michael j. morris


Separate Panes

I compulsively suspend my “real work” to write and reflect about significant art and dance that I have seen. This morning I am aware of (almost to the point of anxiety) the stack of Labanotation projects to grade and the stack of books to read that have taken over my desk. And yet I feel compelled to give at least a little time to reflect on James Graham’s Separate Panes: An Installation and Site-Specific Dance Work that I had the opportunity to see last night.

Separate Panes constitutes the partial fulfillment of Graham’s MFA in Dance at the Ohio State University. The piece was staged (installed) in the former Sullivant Library in Sullivant Hall above and adjacent to the Department of Dance on OSU campus. Going in to the performance/installation, there were already fascinating issues at play concerning uninhabited, vacated spaces, the history of the space as a library sharing a building with dancing spaces, a building that was formerly a historical and archaeological museum. I think going in I was also interested in the choreography of the space, the traces of former movement, how that movement is or was choreographed by the architecture, and how that choreography would be reinforced/altered/activated/or resisted by the presence of this new artistic participation in the space.

At this point I would be remiss to not address the work of Nicole Bauguss in the space.

Bauguss quite simply transformed the space (less reductively, she both transformed and revealed the nature of the space in both simple and labor intensive ways), in collaboration with projected video work by Graham and lighting designer Dave Covey, with an expansive and nuanced installation in the reinhabited spaces. Materials included an intense variety of found/reclaimed materials (including window panes, doors, wooden furniture, hanging lights, an antique bath tub, tree branches, and, most notably, book pages). Bauguss artfully forged a through-line for the piece, offering material relationships between the dance material (initially occurring in separate spaces throughout the main floor of the library, and consolidating into the formerly main reception area for the finale), the video work, and the past and present condition of the space itself. Her installations were essential in formulating the atmospheric situation of the piece, and were the significant component in my perception of the work as “installation,” creating a tangible integration of the dancers into the space/architecture, and providing material structures by which the choreography of the audience’s movement in the space developed (trails of pages leading from one room to the next, bits of seeming debris serving as a kind of trail of breadcrumbs from one space to the next). In some spaces Bauguss made the space into something notably new while still referencing the history and condition of the space: in one room the viewer was met with veil upon veil of hanging paper airplanes made from former book pages, the presence of the pages seeming to reference the former library, the absence of the books/bindings seeming to reference the absence of this former use of the space, their hanging giving an almost ghostly, haunted quality to the room. In other places pages and paper airplanes were left almost like debris, drawing attention to the space, heightening my attention of my surroundings and the participation of the dancers in those surroundings. There were also little rewards in the details: not only were the various papers and pages (mostly from what seemed to be vintage dictionaries or encyclopedias) reclaimed and re-deployed in this installation, but they were altered with images printed on them: images of the dancers, of pomegranates, of other details from the space, etc. By adding her own details, she cultivated a sensitivity to the details of the space itself. Without writing a comparative essay situating Bauguss’ work, I will say that there were what I consider to be “Ann Hamilton” qualities throughout the work, specifically in the relationship of the materials to the history and current condition of the space, and the pairings of both dense collections of materials with carefully nuanced details, all creating a charged situation for performative exchange.
(you can read more about Bauguss’ process and view additional images of both her work and her documentation of the dancers in the space at her blog)

As for the dance performance aspect of the piece, I will say that I left feeling extremely overstimulated, vulnerable, and exposed, all of which might attest to the general success of the project. The dancers in the piece were: Erik Abbott-Main, Mair Culbreth (due to an injury that occurred during the Saturday matinee, Culbreth did not perform in the piece last night; Graham stepped in to dance her part), Katy Gilmore, Leigh Lotocki, and Carson Moody. There was a broad spectrum of movement quality in the work, from introspective, quiet movement that drew me into the immediate space and condition of the dancer, to intense, violent movement of bodies colliding into architectural structures and into one another. This spectrum from soft and quiet to violent collision was somewhere between kinesthetically and emotionally dismantling. It was human drama without the need for discernible narrative. Graham offers about the piece:

“Separate Panes is a site-specific work that follows five performer’s journeys through literal and figurative spaces of isolation and community. Is it an easy transition walking a solo path towards converging with someone else? In an Installation the audience is welcome to be among the art. The audience members have choices as to what they choose to look at, for how long, and in what proximity (up close or further back).”

