michael j. morris


death drive/obscene/on-scene

On November 13, 2014, I premiered a solo entitled death drive/obscene/on-scene as part of a show called 11 Tiny Performances, curated by Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Heidi Wiren Bartlett, and produced by The Englert Theatre and the Trumpet Blossom Cafe in Iowa City, Iowa. The show coincided with the joint annual conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society for Dance History Scholars. The following is my own recounting of the work, as a component of its documentation:

photo by Atom Burke

photo by Atom Burke

My solo is number seven in a line-up of eleven five-minute performances that will take place on a four-foot-by-four-foot stage. I am standing off to the side, wearing my grandmother’s silky black slip, bare legs and feet, with dark black liquid eyeliner, and false lashes. When it comes time for my piece, one of the stage managers spreads a black bed sheet over the tiny stage, and I walk towards it.
I lay a small bottle of silicone lube and a steel dildo—an Njoy Pure Wand—on one corner of the sheet, and climb up onto the stage. The audio begins, and I listen to the sound of my own voice:

“Death drive/obscene/on-scene. We have never been human: I think we learn to be worldly from grappling with, rather than generalizing from, the ordinary.”

I cross to the opposite corner of the stage, tucking my elbows back behind my waist, keeping my knees close together, trying to approximate a more feminine silhouette that I’m not sure I can achieve. To my right is a table of prominent dance studies scholars: I recognize Tommy DeFrantz, Ananya Chatterjea, and Susan Foster, among others. I reach my fingers underneath the slip, and pull my black underwear down to the stage. Someone says something, but I can’t make it out.

“I am a creature of the mud, not the sky.”

I turn back around and kneel down, my knees wide, my feet close to my hips. I open the bottle of lube, squeeze just a little onto my fingertips, and reach underneath the hem of the slip to lube up my ass.

“I am a biologist who has always found edification in the amazing abilities of slime to hold things in touch and to lubricate passages for living beings and their parts.”

I lube up the smaller end of the c-shaped dildo. Sliding the left strap of the slip down, I fold my left arm inside the slip, reach through it, then guide the dildo in between my legs, underneath the bottom hem of the dress, and out of sight. I close my eyes; I’m not looking at the audience. I’m thinking about Annie Sprinkle and her performance “The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute.” I’m listening to myself read the words of Donna Haraway, and I feel the cold, hard tip of the dildo pressing against my anus. I tense up, then slowly exhale, trying to relax.

“I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such … I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many.”[1]

The smooth, cold curve of the steel slides inside of me, past one sphincter then the next, and I curl forward from the waist, shifting my weight up and forward. Slowly I lower back down, and feel it slide farther inside. My eyes are shut, and I know that I am in a room full of people and they are all looking at me and listening to my voice and I try to focus, to feel myself from the inside out, to feel the flush of my cheeks and the curve of my spine and my breath and the wetness of the lube and the hardness of the dildo and the softness of my flesh wrapping around it and the whole invisible system of tiny lives that swarm and collect inside of me. We are a whole human/nonhuman collective, fully in sight while somehow remaining out of sight, out of mind.

“… an instinct would be a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition, one which it had to abandon under the influence of external disturbing forces…”[2]

I am rocking my weight forwards and backwards, up and down, the greased-up steel sliding in and out of me. My right hand holds the dildo between my thighs; my left hand is rubbing my cock, sliding over it pressed against my belly, beneath the silky slip. The audience can’t see exactly what I’m doing; all this sliding and rubbing and penetration is hidden beneath the slip, but they know what I’m doing. I hope they know what I’m doing. Right here, my body becomes the site for what can and cannot be seen, for what is simultaneously right here on stage and still out of view. There are multiple scales here: seeing my body, but not seeing what is underneath the slip; seeing my knees and shoulders and neck and face, seeing the motion of my arms, but not seeing the dildo sliding in and out of my ass; seeing the surface of my skin, the dark, shiny slip, but not the vast ecosystem of nonhuman lives that compose my body from the inside out. I am masturbating here on stage in front of a crowd for the very first time, but it was never only me here; my body is already a multitude.

“This final goal of all organic striving must be an ancient starting point, which the living being left long ago: ‘The goal of all life is death’, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate’.”[3]

I hear myself moan as the steel presses against my prostate, waves of sensation rising to meet the intensification between my palm and my cock. For moments I lose myself in the sensation, the pleasure, then I pulse back out to self-awareness. I feel my shoulders lifted high, I realize how far forward I am bent at the waist, and slow down. I take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, and try to feel myself feeling myself again. I hear my own voice, and I realize that I can’t quite fully take in the density of the text; I hear it and receive it in fragments, in pieces and parts that sink into my body in ebbs and flows. I wonder if people will think this is about critical theory being masturbatory or solipsistic, a statement about theory and academic scholarship being detached from a broad public. That’s fine, but I hope they also realize that even if theory is masturbatory, I am valorizing masturbation, and that I’m bringing the density of critical theory into intimate cohabitation with my own body. I consider this for a mere moment before my body reasserts itself, takes full attention, and I again lose track of the text.

