the evening was “Though I walk, I used to fly” choreographed by Erik Abbott-Main in collaboration with the dancers in the piece, with music by Nico Muhly, and beautiful lighting by Maree ReMalia. Abbott-Main’s piece was, simply, stunning. Truly a masterpiece of formation, unison, canon, partnering, tableau, and journey through time. The crafting of the piece had the feeling of the complex precision and layering of Lar Lubovitch and Doug Varone, but with a quirkiness and curiosity of gestures that lay entirely in the unique configuration of Abbott-Main with this cast of dancers. Description of this piece is as elusive as the piece itself: constantly changing, reconfiguring itself in variations of formation and timing, flowing, swirling movements of bodies through space, their paths indirect, their arrivals always surprising and unexpected. These qualities of indirect pathways and unpredictable arrivals summarizes the most significant components of my experience with this work. But this expertly crafted motion was not perpetual; it was punctuated with the arrivals at unexpected  tableaus and frieze-like formations, all imbued with a quality of near-Classical statuary. Faces were not rigid, but neither were they overtly expressive. And perhaps this relates to one of the most pervasive but expressively elusive qualities that I experienced: a kind of impermeable softness, a demeanor that is superficially approachable and intoxicating, but once swept up inside of it, maintains a sense of being outside of it. The tableaus, for all their intricacy and quirkiness, also felt austere; the motion, for all its sweeping pleasure, also read as escaping, the slipperiness of the passage of time. Nothing stays put for too long, and when you try to revisit where you once were, you realize that the “where” is no longer there; and the “you” that you experienced there has moved on as well. The piece then functioned as a demonstration of the constantly shifting and transforming condition of situationally constructed identity, the persistent motion (dissolving, diffusing, recollecting, and reforming) of situations (thus selves), an ambiguity of the present between the erasure of the past and the unpredictability of the future. And a kind of resignation from explicit identification in the face of this ambiguity. Dancers moved from grouping to grouping, pairing to pairing, action to action, as if searching for a fit, for something that might persist, eventually coming to the conclusion that everything dissolves; everyone leaves; and in the final moment a single dancer is left alone.

These were a few of the pleasures of this week.


Chalk Boundaries

Today I had the opportunity to see Dante Brown‘s new work in progress Chalk Boundaries, presented as part of the Wexner Center for the Arts “Super Sunday” event. The piece was presented as a response to, or illustration of, the images and expressions of masculine identity being shown in the Wexner’s new exhibition, Hard Targets, including work by artists such as Catherine Opie, Paul Pfeiffer, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and many others.

To begin with, I have had overarching concerns surrounding this term “masculinity.” It is a term that implies qualities that are typical or characteristic of men, or maleness. Because I question the essentialization of ideas like “man” or “male,” I am immediately wary of demonstrations of typicalities or characteristics of these broad categories. While I don’t have time to author or recount a treatise of the complexities of gendered identity (although I recommend Judith Butler, among others), I wanted to offer that as my disclaimer: from the start, the stated subject matter of this exhibition provokes questions concerning the viability/discursive limitations of such language/ideas.

In looking at Brown’s piece, my immediate reaction was how well developed and well rehearsed it is for a work in progress that has only been in process for approximately five weeks. I found its vocabulary to be intriguing and well developed, its overall movement qualities pervasive amongst the cast of five men, and its structural qualities (such as its use of space, groupings of individuals, the interplay between unison and partnering, all very contrapuntal) rewarding to my attention.

