michael j. morris


Purple Wedding/Re-Membering the Mountains/S(he) Sylph

What a week of work. I hardly have time to be writing this (I am certain it is tedious how frequently I start blog posts by saying that I don’t have time to be blogging), but I don’t know how to go on to other projects without giving (at least some) attention to these.

Yesterday was the Love Art Laboratory’s Purple Wedding to the Mountains. I participated in various capacities: I performed a new solo entitled “Re-Membering the Mountains Ritual” (see previous post and below), I was a member of Beth Stephens’ bridal party, and I carried an Ecosexual Pride Flag in the procession. I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people (artists, academics, activists, people who make their home in the Appalachians, eco-chaplains, sex workers, curators, videographers, photographers, etc. etc. etc.). The wedding was a beautiful event held in the Galbreath Chapel on the Ohio University campus. It is my hope that the web will soon begin to flourish with documentation traces from the work; there were always so much cameras (video and photo) running.

Beth Stephens, Joseph Kramer, and Annie Sprinkle; photo by Sarah Stolar (who also made the costumes for Beth and Annie)

Having written about Love Art Lab, Annie and Beth, Sexecology/Ecosexuality so much for so long, it was a profound shift for me to be inside of the work. Several brief thoughts spring to mind:
-the absolutely collaborative nature of the wedding(s). Beth and Annie have spoken about this so much, and although it is evident in the wedding documentation/ephemera, it was a arching theme in my experience this weekend. The event really lives from/between the contributions of many many individuals.
-the unique diversity of the community constructed surrounding the event. I was struck by the range of backgrounds/experiences represented in the wedding, both as performers and as witnesses, and the reality that many of those individuals would have no reason or opportunity to function as a community otherwise. It felt like an ideal demonstration of coalitional politics and communities of affinity: there was no shared essence or pervasive common denominator in those present. There were simply common concerns (primarily for the Appalachians and environmental politics) that established this [fluid] community.
-the generative creative chaos leading up to the event. There were amazing facilitators and organizers involved, but with something of this scale, we were soon behind schedule and I wasn’t sure how the wedding would happen/start on time. And then it did. And it suggested a different way of approaching work/art, a more spontaneous method for creative convergence.

My solo (discussed more extensively in my previous post) was very well received.  There was a lot of documentation happening, so hopefully there will be a video/more photos soon.
I made a few new discoveries as I was dancing. The score expanded. It was certainly an incorporation of environmental melancholy, and a practice of experiencing grief for the destruction of the mountains (and the lives that depend on the mountains), but in a very queer ecofeminist way, it became an incorporation of a deep sorrow for other apparatuses of oppression: the abjection of queer lives as unlivable, the exploitation of women, the earth, and all those who suffer as “others.” I experienced a deep grief that I did not foresee, and my melancholia was for so many things that go ungrieved in our culture. I was brought again to Catriona Sandilands words: “how does one mourn in the midst of a culture that finds it almost impossible to recognize the value of what has been lost?”  In a culture that does not recognize the loss of livability, whether that be for queer people or the inhabitants of the Appalachian mountains, how can we grieve? [this was made even more palpable having read Foucault on biopolitics and Agamben on bare life last week] Unlike what I had prepared, I do not think I reached a state of mourning–if mourning is distinguished from melancholia, the latter being an inability to let go of that which is lost, the former being an act of moving through/letting go. Against so much of my yogic/Tantric philosophy, I did not let go. I incorporated the violence/terrorism of these un-grieved (the mountains, etc.) to carry them with/in/as me. I “re-membered” the mountain, I ended drawing myself up into Tadasana, but it was not an uncompromised form: the mountains cannot ever be what they were before the onslaught of human violence, and we now live in a world of wounds [“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” –Aldo Leopold]. We live in/from/as wounded mountains, and oppressed peoples, despite whatever liberties they attain, carry the history of oppression, of abjection. For me, in the wedding yesterday, there was no “letting go.” There was in incorporation of “the other,” a recognition that it (the mountains, the other, etc.) is NEVER NOT myself. In the ecological/Tantric sense, if all things are One, then that violence, that terrorism, that world is the world in which I live, which is (phenomenologically) the world of my body.

Photo by Elizabeth Linares

Lastly, I feel the need to write something about Courtney Harris’ new work that premiered this week, S(he) Sylph. To be transparent, I am close to this work. I designed and constructed the costumes, I have seen it grow and evolve throughout the rehearsal process, and I live with Courtney. But I saw this work as a great (even radical) work on so many levels, and before another week begins, it was important for me to articulate why.