These themes were definitely present in the movement/choreography, journeys charged with connotation and frameworks in which to construct meaning, but without heavy-handed manipulation of these structures to demand the articulation of a particular narrative. As I have mentioned throughout other posts on this blog, the work I appreciate the most act as agents of “the specificity of ambiguity.” Graham’s Separate Panes definitely operated within this paradigm for me, demonstrating itself as intensely and purely itself without needed to anchor itself to something immediately recognizable/classifiable, and as such made for an extremely rewarding experience. I had strong resonant/empathetic responses to so much of the work, specifically the proxemics of separation and collision (between body and structure, and body with body), and the unmediated nature of violent impact. I have attempted to articulate this aesthetic predilection of mine before, this fascination with the violent impact of bodies. It came up in the violence of my “I Like It Rough” solo in CoCo Loupe’s click here for slideshow or 6-8 character limit, and comes up constantly in the pairings and partnering in “Autumn Quartet.” I have expressed it before as a concern with the irreversibility of the action, and in its irreversibility, its “authenticity.”  Last night I kept thinking of the words “the unmediated nature of impact.” It is of course not entirely unmediated: the structures (columns, walls, windows, floor) interrupt and intervene in the trajectory of the body. But it is something about the body’s impact, the effect of the impact on the body . . . the risk of putting more energy into movement than the dancer can control, the relinquishing of control to the structure, to the space, to the other . . . setting something into motion that must be stopped by something/someone else. That is as articulate as I can be on the topic at the moment, but the persistence of this movement/way of moving throughout the piece was over-stimulating, moving, and specifically addressed my deep fascination with the implications of impact and the body. It contributed to a kind of polarity in the dancers’ relationship with the space, at moments softening into the walls as if for solace or comfort, and other time introducing this combat of collision.

[After I posted this earlier, I felt compelled to return and add in a bit more description of my experience of more specific details from my experience of the piece, especially in the roles of the performers. The demand to navigate my own path through the the piece was not a simple task; each dancer offered so much to my attention, and synthesized with their spaces to create the kind of ambiguous but incredibly specific situations/identities to which I alluded above. Sometimes the profundity of that situation was addictive and I could not pull myself away; other moments with other dancers were difficult to endure, not because of any failure on the part of the dancer, but because the atmosphere which she or he evoked was so particular and complete, it left little room for distance or escape. One such moment was very early on with Katy Gilmore in the High Street rotunda of the library. Gilmore is a captivating dancer, a remarkable technician of movement (this is a dancer with who I have regular classes), yet in this capacity these were not the qualities she brought to bear. She moved slowly, minutely along the rotunda walls, seeming to rub out the words that had been scribbled along them (the text was overwhelming, mostly phrases beginning with the words “my body is _____,” although I think there were additional quotations as well). The synthesis of her introspective, concentrated, and seemingly corrective actions with the scrawl of the text and the chill of the space provoked such a deep despair, I felt compelled to both lose myself there alongside her, or find escape into another space. I escaped to the room which Graham occupied, quietly folding paper airplanes along one wall of a vast room. In contrast, watching Abbott-Main became addictive. The compulsion and ferocity with which he struggled in his space, thrashing about on the floor, throwing his weight against columns and walls and windows, in a perfect counterpoint to moments of near stillness and a similar introspection as earlier exhibited by Gilmore, kept me inthralled. I think it also had to do with light, the warmth of the exterior light coming in through the window panes along one side of his room, the deeper orange of the lights in the next room, and a field of hanging battery-powered lanterns offered more of an invitation to exist within that space between solace and combat, in a way that the chilly light in the rotunda did not. The intensity with which Abbott-Main threw himself into his activity, punctuated with fleeting moments of near-control in which the precision and control of his training became demonstrative (fluid exchanges of weight into and out of the floor, flowing circularity from legs, up spine, out hand or head, etc.), and in contrast to moments of total retreat, was not something I easily left behind. I was also moved by the duet that unfolded between Leigh Lotocki and Carson Moody in the next room over (I say duet because that if how I wanted to view it, the tenuous possibility that there was a connection between these discrete isolated figures, the pull towards no longer being alone as each of the other dancing figure had been framed). The range of movement quality that they explored was similar, the extremes of near-stillness softening their weight into the structures of the architecture and the almost out-of-control actions of falling, flinging, reaching, etc. They eventually came to dance together, a pair, which was then added to Abbott-Main, making a trio. It became clear that Gilmore and Graham had coalesced into a duet as the five eventually made their way into the main space for the finale, the gradual movement from isolation to a society, a community, a struggle to be a tribe. It was in this large group finale that I experienced some of the most intense encounters with the dancer, particularly Graham. As I made my way into the central space, I chose to situate myself at a column on one side of the room. Shortly thereafter, Graham began interacting with this column, throwing his weight into it, struggling as if with it. The presence of struggle between the moving and the unmovable was persistent in the piece, but this was the closest I had been to it. Sitting there against the column with Graham throwing his weight into it only inches away, feeling the heat of him, the intensity of his breath, the slight reverberations of his actions in the solidity of the architecture, the way his movement stirred the air between us, I felt very close to something very sincere. I can’t speak for his experience, and I think it best to not assume the articulation/expression of the personal in the content of the presentational, but there was an honesty of action, a sincerity of a condition of struggling against the immovable, the impossible, that struggle somehow distinct from the struggle within the group itself . . . it was an intimate moment for me.]

