michael j. morris


Factum, phenomenology, biopolitics, embodiment
13 February, 2011, 1:04 pm
Filed under: creative process, research | Tags: , , , , , ,

This week has involved several new insights into potential shifts in my creative/research processes and practices, alongside a stream of personal revelations, many of which were artwork-inspired.

Of particular note was a profoundly affecting experience with work recently introduced at the Wexner Center for the Arts. the pieces are entitled Factum, by Candice Breitz. On display are three of Breitz’s two-channel video portraits of identical twins. I spent about an hour with this work, and it is my intention to revisit it throughout its time at the Wex. The basic form of the work are videoed interviews/portraits with identical twins, dressed and styled identically, interviewed separately in the same seated locations. When I first approached the work, I thought the two screens displayed the same person; when I realized that they were twins, a lifetime of experiencing assumptions about the sameness of twins came rushing up, and I myself was implicated in these assumptions by my encounter with the visual display. On a formal level (which carried a weight of emotional significance for me), an interesting component of the pieces are how the individuals begin to register in their differences as time passes. After having spent almost forty-five minutes with the piece Factum Misericordia I realized that the sisters no longer looked anything alike to me. I’ve experienced this with twins I’ve known (and frequently been informed of this process as people knew my brother and I for longer durations, especially when we looked more alike): the gradual differentiation that takes place, the recognition of asymmetrical details in facial features, mannerisms, patterns of speech, etc., but this usually takes place over longer stretches of time. To have the recognition of this content condensed into a matter of minutes (facilitated by the concentrated looking, reinforced by the exactly identical attire and setting), had a shocking quality to it, one bolstered by my own emotional content (calling up experiences in which I felt that I was or was not being seen clearly because I am a twin).

There were so many poignant moments in the narratives being shared in the interviews. There were specific experiences with which I could identify acutely, but also just a general sense of familiarity with the kinds of lives being told. The tendency for people to assume that twins are the same person; the shift when people begin to differentiate and impose/inscribe polar qualities to each twin (the dominant v. the passive, the light v. the dark, the happy v. the brooding one, etc.); the powerful anxieties surrounding death–not particularly around one’s own mortality, but the weight of knowing that two came into the world together, but will not leave the world in the same way; the inevitable sense of losing that connection.
In watching the Factum Misericordia piece, I was struck by a particular resonance. Both sisters used very clear language distinguishing between being “a twin” or “a single” in the world, and periods of their lives in which they were apart and were living in the world as “a single.” I brought up notions of passing, a certain historical (not so pervasive in our present moment) stigma of being a twin (particularly a conjoined twin), and the differences in the existential experience of being in the world as one rather than two. Right now my twin brother and I live in two different cities. For all practical purposes, we live in the world as “singles” rather than “twins.” This distinction (and the recognition that even if we live as “singles,” we are still twins) has made me ponderous. I’m curious how this sense of a shared history, shared life, shared flesh/fluids/body has impacted my particular research interests (the loss of the subject/object binary, the fluid boundaries of the self, intersubjectivity, etc.). It’s a curiosity, one that may not come very much into play, but I am curious how a particular “twin subjectivity” might come to bear on these areas of interest in my research.

Also of note was a rather important conversation I had with my friend/colleague Mair Culbreth. We were discussing the development of our areas of candidacy for our exams in our doctoral program. I mentioned that I keep questioning whether or not phenomenology will be one of those areas for me. Phenomenology might be the research paradigm/methodology that makes the most sense to me in the investigation of dance as a site of knowledge. What I view as the real potential significance of our field is the experience of dancing, the experience of being inside of physical practices and choreographies and creative processes and performance situations. This is not to say that the spectatorial experience of viewing dance is not of any use; I don’t believe that to be the case. But it functions differently, more into the realm of signification and kinesthetic empathy. I am interested in analysis of dance works/practices from “the outside,” as it were, because those performance events circulate in the production of culture. I am fascinated by projects like Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced that conducts an analysis of choreographic structures, as if from the outside, but developed from the insider accounts of dancing inside of the work. This hybrid inside/outside analysis interests me. But of even more interest is the research developed from the phenomenological experience(s) of being inside of the work. I see the practice of dance to be a practice in forms of biopolitics, learning and unlearning, forming, unforming, reforming bodies (thus subjectivities) through the acts of doing, the practice/rehearsal being the space of reiteration, where new bodies with new potentials and new knowledge are formed. Most significantly to me is that these practices and bodies have the potential to subvert the dominant biopolitical discourses in our culture, the various ways in which bodies are regulated, produced, and normalized within society. My interest (it seems) is broadly in a phenomenology of biopolitics, and particularly how dance/body-based practices participate in these biopolitical discourses. More particularly, my interest seems to be a phenomenological account of the biopolitical potentials and effects of the lived experience of dance practices. Most particularly, I am interested in the production of an ecosexual subjectivity through the lived experience of various body-based/dance practices, and giving an account of these.