To begin with, S(he) Sylph was “a contemporary re-imagination of the 1832 ballet, La Sylphide.” The press release goes on to describe it as an investigation of “the complexities of narrative and character development through modern movement vocabularies grounded in a classical idiom. Joined by members of the Royal Renegades, Central Ohio’s premiere drag king troupe, Harris and cast reinvigorate this Romantic-era production to explore gender transgression, queer identity, and feminist perspectives.” Although I feel that the piece stands bolding and beautifully on its own, this context adds something to what I consider to be its radicalness. Contemporary creative reconstructions are a growing interest in the field of dance. I view them as a practice concerned with “doing history,” potentially revisionist, reflexive of the field/form, and depending on the relationship of the choreographer enacting the reconstruction to the “original,” a practice of recuperative autoethongraphy. In Harris’ case, this is a familiar historical ballet. She has danced the “original,” and it lives as an artifact of a particular epoch within her particular [dancing life] history. To revisit, reprocess, revise, and recreate this work functions as more than just an exercise in reconstruction or historicity; it is–in my estimation–a radical act of exploring/generating divergent (deviant?) perspectives and conclusions to one’s own history, as well as the history of the particular ballet. This is part of the context in which I have viewed the work.

In this feminist/queer re-engagement with the Sylph, issues that had to be confronted were primarily in the narrative and character definition, although movement vocabulary, setting/situation, and music were reconsidered as well. The figures of S(he) Sylph are more abstracted than those of La Sylphide. The narrative as I experience it is the presentation of “James” within the context of hyper-masculine men in which he does not quite fit [this hyper-masculinity itself becomes subverted/displaced as the piece progresses, and this gang of guys are revealed as drag kings. I saw this an amazing demonstration of gender as performed, and even the most masculine of men, the standard in this context, become revealed as not essentially that which they perform. This functions for me more as a symbolic plot supporting the more foregrounded narrative of the “James” character] [As the costumer, I want to to comment on how “James” is presented alongside the kings: they are in suits with shoes. He is in a black military jacket trimmed in gold (suggestive of the gold throne around which the kings congregate–for me a symbol of a masculine grounding, and the field of hanging gold frame–for me a symbol of that which must be crossed over/transgressed; it hopefully alludes to a military history of domination, Orientialism, Western superiority, patriarchal occupation, and “othering”) and a kilt, suggestive of the Scottish “James” of La Sylphide, but also functioning to distinguish his performance of masculinity within the context of the men he is alongside. We see hints of dark purple chiffon at the cuffs, collar, and tail of the jacket, suggestive of some additional content]. With the departure of the group of guys, “James” trailing behind them, a mysterious woman (“Madge”)–who has been standing in observation for the opening of the piece–enters the space. Her vocabulary echoes aspects of the first movement with the drag kings and foreshadows the vocabulary of the “Sylph.” She is serpentine and sinuous, and I feel her strength into the floor and through the air like the coil of a boa constrictor. She is regal in her carriage, but her regality is not the flawless linearity of the court ballet. [Again, as the costumer, I want to comment on the presentation of “Madge”: for me, she is the cyborg/composite/queer figure; she wears a black military jacket, reminiscent of the jacket worn by “James” with similar trimmings attaching her to the gold elements of the set and the implications of its military elements, but her jacket is trimmed in ruffles, subverting the design and function of a military jacket (a possible allusion to the feminization of the military persona, the threat implied by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” etc.); she wears men’s Calvin Klein briefs, an inhabitation of an intimately male attire/position, and possibly engaging with a discourse of having/being the “phallus;” beneath her jacket is a hint of black lace; and her jacket is bustled with various colors of chiffon, tassels, lace, and chains, a foreshadowing of a relationship with the materials of the “Sylph;” She is never only one thing; she is internally inconsistent, contradictory in her demeanor and design] Perhaps most importantly to me, she is a figure of mystery: we know that this figure watches/observes much of the action on stage, and there are moments in which she participates in the action between “James” and the “Sylph,” but her role is never perfectly clear, and this ambiguity is another facet of how I read her character as potentially queer. The “Sylph” enters, and we see her move in synch with “Madge;” we are shown/given the opportunity to read a correlation in these figures/characters. Some scholars have suggested various configurations of relationship between “Madge” and the “Sylph” in La Sylphide, and I feel as if this suggestion of relationship continues in this speculation. There are obvious similarities and disparities between these two [again, as costumer: with the “Sylph,” we are confronted with what might superficially be identified as simultaneously the archetypal feminine and the exoticised “other” (calling up suggestions of Latin or show hall dancers). She is a veritable cloud of purple chiffon ruffles, bouncing, drifting, and rippling through the air. Yet my own feminism is at play in the design: her figure is partially obscured. The dress design is taken from a 1930s frock, more of a sheath with a flounce, not accentuating her curves or immediately revealing her body, but provoking the viewer to go looking for her form amidst the ruffles (amidst the expectations of her form?), and perhaps in doing do reveal to the viewer his own attention to and participation in the economy of desire surrounding the female form]. Her movement is easily the most balletic, making reference to yet another history of feminine ideals. In a duet between “James” and the “Sylph,” he chases behind her, looking after her but never directly laying eyes on her, moving through suggestions of her movement as if tracing her traces in the air. The relationship between “James” and the “Sylph” is perhaps the most radical departure from La Sylphide. In Sylphide, James’ desire for the Sylph drew him outside of his engagement to be married, outside of his community (it functioned in some ways as a morality tale, warning against the wiles of the exotic); yet in S(he) Sylph we are shown not specifically a trajectory of desire, but something more like identification or inhabitation. “James” traces the “Sylph” in the air not in an effort to acquire or attain her as an object of desire, but to suggest her form as himself.

