michael j. morris


taking back the short end

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Last night I had the opportunity to see two new dance works by Abby Zbikowski and Paige Phillips in their shared production Taking Back the Short End at Skylab. It was an intimate showing, the audience sometimes only inches away from the performers, giving both works a heightened immediacy that amplified their distinct intensities.

Zbikowski’s work Unstable Stable, with performers Fiona Lundie, Jen Meckley, Clara Martinez, and herself, is exemplary of characteristics that I have come to treasure in her choreography: rigorous athleticism and minimalism, utilitarian functionality in the movement, rhythmic patterns that emerge in silence entirely from the coordination of bodies and their parts, and an exhaustion of possibilities for what a body—these bodies—can do. There’s a “no bullshit” punk-rock quality to Zbikowski’s choreography and the performances of the dancers with whom she works: the movements are stripped down to their necessary parts, even when there’s a lot of movement vocabulary. As I watch her work, I see her in the lineage from early postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer—if Rainer choreographed a parkour workout. The movement is usually difficult and always seems to have a function, whether it is to complete a rhythmic structure, recover from a fall, test the limits of an action, or a more abstract utility: doing this so that it is done. Specifically in Unstable Stable, I see experimentation, repetition, and careful measured attention to the space. Whether it is Lundie and Meckley falling forward and running/stumbling to stop their momentum at the other end of the room, or Martinez and Zbikowski struggling with accomplishing a series of tasks with the soles of their boots duck-taped together, or spinning in circles with head and torso arching through space before quick drops to the floor, the movement feels like an experiment—a repeated experiment—testing the limits of specific actions and bodies. Like experiments, these actions must be repeated, in order to verify the findings, or perhaps in an ongoing investigation, still trying to figure out what this movement or this body is. Some of these actions are small and rhythmic, quick steps and shifts of weight or arms flinging wide; others are more brutal, shoving whole bodies full-force through space or into the floor. But even when the dance edges towards violence, even interpersonal violence, it does so in ways that seem quite practical. Again, this is a credit to the performers as well as the choreographer: they approach the movement with absolute commitment and conviction, and even when they dance together and I could imagine so many layers of psychological metaphor—these two people duck-taped together, dragging and carrying one another, supporting each other, pushing apart, pulling back together—I can never quite escape the practical, mechanical reality of these bodies, their interpersonal tumult an expression of bones and joints and muscle as much as any narrative I might construct for myself. Essential to this piece is also its very precise attention to the space, which gives an almost installation site-specificity to the dance. For Zbikowski’s piece, the audience is asked to stand at the edges of the room behind lines of blue tape on the floor. Throughout the piece, I watch as bodies moving with often extreme force come just up to the edges of the performance space, their momentum perfectly calibrated to the size of the room. Or a dancer moves to a seemingly arbitrary position, then swings a foot or a leg, just brushing the surface of the wall. The dimensions of the space are incorporated into the choreography; perhaps this dance could take place anywhere, but it would no longer be the same dance. It would be reshaped, re-calibrated, a forceful yet fine-tuned measurement of space in movement.

Phillips’ work, Après moi, le déluge (After me, the flood), is more theatrical; after the show, I told one of the performers that it felt like some of Meredith Monk’s work, some of Pina Bausch, with pages out of Grimm’s fairytales, like Where The Wild Things Are, but more gruesome. The dancers in this piece have distinct characterizations, even if they never fully disclose themselves as characters: two giggly tarts making eyes at the audience and winnying like horses (Jill Guyton-Nee and Gabby Stefura); a small community of three people who seem both childlike and savage, somehow both prior to and after the fact of some civilization (Owen David, Ani Javian, and Tyisha Nedd); a grizzly man who lurks blindfolded in the corner, then chases the child-savages, pins one of them to the ground in what feels like a simulated rape, and eventually becomes a figure who is devoured at the conclusion of some myth (Preston Witt). There is a narrative quality to the dance without its story ever becoming entirely clear; it doesn’t feel linear although it is unfolding in time. It feels like a mythology or a morality tale abstracted into grunts and shouts and gasps and gestures. At times it feels playful or innocent: children playing a game of tag or hide and seek; but then it takes a sinister turn as the movements become more abrupt, more startled; the unintelligible sounds the dancers make sound more terrified, and it is no longer clear if any of us are safe. In another scene, a dancer simulates death, perhaps by drowning, gasping for air and collapsing to the floor. In several moments, the figures interact as if discovering or inventing their own sexualities, suckling at one another’s bodies, shouting with one’s mouth pressed to the belly of another, undressing and redressing, rolling over and around one another, dragging each other across the floor. The dance is esoteric, mysterious, like only part of a story—the most intense parts, the parts most epic. The dancers feel a bit like archetypes, the kind that populate antiquated tarot cards: the Hanged Man, the III of Cups, the Chariot. Like Monk’s work, it feels very period and of a specific culture, but from a time I cannot quite recall and a culture that has either been lost or yet to be discovered. In that sense, it evokes a very specific timelessness, somehow both vaguely familiar and almost otherworldly, evocative of something I am trying to remember but cannot. It has a dreamlike quality, where figures and situations seem like people and places that I know while also seeming to not be what they seem. The dance is episodic, moving back and forth through the rooms of Skylab with the audience moving along with it, the performers alternating through different scenes. It gives the dance a tidal sense of a journey, literally moving back and forth through the space, requiring the audience to follow along as this cast of characters drift and transform from one vignette to the next. By the end of the piece, I feel somewhat displaced, as if I have been partially initiated into some kind of tribe through a rite-of-passage ritual, while still feeling on the outside of the performers’ gestures and relationships, executed with a fervency that feels almost religious, a lengthy pagan mass, traces of a secret society that will not make itself fully known.

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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.

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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!