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.

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Reflecting on the Spring Quarter

The spring quarter is almost complete. Two informal showings today, and I will be off into my summer. For a day, at least. Wednesday I start a two-week intensive Labanotation Teacher Certification Course. Which then segues straight into the summer quarter. But the schedule will have  bit more breathing room.

Perhaps my largest project this quarter was in my History, Theory, Literature of Choreography course. I decided to do a queer analysis of choreography by Frederick Ashton. Originally it was my intention to analyze two ballets, The Dream and Sylvia, but after in-barking on the analysis of The Dream, I found it so rich in “queer potential” that the emphasis of the research became The Dream alone. 

My primary interest in this research was to consider the potential contribution of Frederick Ashton’s choreography to queer culture, or for his choreography’s queer contribution to dance culture. It also came primarily as a response to Jane Desmond’s assertion of the centrality of dance history and queer theory to one another in her book Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On & Off The Stage. She writes:

“. . . to understand dance history and dance practices, we must analyze them in relation to histories of sexualities. Conversely, it suggests that the analysis of dance, as a form of material symbolic bodily practice, should be of critical importance to gay and lesbian studies and the ‘queer theory.’ Until now neither analytical approach has received much attention from dance studies scholars or from those in gay/lesbian studies . . . What happens to the writing of dance history and criticism when issues of sexuality and sexual identity become central? And what happens to our considerations of queer theory and to gay and lesbian studies when a dancing body takes center stage? What do we see that we didn’t see before? What questions do we ask that were heretofore unspeakable, unnameable, or unthinkable? What analytical tools will we need to formulate these questions and to develop provisional answers? In what ways might these initiatives reshape our readings of past histories and give rise to new ones? . . . This claim for the necessary intersection of sexuality studies and dance studies is based on two assertions: first, that issues of sexuality, and especially of non-normative sexuality, are not merely relevant to but play a constitutive and under recognized role in dance history; and second, that dance provides a privileged arena for the bodily enactment of sexuality’s semiotics and should thus be positioned at the center, not the periphery, of sexuality studies.”

These ideas were a central point of departure for this research. When I first became aware of Ashton’s sexuality, I was struck by the fact that his work (like so many other choreographers) is not discussed in relationship to his queer identity. It is not that I was interested in establishing a causal relationship between his autobiography and the content of his choreography, nor even speculating about his intentions for his own work. Instead, having become aware of his queer identity, I was interested in how one might interpret his ballet through a queer lens, and how this interpretation might reveal a relationship to queer culture.

In the paper, I attempt to situate The Dream in relationship to the queer culture, such as the relationship of the term “fairy” in the late 19th century and early-to-mid (to present?) 20th century describing an overtly effeminate man who was assumed to solicit male sexual partners (as opposed to “normal men” who abide by the socially expected behavior of masculinity). I also situate the ballet in relationship to the Radical Fairy movement of the 1970s that evolved out of the social politics of gay activists such as Harry Hay. Besides this “cultural situation” of the subject matter of Ashton’s ballet, the paper is primarily a choreographic analysis, looking at the narrative, character development, relationship of characters to one another, individual movement vocabulary, and use of partnering as it relates to the notion of “queer,” or a subversion of the normative or heteronormative.

While I would love to post the whole paper here, as it represents a significant investment in my own research, I will resist the urge. If you are very interested in this analysis, just let me know and I’ll try to find a way for you to read it.

Another significant portion of research this quarter has been in the are of Labanotation. In addition to pursuing my Elementary Labanotation Certification (almost done), I did the work of reading/learning two pieces of choreography in my Intermediate Labanotation course. We learned from score: Yvonne Rainer’s  “Trio A” and three versions of the Sylph’s variation in act II of La Sylphide (the versions were from 1849, 1865, and a version considered current to today). These were in vastly different dancing styles which necessitated different methods for employing the notation system. But more importantly (to me) they addressed a certain kind of hunger in the study of dance history. Too often in studying dance history, our primary points of access are through watching (visual) and reading/lectures (linguistic). Rarely do we have the opportunity to embody seminal dance works from the past. Both of these pieces represent profound periods in the history of dance, La Sylphide representing the Bournonville ballet tradition and the Romantic ballet, “Trio A” representing the 1960’s Judson/post-modern shift in American dance. Not only did we have the opportunity to understand the meaning of these periods in our bodies, but they were made to co-exist within our bodies, disparate styles and periods collapsed into a singular corporeal experience.