In the middle section of the piece, the trio of “Madge,” “James,” and the “Sylph” dance together, “Madge” seeming to mediate the nature of contact between the other two, moving them through space and inhabiting the space between them (again, this “between-ness” can function as a significant factor in considering the figure/character of “Madge”). The “Sylph” exits once more (beyond the frames: the frames function as some kind of divide, accentuated further in the following section. Madge and the Sylph initially emerge from beyond the frame, from an “other” place, and this is to me significant), and now the piece becomes even more interesting.

Erik Abbott-Main as "James," Jessica Zeller as "Sylph" and Veronica Dittman Stanich as "Madge," set pieces by Nicole Bauguss, costumes by Michael J. Morris

Behind the frames enter the drag kings, now in various states of undress, situated liminally between the recognizably female and the recognizably male (I might suggest here Butler’s account of the subversive potential of drag in the destabilization of sedimented gender roles; I might also suggest the spatial/symbolic consistency of the undressed drag kings being situated beyond the frames). “Madge” removed “James'” kilt, and the kings, reaching through the frame, assist in removing his belted jacket. A new version of “James” is revealed: flowing purple chiffon blouse (yes, the same chiffon from the Sylph’s dress and Madge’s bustle) and black men’s Calvin Klein briefs (yes, the same cut as those worn by “Madge;” it is my hope that the correlation not only draws a connection between “James” and the bricolaged condition of “Madge,” but might also raise question of how he inhabits this intimate ‘masculine’ space, one which has been demonstratively inhabited already by “Madge;” what does it do for him to now also inhabit that space?). The “Sylph” reenters and he dances alongside her, now finding a consistency with her movement that he did not find alongside the kings in the opening scene. He dances alongside her, and even when they partner (briefly) it is not is the idiom of the pas de deux; it is along trajectories of sameness and shared vocabularies. “James” is now performed/demonstrated in the terms of the “Sylph,” becoming (rather than desiring/acquiring) those tropes of “otherness” established in the figure of the “Sylph.” His kilt and jacket disguarded (now hanging from the gold throne), he passes through the frames, following in the traces of the “Sylph” as the light come go down. Our last image is “Madge” atop the throne, what I choose to read as an enthronement of ambiguous, liminal, even queer [gender] identity atop/above/against the masculinist paradigm.

So much of this explication has to do with what/how the piece means for me, which says very little of the strength of the dancers (Erik Abbott-Main as “James,” Veronica Dittman Stanich as “Madge,” and Jessica Zeller as the “Sylph”), nor the exceptional craftsmanship of the choreography. Nor the excellent performances/participations of the Royal Renegades as the drag kings in the piece. But as this piece has marked a significant investment of my time, energy, and attention over the last few months, I wanted to contribute my own reading of the work to whatever other dialogues emerge around/about it. I don’t take my reading as authoritative in any way, nor does it necessarily represent Courtney’s reading of her work. It is simply how and what the piece means to me as a designer and spectator.



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.



Reflections on Dance Downtown: The Event that Comes After the Event

Last night I had the opportunity to see “Remix Culture: OSU Dance Downtown” at the Riffe Center’s Capital Theatre. There’s another show tonight, and I highly recommend it.

Although I hardly have the time for such an endeavor, I feel a strong conviction to spend more time with this experience. So often we simply view/experience art/dance (life) and just keep moving forward. While there is certainly something to be said for being fully situated in the present, I also feel the need to process how these incredibly significant experiences live with/in me. This is not the first time I have written about a dance performance or art exhibit; it won’t be the last. These are not reviews or even critiques. They are an opportunity for me to reflect on my experience, give space for it to live and sink in and develop into something more particular in which to live. I post it here on my blog as a way of sharing that reflection.

While this should be obvious, this writing is not a telling of what happened in this show. It is not even a description of the dances, per se. It is more accurately a reflection on my own experience, constructed within my perceptual experience from the materials provided by the performance itself. There is nothing authoritative, “accurate,” or “inaccurate” about this writing. It is simply a record of my experience, and it is as such that I offer it to you.