As I gradually move towards candidacy exams and dissertation, and attempt to understand what it is that my project is/might be, I have been considering the development of a theory of ecosexuality (drawing from studies in ecofeminist philosophy, ecology, queer theories, psychology, phenomenology, sexology, etc.), and then applying this theory as a system of analysis for various historical/contemporary body-based performance work (such as Rudolf Laban’s movement practices, Butoh, Anna Halprin, the Love Art Laboratory, Karl Cronin’s Somatic Natural History Archive, etc.). This has felt like a rewarding pursuit, but it struck me that I would still be offering an outsider account, an analysis of work based on viewing, documentation, conversation, etc. This is where Mair connected a dot for me: she was discussing research from embodied knowledge, researching from a place of practice and the knowledge produced by the body, and it occurred to me:
why would I not engage with these performance works as practices, “re-staging” them as it were, in order to experience them myself, to encounter the lived experience of Laban’s practices, writing from Butoh on the inside, marrying the earth, sky, sea, moon, mountains, snow, etc., embodying the kinetic patterns of various species of flora and fauna and holding those as a corporeal archive, all in the production of a different body, an ecological body, and researching the potential production of an ecosexual body.
Last year I wrote a paper giving a phenomenological account of learning and dancing Trio A from Labanotation score. This project has felt adjacent, off the map of my primary research interest (ecosexuality). Now it feels as if that paper could function as a kind of model for how I might engage with this work. It could of course be paired with outsider analysis, but it introduces embodiment as a methodology for research, a methodology that I see as germane to the field of dance. Our practices are those of physicalizing movement, particularly movement patterns generated by others. We are practiced in taking “the other” in/on/as ourselves, in technique class, in choreographic processes, in various improvisational techniques. This feels like a potential shift in where I thought this work might go. It will of course be grounded in the development of a theory of ecosexuality, which will involve a grounding in critical theories, BUT it centralizes a embodiment as a mode of engagement, the body as the site of knowledge, the body as a practice in knowing the biopolitical potential of body-based performances, rather than only offering an external account.

I’m excited about this potential development.

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Recent and forthcoming work

Where to begin? My dear friend Mara commented to me the other day how long it has been since I’ve posted things here. Partly, if I’m honest, it’s that I have a difficult time right now spending any more time in front of a computer than I have to. But there’s also something to do with the scope of ideas. I feel like my ideas of too big at the moment, and the bundle of threads knotting them together feels just out of reach. I wrote another term paper this autumn quarter exploring/theorizing ecosexuality, this time drawing correlations between my previous explorations of a theory of ecosexuality, Tantric philosophy, eroticism (as discussed by Georges Bataille), and Butoh. It was a culminating point in one sense, in that I finally articulated how these ideas/lines of inquiry live in and alongside one another in my thinking/understanding. But it was also a big start of something, of finally putting these various paradigms in the context of one another to really see what it is I’m getting at. I don’t know if the paper itself is entirely successful, but I do want to share it here:

pulsing through and between, I am that

I’m not sure what the next steps for these ideas will be. I do know that the next quarter is going to be intense in its creative/research output, and I feel certain that those projects will be related to these ideas.

I am performing my solo “Re-Membering the Mountains” twice more in the months to come: In February, I have submitted this piece to the Annual Battleground States Conference at Bowling Green University. The conference is entitled “Collapsing Cultures and Darkened Dreamscapes: Societies and Imaginations in a State of Disorder,” February 25-26, 2011. I am presenting the piece as part of a panel address the Purple Wedding to the Mountains and performative ecosexuality. I was invited to present on this panel by two colleagues who also performed as part of the Purple Wedding, Erin Paun and Jp Staszel:

Erin and Jp at the Purple Wedding to the Mountains

I  will also be performing that solo as part of OSU’s Winter Concert (details forthcoming).

