michael j. morris

Beautiful Struggle between the visible and the invisible

Danté Brown, Esther Baker-Tarpaga, and Abigail Zbikowski
photo by Nick Fanscher

The Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project’s Beautiful Struggle premiered at the King Arts Complex Pythian Theatre on 13 April 2012. While my interest is to write about the piece itself—choreographed/directed by Esther Baker-Tarpaga in collaboration with performers Abigail Zbikowski, Danté Brown, Olivier Tarpaga, and D. Sabela Grimes—I feel I must first address the title and framing of the piece. Beautiful Struggle is said (by way of promotional materials and the program) to ask “audiences to think about the visibility and invisibility of race and privilege and how violence and love live on in the body’s memories.” It is important to me that when directed towards such complex issues as race, privilege, love, violence, visibility and invisibility, the ideas of “beauty” and “struggle” are not reduced to an antonymic binary. Beauty is not the opposite of struggle, but rather, struggle conditions a very particular kind of beauty. It is a beauty that does not come easily, and it is a beauty that is never entirely accomplished, victorious, at rest. It is a beauty that is necessarily vigorous, necessarily in tension, most likely in conflict. These conditions must not compromise the possibility of beauty; rather, I would suggest that in titling this work Beautiful Struggle, we are being asked to reconsider what is capable of being found beautiful—recognizing that “beauty” itself is never a neutral aesthetic assessment, but that aesthetics are intrinsically entangled with values, with an appreciation of a particular kind of world, and that those values take on social, political, and ethical valences. I do not feel that the title asks the viewer to be on the look out for how struggle obstructs or gives way to beauty, but rather asks us to consider the ways in which ongoing, unresolved conflict and struggle can, perhaps must, be found beautiful. This is the disposition with which I approached this work.

The piece opens with a figure crouched on table in dim light, facing away, tied to the table with ropes. Gradually the figure begins to move, and rises. The figure tied to the table (Baker-Tarpaga) struggles, but not with full force: a light trashing, a trashing that seems self conscious of is own futility. The trashing blends into undulations, swinging arms, stomping and stepping, and I begin to catch glimpses of what can be identified as citations of African dance forms. I am faced with a body—a body that seems visually legible as white and female, a body which is described to us (via spoken text in the soundscore) as a mother, as white, a body produced for us as white and female—being performed or coded with African movements, African culture. The transnationality of this body begins to appear across the surface of this body’s movements, and while nationality itself does not dislodge race—or gender for that matter—this kinetic appearance begins to gesture towards a history of formation that is not immediately legible on the surface of the skin.

The ropes constrain the movement; the body’s action is bounded from the beginning, and as the movements grow, they take on more impact. I see when they strike the limits of their range, with the ropes allowing each gesture to proceed no farther. Certainly there are complex semiotics being introduced in this image—the restraints and the table call up associations with auction blocks, execution scaffolds, go-go boxes at nightclubs, and museum pedestals; the ropes call up centuries of heretics and slaves and the bodies that were taken materially captive under such signifiers—and imagery and visual semiotics are an important aspect of this production. On first encounter, the piece seems in places more concerned with images and the visual that with movement itself. The citation and circulation of recognizable visual markers for race and gender—and in places, sexuality—provide points of departure throughout the piece; however, if the familiarity of these images holds my attention, it is because of how the choreography abandons these images for the less familiar and the less recognizable moving surfaces of the bodies on display.

The piece is predominantly bodies dancing in solo choreography, often in the company of other dancers. This brings attention to the individuation of these bodies, and perhaps, by extension, the formative histories of these bodies. Despite whatever superficial visual identifications I may make—white women, black men, for example—the solos function as a reminder that the stability and consistency of these categories depend on the reduction of bodies to one or two surface dimensions, specifically the visual (I might say, the “stationary visual”), and that such reductions are also elisions of other surfaces and dimensions along which these bodies take on complexity and differentiation. In these solos, the unique ways of moving that define each body, that make visible—however fleetingly—its training, its socialization, its cultures, remind me that these “white women” or “black men” are not merely “white” or “women” or “black” or “men,” but that each of these categories are always already run through with difference, revealing them as contingent and only ever partial. I do not mean to suggest that the complexity of racial or gender categorization can be escaped or abandoned through attention to movement or kinesthetic identity; rather, my suggestion is that in a production that so pointedly set out to address the visibility and invisibility of race, privilege, violence, love, etc., the solo movements of these dancing bodies are one strategy through which individual differences—some of which rupture within the smoothness of racial and gender categories—are made visible.