The concert began with Michael Kelly Bruce’s new work entitled Sinuous Moonlight. The rewards of this piece included the energy of the dancers, the swishy, swooping, almost sultry quality to the overall body attitude of the work, the transparency of the dance as a dance, and the persistent (but not heavy-handed) potential homoeroticism of the choreography. Bruce worked with a cast of incredible dancers (this could actually be a blanket statement for the entire concert; Dance Downtown was, as a whole, an exhilarating demonstration of exceptional dancing and dancers), and the spectacular spectrum of their unique abilities seemed to be a through-line in the piece, exemplified perhaps most specifically in Erik Abbott-Main’s expert performance of hula-hooping in the second section of the dance. The second section began with Abbott-Main’s entrance and the descent of a light-up hula hoop from the ceiling to the immediate elation of the audience. I appreciated the opportunity that the hula hoop (and hula hooper) provided for multiple readings: it could be a symbol, a metaphor, signifying some more esoteric content; or it could function as an absurdist device, throwing the internal logic of the piece into a tailspin; or it could simply be an element of spectacle, something purely for fun and entertainment. One of my favorite moments of the evening occurred during this section. During Abbott-Main’s hula-hooping, a second male dancer (Daniel Holt) entered the space, gazing at Abbott-Main. In a pricelessly (potentially) homoerotic moment, Holt (in a low lunge) rhythmically thrusts his hips while watching Abbott-Main (topless) touch himself sensually, hula-hooping all the while. It was not heavy handed, and I suppose there could be multiple readings of this particular moment, but I took pleasure in seeing what could be blatantly homoerotic content on a Columbus dance stage. This was not the only potentially homoerotic content in the piece: male-male partnering was throughout, as was female-female partnering. On the surface this could simply be “homo-social” (not necessarily homosexual) demonstrations, but situated in a long history of partnering connoting intimate relations (supported by the lyric content: “But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance/Let’s face the music and dance,” “If you say run, I’ll run with you/If you say hide, we’ll hide/Because my love for you/Would break my heart in two,” Peggie Lee talking about falling “head over heels in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world;” the lyrics provided a setting in which romance/sexuality could easily be at the surface of any reading), I simply offer that if one were to look for homoerotic demonstrations in the work, there was a plethora of choreographic content from which to construct such a reading.

In a lovely gesture of reflexivity, the dance was performed on an exposed stage space: no wings, no cyc, lighting instruments clearly exposed, ladders and scaffolding providing “set” pieces. Another recurring lyrical theme throughout the soundscore was “dance” (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Let’s Dance,” “Is That All There Is?  . . . If that’s all there is friends, let’s keep dancing”). The exposure of the stage space seemed to be a further acknowledgement that it’s “just dance,” an exposure of the reality of the situation, a spectacle without illusionism, perhaps inviting the viewer to consider the spectacular in the mundane, or perhaps offering an endorsement of the particularly spectacular quality of the “mundane” activity of dance. This reflexive frame was a successful lens through which to give attention to the activity of dancing itself, without necessarily looking for meaning beyond the dance, without speculating as to the mystery of theatricality, and to find simple pleasure in the energy and unique virtuosity of this particular ensemble of dancers.

Ming-Lung Yang presented a new work entitled No Trace. It was one of the most elegant group pieces I have seen in quite a while. My initial experience with the performance, I must confess, had mostly to do with the costumes. I work as an assistant to Mary Yaw McMullen, the costume designer/director for the department, and thus I have spent a significant investment of time, energy, and attention in these costumes. The basic forms for the women were grey chiffon kimonos, accented with colorful fabrics. From the first entrance of a female dancer (I believe this was Amanda Byers), when she spread her arms and the floor length sleeves trailed in the air, I started to cry. My sense of pleasure can be incredibly simple: sometimes chiffon carried on the air is all it takes.

But beneath the costumes was the dance. Thoughts that linger with me are an almost unthinkable precision, an attention to personal/individual detail that created a flawless support for a macro composition that was somehow equal parts simple and complex, a fluid interplay between weightiness and lightness, and a recurring sensation of “How did we get here?” The movement, transitions, and partnering were of such an expertly crafted and cleanly practiced nature that I constantly found myself witnessing arrivals with no clear sense of how the dancers came to be in such positions/formations/configurations. I think this is a mark of truly great craftsmanship.

The most rewarding aspects of this dance were the seemingly impossible fluidity and ease of the partnering and delicate subversion of a gendered logic within the movement vocabulary. The partnering was some of the most weightless partnering I have ever witnessed. The ease with which one body’s weight merged into the support of another was almost imperceptible (contributing to that sense of “How did we get here?”). On a kinesthetic level, this was one of the brightest gems of this piece. Second was the subversion of the dance’s own gendered logic. From the onset of the piece, there seemed to be a clearly gendered nature of the movement: the men moved with strength, groundedness, and weight; the women moved quickly, lightly, skimming across the stage (although still with a sense of moving through the earth rather than on top of it?). I thought of the Laban association of the feminine with the light and buoyant, the masculine with the weighted and grounded. And this gendered vocabulary was fairly consistent throughout the first half of the piece. But then I began to recognize the gentle subversions of this explicit binary: the lightness of the men as they danced with one another, the strength and groundedness as the women lifted the men, the implication of a fluidity across these vocabularies, and perhaps, by extension, across genders. The binary was never fully subverted (it was particularly concrete in the toplessness of the men, and the uniform tank-tops on the women; the costumes reinforced a binary that was never dissolved), but these subtle subversions added to the elegance of the work.