Another performance project with which I am involved is a solo entitled “Marriage,” originally choreographed and performed by Mair Culbreth in 2005. Mair Culbreth and Nicole Bauguss are having a month-long exhibit at the Urban Arts Space entitled “domestic matters: a performing installation.”

domestic matters: a performing installation

More details for this project will come later (I hope to write a bit about the process from the inside of the choreographic/rehearsal practice). The dates for the show are March 1-31, with performances throughout. Already I find the process fascinating: Mair and I spent time discussing the original context and content of the solo, then together devised a score for the piece based on the original. From this score, I choreographed movement to function within it. We will begin to rehearse/revise/edit/etc. in the new year. I’ll keep you posted.

I am also rehearsing my own reconstruction during the winter quarter, a piece entitled “Sketches of Shame” that I choreographed in 2007 with myself and Clara Underwood. The new version will retain the intention and some vocabulary from the original, reworked and recontextualized in my current situation  and research. You can see the original vocabulary from which I’ll be working here:

I will be working with Daniel Holt, reconstructing this original material, and developing additional material exploring the corporeal situation of shame within a context of sexuality and sexual expression. Again, more details will be forthcoming, but that will hopefully offer a sense of the spectrum of what I’ll be working on.

I have also submitted a paper I wrote last year entitled “The Phenomenal Conflation of Dance/Dancer/Author/Reader/Text/Trio A/and Me” to the 27th Biennial International Council of Kinetography Laban/Labanotation Conference being held at the Institute for Musicology, Budapest, Hungary August 1-6, 2011. I will hopefully find out in January or February if the proposal is accepted.

That is a sampling of work that is both recently completed and forthcoming. I think I might make a separate post sharing some other ideas/inspirations that I am considering right now.



2010 Spring Concert (Extravaganza)

This week I have had the opportunity to see (and even participate in) so much live dance. I could not possibly write about all that these opportunities have inspired; in fact, I’m fairly certain even a partial reflection will warrant multiple posts.

To begin with, this week was the 2010 Spring Dance Concert(s) (extravaganza). Two concerts, twenty-five pieces, over four days. I will only write about a few pieces, a sampling of some of the great work being produced in the Department of Dance at OSU.

Betsy Miller’s “El Otro Lado/The Other Side” was a quirky, sultry, sassy, and often surprising exploration of movement vocabularies that recalled a range from classical character dance to burlesque, organized in lovely and memorable group movement through space (running sprints back and forth from the stage left and stage right wings, a slow counter-cross of a trio and a soloist at the end, etc.). In addition to clever dancing and beautiful dancers (Alexis del Sol, Lisa Dietz, Katy Gilmore, and Rashana Smith), Miller offered the rich opportunity of seeing beautifully hand-crafted costumes (designed and sewn by the choreographer herself) in motion.

Danté Brown’s “Chalk Boundaries” demonstrated a final incarnation of a piece long in the works. I had the opportunity to see and write about an all-male version of this piece in February, and the piece has grown immensely since then. In addition to having a cast of variously gendered bodies (which also nearly doubled the size of the cast), the complexity of the issues with which the choreography engages has grown significantly as well. Gender is one of Brown’s stated objects of exploration in the work, and in this incarnation of the piece, gender is examined, deconstructed, and reconfigured along multiple performative iterations. And on top of that, the choreography is really stunning. The opening of the piece was choreographically a reminder of the kinds of dances I love most: subtlety, stillness, punctuated by similar actions, individuated in form and timing. With beautiful lighting by Louise Eberle. The piece quickly transformed into driving group movement, in unison, perhaps offering an opportunity to recognize both a possible common state of bodiment/personhood and the intrinsic range of individual variation across bodies. In several conversations recently, I have come to recognize this as one of the values of unison: in unison we see both commonality and the inescapable disparity of individuals as demonstrated in action. The group then took on two groupings, almost organized along a binary of male and female identified bodies, with the subversion of Mair Culbreth (whose dancing provided one of the richest rewards of the evening) dancing amidst the cast of male bodies. In this simple transgression, the binary becomes subject to interrogation. Clearly bodies had been organized into two groups; the socially constructed binary would be that of gender/sex, assumed to be derived from a stable and clear division according to biological morphology. Yet this was not the division on which this binary was predicated. I was invited to question then what served as the foundation for this binary grouping, this differentiation between one group of bodies and another, demonstrated through differentiating movement material. What made these bodies different from those? Was it arbitrary? Are all binary constructions, whatever their function, possibly arbitrary? Of course I have my own conclusions to these inquiries; what I mean to articulate is that the choreography invited me to engage with these speculations.