One such instance of the solo making visible a rupture in the smoothness or stability of what might have been previously ascertainable comes in a solo danced by Danté Brown. What begins as smooth, cool, and groovy moves on the dance floor dissolves into a spoken exchange at the front edge of the stage, calling out to “girls,” presumably in the audience. The monologue dissolves into a more sensuous two-step, a curving sway of the hips that eventually take Brown upstage to pose with the table now turned on its side. This moment of posing, gesturing towards sultry centerfolds and vogue balls, has a feminizing and queering effect on Brown’s body. Suddenly this is a body that no longer comfortably resides in the normative categories of “man” or, arguably, “black” (for a more comprehensive discussion of the intersection of race and sexuality, see Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture by Siobhan B. Somerville). These categories are not fully abandoned through this queering; Brown is still legible as a black man. However, the visible has been amended, and the invisible—here, a latent femininity, or queerness—has surfaced along the curves and swish of his gestures.

Yet the choreography does not become solipsistic; these bodies move through solos, but throughout the choreography bodies find alignments with other bodies through shared vocabularies, shared timing, and shared space, suggesting ways in which bodies of difference are held together, sometimes along visible lines of race and gender, and sometimes across such lines in ways that dance other groupings of bodies. What these shared choreographies accomplished is different each time, sometimes using bodies to demarcate space, sometimes creating presumably unlikely alliances—such as a strip and femininizing duet between Baker-Tarpaga and Brown that then dissolves into some kind of combat—and sometimes functioning more formally, simply showing different bodies moving together.

The demarcation of space is another way in which visibility is lent to that which is invisible. For instance, early in the piece, Brown and Zbikowski’s perform a rapid horizontal shuffling around the stage, marking off an arbitrary parameter. This is not the only time that the motions of bodies will be used to demarcate space, to trace an invisible parameter. Bodies walk in circles; they divide the stage in grids and on diagonals throughout the piece. I resist reading these instances as symbolic; I am not concerned with what it might represent that bodies are used to coalesce invisible parameters and borders on the stage space. Rather, my interest is that I as a viewer am made to see such invisible forms, patterns, and parameters, and that is accomplished through the movement of bodies dancing together. These spatial figures construct arbitrary and fleeting appearances of “insides” and “outsides,” one side and the other side, and the residues of these barely-visible geographies of the stage aggregate over the course of the choreography, showing that what was “inside” might now be “on the other side,” what was “over there” might now suddenly also be “out here.” There is a multiplicity to how space is demarcated and organized through the movements of bodies dancing together, revealing that these sorts of spatial dimensions are a positional production; they are in no way fixed, and over time intersect with other [sometimes paradoxical] positions and orientations. This is not visibility that is given in a single image, but rather that accumulates over time as an invisible residue of the visible.

Perhaps the most demonstrative performances of making visible something that does not lie in plain sight is through the use of impact throughout the choreography. Impact is first introduced in the opening scene of the dance, with the ropes tying Baker-Tarpaga to the table creating the concrete “edge” of her dancing; the source of the force of the impact is visible and concrete. Yet impact proceeds as a dominant movement motif throughout the piece, often with invisible sources, circulating through all of the performers at various points. What I mean by impact is multiple: first, I mean the force with which the movement stops, as if hitting an invisible surface. This surfaces in movements that strike suddenly, the collision of movement with the strength and control of the body. By impact, I also mean the illusion of the body being struck, performances of feigned combat throughout the piece. By “feigned,” I mean only that in these instances there are no visible opponents; the combat is an effect of a single body’s motion. I do not mean, however, that the force or even violence of these impacts is diminished for having been feigned. On the contrary, the is a poignancy to the extreme force with which bodies box with invisible opponents, jerk and thrash as if struck, and are sent tumbling and rolling across the stage space as if tossed by someone much larger in size and strength. One of the most memorable of these moments is a solo performed by Abigail Zbikowski, lit only by a floodlight handled by Baker-Tarpaga. Zbikowski begins to move with undulating, smooth and circular movement, as if her body is continually curving and sliding around itself. However, as Baker-Tarpaga approaches her with the hand-held light, her body responds violently, as if struck repeatedly from all directions. I want to emphasize that while this violence is an effect of the performer’s body on itself, this does not make the violence of these actions any less real. These sudden contractions, these rapid impacts and blows, while effected by the body also affect the body, live on in tissues. I begin to speculate about the physical costs of performing; the sometimes inherent violence of choreography—imposing, even consensually, movement on an-other body; the ways in which choreography/performance produces the body, participating in the formative history of the individual; and finally, the internalized force of social choreographies such as gender and race. It would be a stretch to say that all of this is directly addressed in these physicalizations of impact, but what can be said is that Zbikowski’s solo, and similar movement throughout the piece, show the force of the body acting on itself, a force whose source, unlike the ropes at the start of the piece, is never entirely visible.

