michael j. morris


PARTIALLY NOTHING + WHOLLY SOMETHING

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

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

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

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

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

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

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

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

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

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

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

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

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



Watch From Here: Part 1 | Elsewhere and Trace Forms

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

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

watchfromhere_poster