I want to briefly describe my experiences of each of these pieces. “Trio A” was surprising in many ways. The first was the extreme complexity of the notation for this piece. “Trio A,” along with most of the work that came out of the Judson group, is considered pedestrian, anti-thetical to traditional theater and concert dance. For me, having read and written about this work, it has always seemed as if it would be simple. The notation revealed that it is not; it is incredibly specific. This quality revealed itself further as we interpreted the notation and learned/practiced the piece. It demanded so much concentration which gave it an almost intense, meditative quality. As it became familiar, it retained this quality of a moving meditation. Some of the directives in the score have to do with evenness of tempo, phrasing, and dynamics. Nothing is to be emphasized, nothing should be given more importance than anything else. And like Rainer’s “NO Manifesto” (below), it is a run-on sentence, nothing repeating, just streaming along in a similar fashion. I feel this quality, the meditativeness, the almost effortless physicality (paired with intense mental focus) infecting the way I approach other movement material as well.

“NO Manifesto:

“NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.”

“Trio A” was meant to embody these ideas. You can see how they translate in Rainer’s performance in the video below:

La Sylphide was more difficult for me. The notation was specific but not as specific as “Trio A.” It made assumptions of certain stylistic understanding. Because my ballet training is not in Bournonville, these assumptions were lost on me. The learning took far more time. The most interesting part of this process was recognizing the relationship of one historical interpretation of the choreography to others, how movements were rearranged, cut, reversed, sped up, or slowed down, etc. It raised questions (that have come up throughout this year) about the nature of choreographic information. If the steps change, what is it that makes each “version” the same ballet? What is the choreography beyond the steps? What is necessary to its integrity? Etc.

I tried to find a video of this variation, but I couldn’t find the exact section on youtube. 

One of my most interesting courses was a Somatics survey taught by Abby Yager. The goals for this course were for practicing a deep listening to the body, cultivating a appreciation and understanding of the Self through this awareness of the body, and the development of a personal somatic practice based on one’s sense of one’s own body. This sort of information feeds directly into a central research interest of mine, the relationship of the body to identity, the embodied nature of existence and experience, and the relationship of a dance practice to the development (or choreography) of identity. I am interested in how these investigations might synthesize in my creative practice and choreography, how choreography might come out of this kind of self awareness, or how I might consciously consider the practice of choreography as a shaping of individual identity through its engagement of the body. In a larger scope, I am interested how individual identity comes out of the way we “choreograph” ourselves, how our conscious and subconscious choices of the ways we handle ourselves physically come to define us for ourselves and others. I am interested in how a cultivated awareness or “deep listening” of the body might contribute to this choreography of identity. The modalities explored in this course (Qi’Gong, Alexander technique, Yoga, Trager, experiential anatomy, Klein technique, etc.) have offered me a wide range of approaches to this sort of research.

This quarter I also produced a solo-in-progress entitled “Red Monster.” It was partially inspired by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and evolved (for me) as an investigation of the ways in which shame and desire transform us (me) into monsters. I just posted a video of this piece on youtube. I don’t think it is an ideal performance (15 May 2009, as part of SIP, the first year dance MFA’s informal showing), for many reasons, but it does offer a look at what I have been exploring choreographically. I may continue to work on this piece. I’ll keep you posted on its evolution.

Here at the end of the quarter I also made several trips to Cincinnati where my twin brother lives. These trips were mostly about seeing art, but this past weekend I attended an event called Dance_MF, which was essentially a huge late-night dance party at Northside Tavern. It is a monthly event, and this was my first time there. It brought several things to mind. The first was a fairly simple observation, something that I have observed before in “dance floor” situations: individuals are far more likely to dance around one another or even in reference to one another than they are to actually dance with another person, by which I mean share any sort of physical contact. It’s always struck me as a disparity, that a social situation primarily characterized by its intense physicality is more based on a visual engagement than one of connected physicality. This is indicative of a larger social disparity with which I’ve been discontented for some time: despite the fact that we are embodied, corporeal creatures, our engagement with one another or knowledge of one another as human beings is more based on our visual interpretations of one another than our actual physical engagement. This strikes me as odd, in culture at large, but especially on a dance floor. I wonder if this awareness has emerged from my dance/choreographic life. To consider a three-to-four hour dance “composition” or “improvisation” in which the participants rarely touch one another feels either boring, ill-crafted, or a very specific social statement. What happens when we engage with life as art, social behavior as composition? How might “society” become a comment on society within the confines of the dance floor?

It also made me think of Jonathan Bollen’s article “Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor” (a portion of which can be read here). I’ll try to summarize this article sometime soon.

Another curious effect of this event was an awareness of myself as a “transgender presence.” I decided to wear a dress to the dance (an evolution of wearing skirts and heels and other traditionally female articles of clothing and accessories), not in an attempt to be female, but as an interpretation/expression/expansion of masculinity/my own identity as not being relegated to the narrow expression of identity traditionally associated with masculinity and maleness. At some point during the evening, I became aware of how much the population on the dance floor respected the gender binary. I do not identify as transgender, but in my transgression of traditional male expression, I became a kind of symbol of transgender. Which was an interesting dynamic on a dance floor, not to mention an interesting evolution in my perception of self.

And that’s my reflection on the spring quarter.