Finally, the image that lingers with me the most as I live with my experience of the piece over the last several days is the use of the light and the front edge of the stage, both of which seem to be principally concerned with visibility (the light illuminating what can be seen a directing the viewers attention, the front edge of the stage being the precipice between the audience seeing and the performers being seen). Both elements are used almost as weapons throughout Beautiful Struggle, the bodies of performers being sent tumbling across the stage into the floor and the back wall of the stage. Both seem to suggest a physical violence to being or becoming visible, that what is or can be seen acts forcefully upon bodies. These images raise questions, even concerns, about visibility, almost a suspicion of the visible. I am reminded of Peggy Phelan’s Unmakred: the politics of performance, and her struggle with the ideology of the visible. She writes: “It is assumed that disenfranchised communities who see their members within the representational field will feel greater pride in being part of such a community and those who are not in such a community will increase their understanding of the diversity and strength of such communities. Implicit within this argument are several presumptions which bear further scrutiny: 1) Identities are visibly marked so the resemblance between the African-American on the television and the African American on the street helps the observer see they are members of the same community. Reading physical resemblance is a way of identifying community. 2) The relationship between representation and identity is linear and smoothly mimetic. What one sees is who one is. 3) If one’s mimetic likeness is not represented, one is not addressed. 4) Increased visibility equals increased power. Each presumption reflects the ideology of the visible, an ideology which erases the power of the unmarked, unspoken, and unseen” (7). Phelan attempts “to find a theory of value for that which is not ‘really’ there, that which cannot be surveyed within the boundaries of the putative real…. attempting to revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable” (1). This seems to be the Beautiful Struggle engaged by Baker-Tarpaga and company, a discrepancy between what is seen and what is unseen, between the urge to increase visibility and the tangible apprehension of the violent power of visibility. The piece struggles between the restaging familiar tropes of visible identifications, making visible the often invisible or elided complexity of such identities, and preserving the importance of an orientation and attention to what cannot be seen, what does not lie smoothly on the surface.

Beautiful Struggle does not resolve, not should it. To resolve would suggest that resolution of the issues it addresses is possible or achievable, and such resolution does not seem to be possible, at least/especially within our current historical moment. However, this production does not grieve the unresolvability of this struggle; rather, it stages the beauty of such struggle, the aesthetic and ethical value that is possible only through sustained engagement within difference, conflict, contradiction, the visible, and the invisible.

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.

Dancing in Galleries at the Wexner

Today I had to pleasure of witnessing a performance of dance at the Wexner taking place in the gallery spaces as part of the Super Sunday event. The last time I saw dancing in the galleries at the Wexner was “Monster Partitur” last April.


Dancers included Erik Abbott-Main, Dante’ Brown, Mair Culbreth, Fiona Lundie, Eric Nordstrom, Rashana Smith, and Abby Zbikowski. I was truly inspired, and came away with thoughts that I needed to get down somewhere. That where is here.

From the beginning, there was a wonderful ambiguity. The dancers were in “pedestrian clothes” (nothing specifically marked them as “the dancers”). And there was also the question of, “Has it started?” Which called into question the arbitrary beginnings and endings of performance. This echoed a marvelous piece that’s at the Wex right now (“The Silent Echo Chamber” by Harry Shearer): it is a series of screens showing footage of famous figures in the moments preceding their television appearances (Barack Obama, John McCain, Anderson Cooper, etc.). These videos came to mind as I watched for the “start” of the dance performance, and offered a lovely connection between my perception of the performance and other work being exhibited in the space.

The basic structure of the performance began with all the dancers on the long ramp that runs on the east side of the galleries, leading up to the top galleries. From here, dancers spread into different spaces. Throughout the performance, dancers migrated into  and out of spaces.

Immediately and throughout the performance I was aware of the implicating of both spectator in the performances and performers in the role of spectatorship. By introducing this “non-normative movement behavior” (outside of the prescribed gallery etiquette), the movement behavior/patterns of the spectators were called into consideration. Because my attention shifted to include their movement for consideration, the situation of “the performance” was expanded to include all those present. This was reinforced by the lack of described performance spaces. The dancers could be anywhere; the performance could be taking place anywhere, at any time. Boundaries of beginning and ending already having been called into question, boundaries between performance and audience space, performer and spectator, softened as well. I felt even more aware than usual of my relationship to the other bodies in the space. My perspective would sometimes shift from that of an observer of a discrete dancing body to a larger observational perspective of the entire situation in which I was implicated. It was the way I prefer to experience dance, not through the role of spectator but through the role of the experiencing body, aware of my own movements, my spatial relationship to the other bodies in the space, my relationship to the architecture, etc.