I had a one extremely particular experience while watching Ming’s dance. I had the honor of sitting next to David Gordon (of the Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union) last night at the concert. During a duet performed by Kathryn Vickers and Meredith Hurst, I was struck by the way that Vickers moves, immediately recollecting the way that Abigail Yager (Ming’s wife and technique instructor at OSU, formerly of the Trisha Brown Company) moves, which recalls Trisha Brown and the Judson period. It echoed my experience of dancing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, and I took delight in relating Vickers’ movement with my Trio A experience. I suddenly came upon the realization/recollection that David Gordon, next to whom I was seated, danced in the premiere of Trio A in 1966 as part of The Mind is a Muscle, Part 1. I felt like a puddle of myself, in awe of the intersubjective space between Vickers, my association of her movement with my experience of Trio A, my knowledge of Gordon and the decades that his body has known the dance with which I was making this association. It was a rare experience, completely unique, yet deeply enriching my experience of Ming’s dance.

Esther Baker-Tarpaga premiered a new work entitled Down the Road, which also marked the premiere of its newly commissioned musical score (performed live) by Olivier Tarpaga and Michael Wall. This piece offers an intense emotional landscape of personal histories, family, physicality, and community. Last year I had the opportunity to hear Esther give a research presentation in which she discussed her choreography and video dance practices. She said of her choreography that it really emerged from the unique situations of who she was with and where she was at. In this post-modern dance era in which movement is constantly sourced from dancers, I can be extremely skeptical of this description of creative process. Often work that is described as emergent from the particularities of the dancers turns out to be without compositional cohesion, a watered-down stream of disparate movement vocabularies repeated ad nauseam alongside and amidst the phrases generated by other dancers. This was not my experience of Esther’s piece; she offered an exemplary model of the rich possibilities of sourcing individual contributions from a unique cast of dancers crafted into a cohesive compositional form. This piece found a particular (as opposed to the non-particularity that can be a danger to this kind of work) expression crafted very much in between and from these individual offerings.

The piece ran the gamut of movement from stillness to frenzy, fluidity to violence. It was grounded and wide; the partnering was rewarding in its obvious impacts, collisions, yanking, etc. I might range into the realm of interpretation and meaning making (fully acknowledging that this meaning is entirely my own, constructed from the materials provided by the dance/dancers) and say that an arching theme for this piece has to do with pulling together and pulling apart, the (sometimes violent, sometimes tender) tensions of individual identities and cohesive community. I was left with the social/cultural/physical/personal question of how we are to cultivate/maintain a community that acknowledges and speaks its difference, its diversity, while committing to co-existence, collaboration, cohesion (even punctuated by collision). I might suggest that this sense of unity with disparity was reinforced by formal elements within the work: the wedding of live music (produced by two very different musicians) with live dance; the (stunning) costumes that articulated individuality in form while adhering to a narrow, unifying palette of reds, burgundies, and pinks; the weaving of spoken text into movement without a sense of unnecessary interruption. But beyond this particular thematic interpretation, there was exceptional reward in the intensity of the dancers’ energy, the power of the physical expressions, the tension between their strength and abandon. Esther succeeded in the difficult task of creating a richly meaningful dance articulated through powerful dancing, bringing together dynamic disparity into a demonstration of the potential for unity.

Bebe Miller’s new work entitled How to Remember left me without words. Last night I actually asserted that I don’t know how anyone writes about Bebe’s work. It is so constantly shifting, continually transforming and becoming and re-becoming and re-becoming. As soon as I move to take note of what I have perceived it to be, it changes into something else, sometimes something reasonably adjacent, sometimes (more often) into something completely unexpected. This is what I consistently experience as the utter brilliance of Bebe’s choreography, it’s ability to adhere to itself as a composition, iterating its own kind of internal logic, while never exactly assuming or displaying itself as a concrete, recognizable identity. This piece expertly demonstrated this particular brand of brilliance, and it left me stunned.

And so here I find myself, attempting to put words to an experience that I already appreciate as presumable ineffable. I don’t know how to articulate my experience. But, as I hope to elucidate, the retelling of the piece seems to be necessary, an implicit request from the piece itself for a furthered understanding of itself.