Thematically, I appreciated the nuanced demonstration of several facets of “masculine” identity. It is not exhaustive in its exploration of the nature of “masculine” identity, the nature of maleness, or what it is that makes this a cast of five men (besides their presumable identification as such; if I did not know these dancers, I would be less prone to make this presumption). Yet the facets of “masculinity” that it does demonstrate are articulated with a mix of subtlety and referentiality that bordered on caricature: aggression/domination, weakness/softness, and mediation between these. These qualities are demonstrated abstractly throughout the eight-to-nine minute piece in its forms and movement qualities, but are offered rather literally in an brief “scene” partway through the piece: one dancer, Chafin Seymor, turns and advances aggressively towards another dancer, Quentin Burley, who retreats across the space with lightness and softness. Seymor’s aggressive gestures, looming over Burley, eventually pressures Burley to the floor. At the point, another dancer, Eric Nordstrom, intervenes, grasping Seymor from behind while making gentle “Shhh” sounds, as if persuading Seymor to calm down and control his agression. There may be potential for reading symbolic references to power dynamics derived from who is on top and who is on bottom throughout this exchange, however, it reads most readily as a fairly literal demonstration of what I perceived as the aspects of “masculinity” being considered throughout the piece. On first viewing, after digesting my awe at the choreographic development of the work, I felt resistant to this limited consideration. I think that I felt narrowness in the spectrum of “masculinity” being demonstrated. I questioned the absence of sensuality, sexuality, and fluidity in what I was seeing. I wanted to also be presented with “masculinity” that might be classed as “femininity,” and be forced to reconcile the “uncharacteristically masculine” as the male body. So much of the vocabulary of the piece, while absolutely stunning to watch, stays in the polar spaces of strong, heavy, and direct, with punctuations of lightness, softness, and indirectness. The power of most of the movement, the strength of its execution, and the profound contrast between it and the softer moments was all captivating, a pleasure to witness. And yet I felt a desire to see more along this spectrum, demonstrations that were not so immediate in their contrast, so specifically recognizable in their qualities or potential references/meanings. I wanted to see attraction, investigation, and discovery between these bodies, not only camaraderie, aggression, and conflict.  And yet, by the third time I saw the piece, I began to appreciate the somewhat reductive, limited depictions of “masculinity” as part of the provocation of the work. The piece was shown twice today, and I had the privilege of seeing a rehearsal of the piece last week. Between today’s showings, I took time to peruse the Hard Targets exhibit. While that exhibit deserves a response all its own, I felt that there is an education in ways of looking offered through the collection of work. I was specifically moved by photographs by Catherine Opie and Collier Schorr, both offering portraits and action shots of young male athletes engaged in game play or standing in uniform. I was struck by the near life-size-ness of the photographs, and the extremely reflectiveness of the glass behind which they were displayed. I saw the silhouette of my person superimposed in their work, juxtaposed with their subjects. Just as I was being shown a forthright portrait of these young male athletes, I was being reminded of myself, my own presence before the image, and I felt the draw towards comparison. How did I see or know myself in situation with the image being presented to me? How was my stance different from the stance of the boy depicted, or perhaps more interestingly, how was it the same? What parts of myself/how I know or consider myself did I not see reflected in the figure I was being shown? These kind of questions were recurrent for me throughout Hard Targets. I identify as male, and yet I find very little of my “maleness” depicted in the work being exhibited. Yet because of that exclusion/omission, I became even more aware of those qualities. This was the way of looking that I brought to Brown’s piece on my third viewing: despite the fact that the ways of being male being demonstrated in the piece felt incomplete and not representative of my own maleness, or perhaps even because of this disparity, those qualities or attributes within myself were brought more profoundly into my awareness. I felt my softness respond to the hardness of the action, I felt my attraction to the male dancing bodies in the absence of attraction being demonstrated between them. I cannot help but feeling that this self-reflexivity becomes implicit in the piece itself. In a post-modern age in which authorship, authority, and meaning are being questioned, reconsidered, and redefined by post-structuralism, it seems even more evident that the experience provoked within the viewer, the meaning that I then in turn attribute to my experience of the work, becomes a part of the work itself.

I think it is important to acknowledge the specificity of the language I am using to discuss this piece. I saw it very much as a demonstration of aspects of “masculine” identity. I did not experience it as a definition or redefinition of “masculinity,” nor an exploration or investigation of the validity and viability of these aspects. This demonstrative quality, which I think is pervasive in the Hard Targets exhibit itself, insists on reflexivity. Just as I stood before a Catherine Opie photograph and came to examine or understand myself in the context of that image, I was provoked to examine myself and bring forward my own expressions/understanding/experience of “masculinity” in the context of Chalk Boundaries. This, I think, was a strength in the work.

I feel it is necessary to destabilize the potentially simplistic re-presentation of Brown’s piece that I seem to be establishing. To be clear, the piece is not without nuance or subtlety. While it has moments of literality, it is primarily an abstract piece with room for interpretation and ambiguity. I think the brief theatricality of the “aggressor scene” between Seymor, Burley, and Nordstrom serves to anchor the abstraction and ambiguity to those more literal references, but it is still a choice to consider it in such a way. There are nuanced exchanges between bodies, hands and chests reaching towards, moving away, avoiding, and circling back towards. While the overall qualities of “masculinity” depicted in the piece seem very recognizable and relatively fixed, it seems clear that the relationships or connections between these “fixed” bodily identities are characterized by hesitation, uncertainty, and brevity. There are deliciously subtle moments, such as a trio of men sitting together loosely slumping into one another, each one being caught and supported by the others. This is not the central action of that moment, but adds depth and counterpoint to the more spectacular partnering taking place at the center of the space (being danced beautifully by Brown and Mike Abbatiello). There is a wonderful shift in tone when all five dancers move from rebounding standing-forward-folds into sniffing the air attentively and moving abruptly, animalistically, as if on the scent of prey. This moment dovetails smoothly into an extremely literal and somewhat surreal reference to sports (football, I believe), with one dancer, Nordstrom, calling out “Down! Set! Go!” “Go!” seems to morph into “Goal!” or “Girl!” This was rewardingly ambiguous enunciation, calling into question the difference or sameness between going, goal, and girl. When I heard “Girl!” the men were immediately recontextualized, especially if “Girl!” might be confused with “Goal!” In naming that which is apparently absent, the female in the crowd of male, that which inscribes “maleness” becomes situated outside of the male himself, outside of the male individual, and at least partially with the object or Other, potentially even the object of desire (if one is to relate the sniffing to to “Goal!/Girl!”). Suddenly “male” is so at least in part because it is distinct from “female.” This is not the only moment in which “masculine” definition seems at least partially arbitrated by an “other.” Throughout the piece there are moments of looking, watching, gazing, men looking at men, and in doing so raising a question of that which is established, reinforced, or problematized by the gaze. What does one man see as he looks at another? Just as I found my perception of myself and my own “masculinity” brought up by watching this dance, how does each of these men come to recognize and define themselves as men through their looking?