The gamut of gender construction/subversion continued to be situated along a various groupings and relationships. Amanda Platt seemed to struggle between Chafin Seymour and Loganne Bond; might it demonstrate a sexual ambivalence? Or was this moment an address of the policing of gender along a matrix of sexuality? I saw a woman pushed between a man and another woman. It was within this configuration of bodies that they became sexual and thus gendered. A group of men were transfixed by the sensuous motion of a lone female; as she exited, she seemed to cast a kind of spell on Quentin Burley, who then became a point of resistance for Platt. A favorite moment of mine came when Platt flipped Burley onto his stomach and climbed on top of him; I had a momentary sense of her mounting him (a radical reconfiguration of sexuality and gender), a suspenseful moment that extended into Seymour’s entrance and subsequent mounting of Burley, then further, after a sequence of partnering, into Seymour’s intimate arrangement of their faces forehead to forehead. Were any of these acts overtly sexual? Perhaps not, but in the formulation of gender, sexuality and sexual orientations function as the site of production for intelligible binaries (and the subversion of these binaries). As this mini-drama unfolded, Daniel Holt entered downstage and watched. This was a powerful moment of becoming aware of my own gaze. Holt watched the play between men, touching himself all the while; I couldn’t decide if his handling of himself was an act of measuring or pleasuring, comparison, identification, or eroticism. Seymour responded by mirroring Holt, each one touching himself and looking at the other. It could have been a webcam situation, sensual, but removed by distance. Seymour’s sensuality gave way to aggression. Enter Rashana Smith and Mair Culbreth. The proceeding quartet was some of the most rewarding choreography in the piece, the relationships, the shifting mutual definitions of bodies moving so fluidly that I almost couldn’t keep up. Moments of partnering throughout became a rich device for configuring possible sexualities and genders.

The conclusion of the piece functioned for me as a contemporary remix of Nijinska’s Les Noces. Holt and Smith stood down stage right holding hands, observed (and approved) by the crowd that surrounded them. Repeatedly they broke away, throwing themselves into the arms of homosexual counterparts, to the revulsion of the crowd. Here is where the piece concluded, thrown back and forth between the accepted heterosexual union and the transgressive homosexual embraces. I was left wondering where the range between and beyond these two configurations might be, and if we were to attempt to choreograph that range of those places between and beyond, how might that be demonstrated?

Amanda Byars’ presented a charmingly powerful duet danced by Mair Culbreth and Erik Abbott-Main, entitled “If I were a weathervane and you were a flower.” Without going through a systematic description of the progression of the piece, I will offer that it was fundamentally a recognizable “love story,” a simple, home-grown, just a little outside of the school yard romance. It was subversively heterosexual, a configuration of which I could previously hardly conceive, yet Byars, Abbott-Main, and Culbreth enacted it both simply and expertly. It was consistently heterosexual, and yet there was not a single moment in which it was simply what it seemed, or what was expected. At every turn the relationship, the ways of interacting, the function of each body in contrast to the other, shifted into the unexpected. The subversive. Variously tender transgressions. It stayed light and easy, but with moments of pang: the revisiting of knocking one another to the floor, the moments of separation and coming back together, the sense of having built something (a life together?) in stacking the benches. Even in the final moment, there was a sense of separate beds, but not out of a lack of love. There was the space between, but there was also movement towards within that space.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the exquisite performances of the dancers in Byars’ piece: Culbreth and Abbott-Main were a joy to observe. The nuance and clarity with which they not only danced but invited me into the experience that they were sharing was unmatched in the course of the evening. Describing “performance quality” can be so problematic . . . but what I think I experienced from them both was a simple kind of sincerity. It was not that the representation of a relationship was “believable;” it was that there was no mask in their actions. They were simply doing, and being with one another, sincerely it felt. There was a naturalness and honesty to how I experienced what they were doing. This was a factor that was profoundly significant to the success of the piece.