One of the profundities of How to Remember is its many points of access. It can be appreciated on so many levels, and offers itself, it seems, on all of these levels. There is energetic, spectacular dancing for the viewer interested primarily in spectacle and entertainment. These dancers are fiercely capable of powerful demonstrations of physical ability and testing the limits of what is doable, thinkable even. There is a level at which it functions didactically, not in a limiting or oppressive way, but in an offering of how the viewer might consider this dance (or all dances; or living, perceiving, remembering in their largest senses). Early in the piece, there is recorded text discussing the Theory of Relativity as a philosophy of cocktail philosophers, simplifying the explanation of the theory as (simply) acknowledging that a person looks differently from the front than from the back, and that one’s perception depends entirely upon one’s situation. This theory seems to permeate the complex situation of looking constructed within the piece: myself looking at the dancers, the dancers looking at one another, the ceaselessly unfolding awareness that these people/bodies are in a constant state of transformation/construction amidst the complex field of intersubjective perception. And it is also just as simple as recognizing that my perception emerges entirely from my situation (both my spatial situation and what is visible to me from that vantage, and my larger situation of history, experience, my own identity, my unique relationship with each of the dancers on the stage, my relationship with the choreographer, my familiarity with the costumes as the costumer’s assistant, etc.). And as I find to be a recurrent quality of Bebe’s work, the situations are constantly reconsidered, recontextualized, and as I perceive those changing contexts, I recognize my implication/participation in the uniqueness of those changing contexts. Dancers move from space to space, partner to partner; particular phrases of movement are repeated again and again, across multiple bodies and various spatial/temporal situations. The recorded text addressing the Theory of Relativity offers the viewer a method for viewing, a particular concern or consideration for an attention to constantly transforming particularities of situation and perception, and the question of what “it” (the dance) is woven throughout this kind of attention.

There were other relevant (and exquisite) texts in the piece (in the program, the text is attributed to Richard P. Feynman and Ain Gordon). I wish I had a transcript of the particular language of these additional recordings; my own paraphrased reconstruction of them will not do justice to their beauty. The ideas I took from these additional texts were a consideration of the nature of the event, and memory. Something occurs (at first this seems as if it is the start of a narrative), and then the event has passed. The event now becomes the recollection of the event, the retelling of it, the reconstruction of it from memory. The event changes over time, particular pieces are lost, the event becomes lost; the place and people originally involved in the occurrence of the event fade from existence, and we are left with a road to take us somewhere else. Again, this text seemed to offer itself as potentially didactic, a way of considering the dance, its performance, and where “what it is” exists between its doing, the seeing of the doing, the memory and subsequent retelling of what was done. [And now I find myself implemented within the scope of the dance. The event is gone, the event of the dancing in the Riffe Center’s Capital Theatre last night; now the event has become a person sitting at a laptop computer in Starbucks, surrounded by a flurry of activity and noise, remembering, recollecting, reconstructing the particularities of my experience of the dance; pieces are lost, the original event becomes lost, and now the event lives in the scurry of fingertips across keyboard keys, pixels and text providing the road to somewhere new.] This notion seemed articulated throughout the choreography, phrases of movement recurring throughout the piece, across various bodies, in new contexts/situations. It became not only a nod to the Theory of Relativity and an opportunity for attention to the nature of perception; the dance became an act of corporeal memory, phrases recalled, changed, no longer as they first occurred, but now dancing spaces for something new.

Which leads to what I found to be perhaps the most intoxicating point of entry/level of appreciation, that which I experienced as a dancer, informed by a significant detail from the program: “Our process includes choreographic contributions from the dancers; their creative energies are an integral part of this piece. The work also contains choreographic references to past Bebe Miller Company repertory. As such it reflects the peculiar and mysterious process of experience and knowledge passing from dancer to dance, over time and generations.” As I watched, I am drawn into a saturating sympathy with the processes of memory, dancers in a studio reaching back and reconstructing the past in/as their own bodies. I am breathless at the physical act of remembering, negotiating the spaces of what has occurred before and what occurs now within this new, unique event/situation/context. I am suspended along the incredible attention to what each thing is, each action, and the spaces between the dancers and their actions. It is a quality of attention to each action as it is NOW, fully within the present, but knowingly constructed to what it was before, as it occurred in/as the past. This sympathy for the practice of memory, the transformative legacy of the event(s), fragments of dances from the past recreated in/as new bodies, practiced (each repetition both a reiteration and an evolution), performed, lost. The event now lives in memory, the retellings of it.

That seems like a perfect conclusion, but I also feel the desire to acknowledge the particular body attitude of the piece, something I can only describe as recognizable as very “Bebe” (a kind of restlessness of position, an energetic fascination with possibilities, asking, “If I am here, where else can I be? Can I get all the way to there from here?” paired with a willingness to exhaust the possibilities of what a thing is or might be), infused with the less familiar, the contributions of this unique community of dancers in this piece. I had a sense of Bebe as danced through each of these dancers, but also these dancers as danced through one another, as understood and composed through Bebe. The layers of hybridity, the sense of corporeal/kinesthetic identities articulated in/as/through multiple bodies was stunning.

And so Dance Downtown becomes an event of memory, of re-telling, a reflection of my experience becoming my experience.

The show runs again tonight. If you have the opportunity to see it, I highly recommend that you do so.



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.



Visiting the Love Art Laboratory

I found out this morning that I have received funding for a research trip to San Francisco in December, to view work by and interview Love Art Lab (Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens). The hope is that I will write something for publication or conference presentation based on the research I do on this trip. I can hardly wrap my head around the fact that I’ll be there meeting them/talking to them about their work/seeing their work in less than a month. I have thrived on their work remotely for so long . . . I can hardly imagine preparing myself for first-hand engagement.