“I would here subjoin a few words to clarify our nomenclature, one which has undergone a certain development in the course of our discussion … With the discovery of narcissistic libido, and the extension of the libido-concept to the individual cells, the sexual instinct became for us transformed into the Eros that endeavors to impel the separate parts of living matter to one another and to hold them together … Our speculation then supposes that this Eros is at work from the beginnings of life, manifesting itself as the ‘life-instincts’ in contradistinction to the ‘death-instinct’ which developed through the animation of the inorganic.”[4]

I hear Susan Foster chuckle when my voice says the words “death-instinct,” and I realize just how close she is, mere feet away from me, this remarkable scholar. I teach her work in my writing class; when I get back to Ohio, I’m showing my students her lecture “Choreographies of Writing.” She’s one of the great leaders in the field, sitting at a table with other great leaders in the field, and I am masturbating, fucking myself with a steel dildo, feet away from them. Susan laughs, and I wonder if this is professional suicide, whether putting my body on stage and on the line in this way will cost me as a scholar, as a researcher, as a professor. I wonder if scholars are allowed to be embodied, erotic, sexual, in public. I wonder if theory about sexuality, about ecosexuality, about pleasure and death are allowed to reside in the body, if the body theorizing sexuality in public is allowed. Then I feel my cock pulsing under my hand and my hips circling the dildo and I try to stop worrying about my career, try to remember that I believe this work I am doing is important.

“The pleasure-principle is then a tendency which subserves a certain function—namely, that of rendering the psychic apparatus as a whole free from any excitation, or to keep the amount of excitation constant or as low as possible… the function so defined would partake of the most universal tendency of all living matter—to return to the peace of the inorganic world. We all know by experience that the greatest pleasure it is possible for us to attain, that of the sexual act, is bound up with the temporary quenching of a greatly heightened state of excitation.”[5]

This five minutes feels so much longer than it did in rehearsal. When I rehearsed this piece on the floor of my living room, in front of a mirror, I felt like the piece had barely started by the time it was over. I felt close, like I could cum in another minute or so. Here on stage in front of all these people with my eyes closed, the minutes pass much more slowly, and I am nowhere near climax. I feel myself wet and hard beneath my hand, beneath the slip, but the pleasure is subtle and elusive. The context is full of pressure and exposure and vulnerability, and it’s a little over halfway through the piece before I realize just how vulnerable I feel, that I’m bent over at the waist in some kind of protective posture, that I might cry in front of all of the people, that I might actually cry, that I’m not really breathing, that I’m holding my breath…
I slow down. Sit upright. Let my shoulders release. I take a deep breath. I bring my attention back to the subtle sensations orbiting the dildo inside me.

“From the foregoing it would be possible to attribute an essentially sexual quality to extinction, and an extinguishing tendency to sexuality … Consider, in this respect, the sexuality of consumption: beyond organic needs … there exists a persistent and insistent process of ingestion that is blind to the (supposedly) proper and organizing limits of the living body. This is especially so if we consider the original proper living organism to be not the located finite human individual, but life as a whole, the organism of Gaia. The very processes that originated from the striving of organic maintenance—eating, reproducing, producing—have pushed the organism to (self-)annihilation.”[6]

Pleasure always has both personal and planetary implications. Sexuality is already ecological, and the pleasure of the human species is quite possibly propelling us towards our own extinction.
And yet: I’m starting to feel more aroused. My skin feels flushed, and my hips are following a rhythm that seems to come from somewhere else, a rhythm that my hips follow rather than control. I stop worrying about my posture or my shoulders or whether or not anyone understands what’s happening because it is finally almost starting to feel good enough to stop worrying about my posture or my shoulders or whether or not anyone understands what’s happening or whether they are thinking that I am a man or whether they get that this—all of this—is genderfuck too. The slip hanging off one should, sliding the dildo in and out, rubbing my hand over my cock: for a few moments I lose track of where I am in the five minutes.
“Works cited [everyone laughs, they think it’s funny]: Donna Haraway, When Species Meet; Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life.”

Someone claps when I say “Donna Harway,” and I’m glad. After the “works cited,” music gradually swells, and Antony Hegarty sings, “Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl?” and the sounds of heavy, daunting strings cut back and forth through the air. It sounds overly dramatic but also sharply focusing, like someone dropping a glass in the middle of a crowd. I’m not close to cumming, but my movement has a kind of climax, amplified somehow by the sudden absence of text. With the background theory gone, my body feels like it takes up more space, more attention, more prominence, and this expansion itself feels like a kind of climax.
Then the room is silent.
My eyes flutter open, and my breathing is heavy. I slide the dildo out and sigh. I crawl off the stage, as if no one can see me, looking at no one. I bundle up the dildo, the lube, and my underwear in the bed sheet, and walk away. The audience claps and cheers, and I feel a little weak in the knees.

 

This piece was my first attempt to create performance art that specifically stages ecosexuality. The piece was an assemblage—its own erotic ecology—of my body, language, the writings of other scholars, music, lube, steel, and an audience. On the smallest scale, I hoped to inflect masturbation—the most solitary of sexualities—with ecological implications, in the midst of a crowd. Simultaneously, coming from my work in burlesque, I experimented with the line between what is shown and what is not shown, what can be seen and what is withheld from view. Lastly, I wanted to stage an intimate encounter between the rich theoretical texts that have informed my scholarship and my own body, returning theory to the body, and staging the embodied grounds for all this theory. I am thinking of this solo as one among several other previous and potential “erotic theory” performances. In 2012, I created a duet entitled “Horizontal Materiality: Judith Butler’s Lesbian Phallus, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg, and Beatriz Preciado’s Dildonics.” It consisted of two performers exchanging oral sex on a strap-on dildo that began on one performer then was transferred to the second performer. That duet was also accompanied by a soundscore of dense critical theory, staging a collision of sometimes-impenetrable theory and the penetrable bodies that such writing theorizes. I am interested in continuing to perform this solo, and also in developing further work that stages the text of critical theory alongside erotic performances, allowing the sexuality of bodies to participate in theory and theory to find grounding in live bodies on display.

 

[1] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 3-4.

[2] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 44-45

[3] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 47.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 78-79, footnote.

[5] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 81.

[6] Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life, 134.

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Beautiful Struggle between the visible and the invisible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.