Kristen Jeppsen’s duet entitled “Solve” was expert. On the surface, it was a pair of power femmes (of the Bette Porter variety, re: The L Word), dancing fierce and virtuosic movement in near unison. They were dressed in elegant blouses and tailored pin-stripe slacks. They could have been senators or CEOs, clearly evocative of some sort of upper administration. But there was much more to this piece. In addition to the sound score for the piece, the dancers (Jeppsen herself and Giovanna Andolina) spoke to one another throughout their dancing, cueing and almost, it seemed, coaching one another through their movement. It was in this speaking alongside the dancing that the real profundity of the piece revealed itself for me. They enacted a closed circuit exchange of power; their cueing and attention to one another was as if to indicate that they check in with one another and no one else. The exclusionary nature of their interaction disrupted the spectacle of it. The consistent inter-referentiality left the viewer (the legendary “male gaze”) displaced, outside of the equation that they demonstrated. The viewer’s presence felt neither necessary nor of consequence. The piece was being viewed, but felt as if it was not explicitly intended for viewing. Their dancing was for one another, and for themselves. The “dancing for themselves” was a significant attribute of my experience of this piece: these dancers took a palpable pleasure in these ways of moving; the delight of the movement was visible in their bodies. This personal and interpersonal pleasure functioned to reinforce this sense of its exclusiveness.

The speaking served other functions for me. There was a disruption of the traditional hierarchy between choreographer and dancer. The movement may have originated in/as Jeppsen, but in its transmission to Andolina, and in the democratization of its mobilization (both seeming to take on the responsibility for cueing and directing the movement during its performance), the potentially problematic power dynamic (not only the choreographer/dancer relationship, but the further complex situation in which the choreographer is also a participant in the performance).

The speaking also seemed to reveal something of dance practice, taking a kind of coaching into the performance itself, sharing an aspect of how we as dancers work in the studio into the demonstration of the dance itself.

The sound score also offered materials for further contextualization of the piece. Lines that stayed with me were something like “I can’t quire articulate . . .” and a description of a person’s fascination with a machine being more interesting than many conversations with people. This text seemed to emphasize an ineffability of the functioning of certain mechanisms. It brought me to a place of asking, “How does the mechanism of this dance function?” This question was partially answered by the speaking of the performers; but the speaking was to and for one another. I as a viewer on the second row still only heard bits and pieces; it was as if to say that the articulation of the mechanism’s function can only be known from the inside, as part of the closed circuit that the duet demonstrated. You can only ever know it in part from outside of the doing of it. Its function, its purpose, its pleasure, is all situated within the doing of the dance.

The final reward for the evening was “Though I walk, I used to fly” choreographed by Erik Abbott-Main in collaboration with the dancers in the piece, with music by Nico Muhly, and beautiful lighting by Maree ReMalia. Abbott-Main’s piece was, simply, stunning. Truly a masterpiece of formation, unison, canon, partnering, tableau, and journey through time. The crafting of the piece had the feeling of the complex precision and layering of Lar Lubovitch and Doug Varone, but with a quirkiness and curiosity of gestures that lay entirely in the unique configuration of Abbott-Main with this cast of dancers. Description of this piece is as elusive as the piece itself: constantly changing, reconfiguring itself in variations of formation and timing, flowing, swirling movements of bodies through space, their paths indirect, their arrivals always surprising and unexpected. These qualities of indirect pathways and unpredictable arrivals summarizes the most significant components of my experience with this work. But this expertly crafted motion was not perpetual; it was punctuated with the arrivals at unexpected  tableaus and frieze-like formations, all imbued with a quality of near-Classical statuary. Faces were not rigid, but neither were they overtly expressive. And perhaps this relates to one of the most pervasive but expressively elusive qualities that I experienced: a kind of impermeable softness, a demeanor that is superficially approachable and intoxicating, but once swept up inside of it, maintains a sense of being outside of it. The tableaus, for all their intricacy and quirkiness, also felt austere; the motion, for all its sweeping pleasure, also read as escaping, the slipperiness of the passage of time. Nothing stays put for too long, and when you try to revisit where you once were, you realize that the “where” is no longer there; and the “you” that you experienced there has moved on as well. The piece then functioned as a demonstration of the constantly shifting and transforming condition of situationally constructed identity, the persistent motion (dissolving, diffusing, recollecting, and reforming) of situations (thus selves), an ambiguity of the present between the erasure of the past and the unpredictability of the future. And a kind of resignation from explicit identification in the face of this ambiguity. Dancers moved from grouping to grouping, pairing to pairing, action to action, as if searching for a fit, for something that might persist, eventually coming to the conclusion that everything dissolves; everyone leaves; and in the final moment a single dancer is left alone.

These were a few of the pleasures of this week.



Separate Panes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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!