These are the (unfiltered) ideas I am interested in talking to them about:

-The implications for perspectives of the body in their work, both their larger project of Love Art Laboratory, the projects they have done year by year, and their recent evolution into “Sexecology” (the intersection of sexology and ecology). What does it mean that the whole Love Art Lab project is centered around the chakra system, which is a distillation of energy centers within the body (the body as the starting place for this project, via the work of artist Linda Montano)? What does it mean that these projects are predominantly performative (or artifacts of the performative), which situates the body at the (intersecting) center of political activism, environmentalism, interpersonal relationship, sexual identity, etc.?

-What does intersecting “sexology” (the study of sexual behavior, predominantly in humans) and “ecology” (the branch of biology dealing with the relations of interactions between organisms and their environment; environmental science) say about how we view the body, organizations/relationships of bodies (people), etc.?

-What kind of progressive “body cultures” or cultures for progressive perspectives of the body are furthered in their work (this might address anything from clothing trends, body modification such as tattoos or piercings, exploring the boundaries between the private and the public as it relates to revelation of the body and bodily (even sexual) acts, etc.)?

-How does their work illustrate a conflation of art, life, and love? How has that functioned, the art seeming to be so entangled with the personal relationship between the artists (collaborators and wives)? How does that affect/direct the content of the work? How does the relationship serve as material in the art, and how does the art serve as a component of the personal relationship? Where is the line between public and private? What gets put into the art, and what stays out of it? What comes into the relationship, and what has to stay “in the studio,” as it were? To whatever degree the art functions as a profession, how does that affect the art or the relationship? I am fascinated by artist relationships, specifically in which both the relationship and the art are collaborative. I am fascinated by relationships emerging from the creative process (re: “click here for slideshow or 6-8 character limit“; “Autumn Quartet“), how art furthers relationships, how relationships function as material for art, etc.

-On some (utopian, idealistic) level, I think I am looking to Annie and Beth as gurus of sustainable integration. That isn’t fair and I know it, but their work integrates so much: personal, public, professional, creative, political, sexual, ecological, etc. etc. etc. And somehow, from the remote observer, it seems to be working. I need this to be answered . . . disillusioned, nuanced, confirmed, whatever. The most difficult part of the creative life (for me) is the integration. I am interested in Fluxus artists. I am interested in early post-modernism, and how they worked so hard to dissolve the boundary between art and life, and at the same time I am interested in maintaining my connection to the art form, to the history of dance, the technique and craft and practice of it. I don’t want to integrate dance and life simply by considering my daily mundane life (the walking to and from school, drinking coffee, reading and writing papers, washing dishes, folding clothes, seeing friends, etc.) dancing (which it is); I want to maintain a dancing practice, a connection to dancing history and technique without those things feeling remote from the rest of life . . . by which I think I mean (predominantly) relationships. I mean cooking and cleaning and other life experiences as well, but I think the conflict I find most of all is the amount of time that the “dancing life” demands infringing on the quality and quantity of time I can spend nurturing and fostering human connection. The irony is that my art form is predominantly social; we do it in groups of people.

I should say that between the project I just completed with CoCo Loupe, Eric Falck, and Jeff Fouch (“click here for slideshow or 6-8 character limit”) and the project I am working on with Erik Abbott-Main, Eric Falck, and Amanda Platt, I feel nearer to this “integrated living” than I have (in quite some time)(ever). And yet I feel like (I hope) Annie and Beth can say something to this.

 

That’s all I have time for. Ecstatic to have funding. Can’t wait to be in San Francisco.



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.

SuperSunday2009

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!



Sensation, Vulnerability, and the Present

I am behind on my work. I still have an article by Marcia Siegel to read and generate a kind of abstract of for a class that’s in a little over an hour. But I need to write right now, not read. I have ideas spinning, coming out of dancing and choreographing and relationships, and I think that’s is primary purpose of this blog, to note those contemplations/processes, and offer them as entry points into the creative process.

I am thinking about the line between sensation and interpretation. This is not a new speculation for me . . . I think it began with taking a class in Gaga (Ohad Naharin’s “movement language”) last Winter and being asked to expand my concept of pleasure. We worked in pairs slapping one another’s bodies as hard as we could, and inviting ourselves to interpret that sensation, both of slapping and being slapped, as pleasure. Before pleasure and pain there is sensation. What we think of as pleasure or discomfort or pain or exhaustion, etc., are interpretations of physical sensations. In that Gaga class we were being asked to reinterpret, to intercept ourselves before interpreting sensation and pain and potentially reinterpreting the sensation as pleasure. I remember that for the rest of the quarter, into the spring and my Somatics Survey course with Abby Yager, I continually brought myself back to the place of sensation, trying to intercept interpretation and perhaps discover new possibilities for pleasure.