Other themes that emerged for me between the dancing, the video work, and the installations of materials in the spaces were: an insistence on personal agency (the freedom of the viewer to move through the space as if a museum) amidst a series of structures to influence that agency (the anchoring of the dancers and videos in specific spaces, the trail of materials and light and sound from one to the other, the unfolding of the soundscore over time, etc.). This insistence on personal agency structured within the installation of the piece itself seemed to echo aspects of the “human drama” that I felt being addressed, specifically the freedom to come and go as one pleases. Even without reading specific narratives, I could not help but construct/recognize the mutability of the interpersonal relationships established in choreography, and this quality of “come and go as you please,” a kind of spatial/physical promiscuity, an ambivalence of attention, seemed to be demonstrated in the proxemics of the dancers and echoed in the insistence on “audience agency.” There was also a sense of insanity in isolation, something between cabin fever and inconsolable loneliness (I felt this most acutely in Katy Gilmore’s dancing of the rotunda space, amidst charcoal scribblings covering the walls, Erik Abbott-Main’s thrashing about the floor and walls and windows, like a caged bird, and James Graham’s almost obsessive repetition of making paper airplanes in the space already filled with hanging paper airplanes; there was a kind of insanity in the excess). I had a sense of insight into the private, personal practices of individuals left alone (this was perhaps most acute in the video of Abbott-Main alone in the bathroom, the video of Carson Moody alone in theater space, the nudity in both videos), thrown into harsh relief with the almost intrusive recognition that the “private” moments I was witnessing were not private at all, compromised by the invisible presence of the videographer and video editor. This tension of presence and absence was also persistent in my experience, of both the video work and the dancing in the space. There was a remove to the work, the dancers sometimes being incredibly close to the audience (there were moments in which I found myself only inches away from trashing, sweating, gasping bodies), but never fully acknowledging the presence of the spectator. This was echoed in the videos, the figure in the videos never directly addressing the camera/viewer. This lack of acknowledged viewership heightened the sense of privacy and almost voyeurism.

For all its intensity, the piece was not without the possibility of humor. At one point the soundscore (the soundscore for the piece was composed by Anthony Vine and was a pervasive contribution to the situation of the work) introduced a Justin Timberlake song. The dancers present (Abbott-Main, Lotocki, and Moody) moved slowly from one room to another, in an almost trance-like state of attention. The potential for humor was in the shift of the audience following them, a crowd moving slowly, as if blindly, mindlessly, to see where they would go and what would happen next, all underscored by the pop music. My connotations were mostly zombie related in that moment, watching the crowd as much if not more than I was watching the dancers, the choreographic manipulation of the spectators via the dancers and soundscore; it would not be difficult to parlay that into a fleeting commentary on the nature of popular culture.

Questions of gender came up for me throughout the piece, but most notably in the finale, in which all five dancers moved together in the large central space of the former library. There were several moments of boy/girl+boy/girl pairings, and a trio of all three men. These were not gender choices I would have expected, at which point I reminded myself that Graham was dancing the role of Mair Culbreth. Until last night’s performance, one of those girl/boy pairings was a girl/girl pair; the trio of three men was a trio of two men and a woman. And while questions of gender can’t be conflated with questions of sexuality, both came into play due to my familiarity with the dancers. The presence of gay and lesbian identities, the substitution of a gay man into the role previously danced by a lesbian woman, all created fascinating structures for the perception of individuals, pairings, and group dynamics.

Overall, I found Graham’s Separate Panes to be a great success, a moving address of spaces and human drama, richly supported and defined by its collaborative creative team of makers. It was rewarding to see work so expansive in its space and scope coming out of this department at this time.

Also, check out the nice article on Separate Panes in The Lantern.

Advertisements


Manimals and Other Human Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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