The piece as it now ends seems to offer a glimpse of its own resistance to these somewhat simplistic reductions of “masculinity.” After collapsing before other four dancers, Burley springs up into a position I read as definitively “Peter Pan”-esque. By introducing this image, the boy who adamantly refused to grow up to be a man, this maleness seems to be challenged. It reminds me of a quote I have used in the sound score for the piece I am currently making, taken from Tommy Midas in “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality.” He says:

“I definitely identify as queer, I definitely identify as a boy. I hate that, like, ‘man’ word. It’s really gross to me. I feel like there’s a separate, like, gender for, like, ‘boy.’”

The “Peter Pan” pose seems to echo this sentiment. Subsequently, each of the dancers move into postures or poses that seem synonymous with “posturing” and “posing,” a kind of pretense of “masculinity.” The stability of these forms decay as legs appear to become weak or unable to support the weight of the form. The dancers make their way off of the stage in a sequence of posing and collapsing, offering what I perceive to be one hint at questioning the viability of these “masculine” forms. The final moment of the piece leaves Brown alone on stage, walking slowly and carefully, bouncing in each step as if to question its stability. It is a moment of concern and uncertainty, and while it may not immediately offer alternative expressions of “masculine” identity, it definitely calls into question the stability of the preceding depictions.

Being a work in progress, it feels appropriate to have questions for the piece, for how it might develop or evolve. When discussing any work, especially finished work, I hesitate to discuss choices or possibilities beyond that which has been crafted by the choreographer/artist. Too often I think the critical responses to dance/art orbit what else it could have been rather than giving critical attention to what it is. However, having address my experience of the work as it is, I have several lingering questions: To what degree does body type determine role? In the literal moment between Seymor and Burley, why is the long, slender, elegant man the one retreating? Why is he not the aggressor? How might this situation be reinvestigated/subverted if the expected roles (based on body type, etc.) were subverted? While I found a fulfilling experience in echoing within myself the aspects of “masculinity” absent in this demonstration, what are ways in which other less predictable, less archetypal, aspects of male identity might be shown? Perhaps these are not only questions to this piece itself, but more broadly to dance works that address gender (and, in a sense, all dance works address gender), and to the experience of perceiving, negotiating, and demonstrating oneself as gendered. What are our assumptions, how might those assumptions be subverted, and what new, perhaps ambiguous or unfamiliar, perceptions might we discover in subverting our own assumptions?

Overall, I find Chalk Boundaries to be extremely successful. It is provocative, well developed, well executed, and a beautiful accompaniment to the Hard Targets exhibition.

You can see footage of Brown’s rehearsal process on his blog or here:

recipes during wartime, etc.

Tonight I am driving to Cincinnati to attend the opening reception of my brother‘s new exhibition/installation “Recipes During Wartime” at U.Turn Art Space:

A few images that have been released thus far:

I am very excited. I can have consistent confidence that Matthew’s work will offer the subtlety, ambiguity, and profundity that I crave in aesthetic experiences.

Here is an excerpt about Matthew and his work from the U.Turn blog:

“U·turn Art Space is pleased to announce a solo exhibition by one of its collective members, Matt Morris. Recipes During Wartime is a site specific installation characterized by a transparent veil ensconcing the central portion of the gallery. Within the veil Morris presents a floor installation involving powders, an array of subtle objects, and experiments with lighting and scent. The work developed alongside Morris’ research for his upcoming lecture “After the Party: Artistic Hindsight as Crowns Were Passed at the French Revolution and the Localvore Revolution” at the 6th Conference on Food Representation in Literature, Film and the Other Arts in San Antonio, TX. Almost as if laying out a picnic feast for gathering ghosts, the installation within the veil becomes the charged focus of the room. The artist asks viewers to project themselves into a space that is right in front of them but cannot be entered. In this brand new installation, Morris is interested in inquiring into and exploring our psychologies as they relate to place, memory and the edges of perception.”

(for more, please visit this post)

Tomorrow I am going to the Wexner’s “Super Sunday” event for the new exhibition Hard Targets. I am very excited to see this exhibit, especially because of its inclusion of Catherine Opie photographs. Also, as part of the event, Dante Brown is presenting his new work-in-progress, Chalk Boundaries. I saw a preview of this piece on Wednesday, and I am in awe of it. I hope to have more articulate language with which to respond to the piece after Sunday.