Last night the I met with the “cast” (I hardly even consider us a “cast” . . . I am not yet sure what the purpose of this process is . . . it has to do with the present, with the doing, with what we are doing, not yet the “why” we are doing . . . what are we then, a group that does things together? Is that a “team” or does “team” necessarily denote competition, opposition? Community? Kula? Autumn Quartet?) to review the movement material for the dance that we’re creating, then we reconvened at my house for conversation. We each had generated a writing of our “Body History” (a concept from Andrea Olsen’s Body Stories that was adapted by Abby Yager in our Somatics course in the spring). The format/prompt was as follows:

“Body History (adapted from Andrea Olsen’s “Body Stories” via Abby Yager)
Write your personal body history. Allow yourself to collect memories over time.
Include:
-The story of your birth. Include the exact date and time of the day, season, and year. Include pre-birth, if possible; the mood, health, and activities of your mother affect life in the womb.
-Your earliest movement memory. Go back as far as you can to the point where memory blurs into dream.
-Your earliest kinesthetic sensation. Again, go back as far as you can. You might not be able to locate or identify where this sensation came from.
-Physical joys/physical pleasure/physical training
-The environment where you grew up, your favorite place, and where you feel most at home.
-Comments you received which shaped your self image.
-Attitudes towards sensuality, sexuality, and gender
-Injuries, illnesses, operations. Note differences you perceived in yourself pre/post event. Identify scars on your body and where those scars came from.
-Nutrition/food. When do you feel most alert? Sluggish? Revved? Calm?
-Anything else in the history of your body that interests you.”

We (Erik Abbott-Main, Eric Falck, Amanda Platt, and myself) each shared our body histories, aspects of which were extremely personal, aspects of which were vulnerable, etc. My evening concluded with a feeling of so much more insight, connection, understanding of these people with whom I am working. There was a sense in which I felt that this was a continuation of our experience with KNOW(TOUCH)ME(YOU)(MY/YOUR BODY). A more holistic way of knowing. Amanda made the statement that these were the kinds of things she wanted to ask/know about all of her friends. I think we all agreed. It’s a level of knowing that we don’t always get to with the people we know/work with/love. I adore these three people . . . because of what I know of them. How their bodies feel, how they direct my attention, my hand and focus and care, over the surface of their bodies, how they execute my movement material, situating these parts of myself in their own bodies (by which I mean their own selves), how they think of and remember their own histories, the histories of their bodies. It is intoxicating, the amount of knowing. I think it is a kind of knowing that provokes loving, in a sense. I question how I could know all that I know and not adore these three individuals. Somehow I feel that this way of knowing, maybe even loving, is at the center of this piece.

Erik made the observation that a kind of vulnerability seems to be what I am getting at in this process . . . and I think that is incredibly astute. It has to do, again, with getting inside who another person is . . . through all these various methodologies . . . and that somehow informing or contributing to the dance itself, its movement material, its choreographic structure, its content, and the more subtle qualities of how we experience one another/move with one another as a dancing ensemble. I love that these experiences are part of the work . . . and I wonder if there is a way to more specifically allow the work to emerge from these vulnerable, personal, intimate experiences with one another.

Of course this makes me think about Love Art Lab and the conflation of life and art, love and art, life/love/art/relationships/gender politics/sexuality/etc. I am pleased to recognize that connection.

One of the questions in the body history related to the concept of physical pleasure . . . which, I realized after I read my body history, I had interpreted in an incredibly limited fashion. Given the speculation on sensation and interpretation, why had I limited my description of my physical pleasures to “expanding awareness in movement as in practices such as Butoh”? What about the pleasure of white wine with brie, honey, and red pears? What about the pleasure of hugging or kissing or sex or masturbation? What about the pleasure of the wind blowing on me, warm blankets, or throwing myself across the floor in a dance studio space (re: “click here 4 slideshow or 6-8 character limit”)?

In this speculation on pleasure and sensation, I am brought to an idea that I am teaching/offering in the yoga class that I am teaching this quarter at OSU. It comes from the Bhagavad Gita primarily, the idea of taking action without concern for results of actions. I can offer a couple of quotes:

“But the man who delights in the Self,
who feels pure contentment and finds
perfect peace in the Self—
for him, there is no need to act.

He has nothing to achieve by action,
nothing to gain by inaction
nor does he depend on any
person outside of himself.

Without concern for results,
perform the necessary action;
surrendering all attachments,
accomplish life’s highest good. (65)”

“You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results,
open to success or failure. (Chapter 2, stanzas 47-48)”
(20-21)

In returning to sensation itself, before interpretation or expectation, we are thrust back into the present. Sensing, not considering sensing. Focus on action and the sensation of the action. I feel this when I am dancing in Abby Yager’s modern technique class this quarter, mostly phrase material from works by Trisha Brown. The execution is something like “this right now, bending the leg, now spearing the arm, now dropping the weight, now pushing away, now, and now, and now . . .” I think the movement lends itself to this sort of approach. It means letting go of what comes next, what just happened. It means letting go of expectation and even interpretation (for a bit).

And that’s what I am thinking about right now. That is what is coming into the work, influencing and generating the work. Back to Marcia Siegel and the development of lexicons for the observation, analysis, and critique of dance.