In this ambiguity between “performer” and “spectator,” I became aware of layers of perspective (dancers, audience, dancer, more audience, art, art being viewed, etc.). This was most overt in the top gallery. I was watching Eric Nordstrom and Dante’ Brown dance together. Beyond them I was able to see a cluster of spectators watching the same dance, but from the other side. Beyond this group of figures, I could see Erik Abbott-Main dancing in the next gallery. Beyond him were spectators viewing the art work on the walls of the gallery (Luc Tuymans). I found the boundaries of performance again to be malleable, shifting. I could extend my attention to any of these layers, in which all that lied in my field of vision may or may not be considered part of the performance, or part of the emerging composition.

This concept of “emerging composition or choreography of spectators” was one of the most potent observations I felt today. Beyond the dances of the dancers, as my perception of the performance space expanded, I became increasingly aware of the emerging compositions in space an time, compositions made up by both the dancers and the spectators, and even the architecture. This made me think of the Synchronous Objects project and an article I read last Winter discussing the intersection of concerns in the fields of dance and architecture: both are concerned with the movement of people. In dance, the choreography in the directive for movement. In architecture, the structure itself directs the flow of movement in the space. I was keenly aware of these elements during todays performance, and the effect they had on the organization/choreography of the “spectators” (now a term less distinct from “performers”). To begin with, the gallery spaces themselves, each with a different set of art works, negotiated the flow of the viewers. Then there was the added element of the dancers, themselves a moving focal point for attention and activity. The viewers went where the dancers were. Depending on what they saw, they moved to another gallery in search of another dancer, or they stayed. The movement of the viewer, while emerging partially from his or her own agency, was also being directed by the presence/actions of the dancers.

I was also aware of this agency of the viewer. I came to think of it almost as a “curatorial agency.” Unlike the artworks hanging on the walls, the dancers and their dancing is not persistent over time. It changes. Just as in an active stage performer the viewer must select objects of attention on which to focus, this agency was expanded by the distribution of the dancers throughout the gallery. The viewer was given the role of “curator” of their own experience (even as I write this, I realize that there is a sense in which this is our responsibility all the time, but perhaps the sense was heightened by the gallery setting, the movement through various gallery spaces, etc.). The work was constantly unfolding; the viewer composed his or her own thirty-minute experience.

There seems to be a light tension between the choreography of the spatial/temporal organization of the “spectator population” emerging from the architecture and the distribution of the dancing bodies (it carries a sense of determinism) and the “curatorial agency” of the viewer constructing his or her own experience within the gallery.

Finally, I was aware of my posture of observation: how was I standing in order to watch? How near or far was I from the dancer, and how did my stance change given the proximity of the dancer, and any other number of socio-cultural factors. For instance, standing and watching Nordstrom and Brown dancing felt easy, casual, at a safe distance. Then  at another point I was watching Fiona Lundie dance. I was standing relatively near to her, and as she moved through various levels of space, I became aware of how much of the dance I spent “above” her in space. I felt complicit in the “male gaze,” man higher than woman, gaze transforming woman into object. Not that those were my experiences, but the posturing of it felt like a social model that I generally reject. I decided to kneel, bringing myself lower in space, and almost assuming a reverential posture (again, participating in the emerging choreography, implicated in the performance situation).

Other brief observation/thoughts:

-How did things change when one of the dancers “exited” their performance mode and simply watched one of his or her colleagues?

-How did the presence of one dancer change a specific gallery space differently from the presence/dancing of another dancer occupying the same space? How did that affect the perception of the art works on display?

-At one point during the 2:30 performance I was watching with Eric Falck. He put his arm around mine. Eventually we shift to holding hands. At one point I was aware of other spectators behind us watching the dancers we were watching. I questioned how it affected the performance, the role that we were playing in our spatial and relational situation: two gay men holding hands being watched while watching solo female dance in art gallery; two gay men holding hands being watched while watching two male dancers dance in art gallery. How was our “demonstration” (which was emergent from a personal relationship, not just a nexus of aesthetic/cultural/social/political dynamics) a part of what was going on performatively?

There are many more smaller thoughts, but that’s all I have time for at the moment. Needless to say I was deeply inspired, so pleased that work like this is being done, and hopeful that maybe I’ll participate in a differently prescribed role the next time it happens!