michael j. morris


From One
2 December, 2016, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Dance | Tags: , , , , ,

Last night was the opening of a three-day run for From One, a production featuring the work of OSU Dance BFA students Lilianna Kane and Charlotte Stickles and MFA student Joshua Manculich. Presented at the OSU Urban Arts Space in downtown Columbus, the show consists of a series of solos stationed in different portions of the gallery.

So much about this show was richly rewarding to witness, and I wish that the demands of academic faculty life allowed me the time today to really trace out the contours of each of the works presented. Instead, I want to offer brief thoughts, responses, and reactions to each of the projects, participating in the aesthetic dialogue that each of these artists initiated.

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Charlotte Stickles in Paradise Park, photo by Norah Zuniga Shaw

The first piece I saw was a durational performance by Charlotte Stickles entitled Paradise Park. In the south gallery, a large, astroturf (or some other form of artificial grass) rectangle was situated in the middle of the floor, flanked on either side by gallery walls bearing video projections of clouds, water, tree bark, and greenery. The lighting in the gallery was dim and very, very green. Stickles was reclining on the astroturf, legs extending, twisting from the waist, gaze extending beyond the horizons of the synthetic field. At either end of the gallery space were posters with what seemed to be handwritten questions like, “What is natural?” and “What is natural in this room?” There were pads of post-it notes and pencils with directions to write answers to these questions and post them anywhere in the room. Already there were trails and clusters of post-its around walls and floor of the space. I found the questions almost rhetorical with all that Stickles had given us: the electric strips of green LED light, the artificial turf, the video projections, her own body. Nature or natural here is what looked like something we think of as nature or natural, a facsimile, a projection, a set of associations. I appreciated the interactive element, and as I read through the different responses posted on the walls and floor, I appreciated the disparity between the thoughts people had offered. As more and more post-its appeared, it became increasingly demonstrated that “natural” is dissonant, a series of disagreements and conflicting or diverging views, a matter of perspective. It is not a stable signifier or referent. I kept thinking about Donna Haraway’s useful introduction of the term “natureculture” or “naturalcultural,” which signals that anything we call “nature” is designated as such by a series of cultural, discursive productions, made into nature, usually as a strategy to support particular cultural values and formations. I wish I had spent more time with Stickles’ actual movement vocabulary; the multiple dimensions of the space she had fabricated occupied my attention.
I moved away thinking:
I wonder if her clothes are synthetic as well—polyester or some of petroleum-based textile.
Situating her body more-or-less at the center of this installation, I kept thinking about the project of “the human,” anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, the ways in which our species relentlessly positions ourselves as the center of a world that we build up around us, designating some parts to be “natural” and other parts “unnatural” as ways of validating our ideological investments.
This installation of so much synthetic nature read like a provocation to ask: how much is the very concept of nature a fabrication, artificial, something we install and put into relation with other materials in order to affirm a particular kind of world, and are our bodies a part of that critique?
Was Stickles’ body, there on the floor at the center of this installation, also an “unnatural nature”? And was there some part of the performance that introduced this question—the body itself a sedimentation of so many cultural signs, arbitrary categories, organ-ized territories, just like the square of turf on the gallery floor?

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Portraits of the dancers in Monologues choreographed by Joshua Manculich. Photography by Spencer Lookabaugh. Photo of installation by Joshua Manculich.

Next in the show was Monologues, a series of six solos choreographed by Johsua Manculich and performed by Victoria Alesi, Tommy Bachelor, Callie Lacinski, Kat Sprudzs, Tadas Varaneckas, and Erin Yen. For me, the dancers themselves were the real stars of this project, in both their performances and in their large black and white portraits hanging on the gallery wall alongside the performance space in the central gallery. The solos were surrounded by seated and standing viewers on four sides, our bodies and gaze framing the dancers like the frames of their hanging portraits. These dancers are profoundly articulate technicians; their capacity to rapidly shift dynamic states—from frenzied agitation to spectacularly precarious balances, from weighted and sustained subtlety to explosive momentum blasting through the space—demonstrated considerable virtuosity at an intimate scale. Sometimes they made eye contact, but mostly they danced really hard and fast sometimes only feet or inches away from the audience, and it created the effect of almost desperate bids to be seen, to be felt. Each solo had a precise structural relationship to the music accompanying the dancing, and while there were some distinctions and different tendencies in the vocabulary and style of each solo, there was a pervasive quality that permeated all six of the dances: rapidity that zigzags unsettled through mostly adjacent body parts, like ungrounded electricity firing the jolting contractions of muscles, that then finds a channel or pathways into a breathtakingly fluid turn or a bolt into some nearly impossible balance. The moments that broke from this familiar style—when a gesture was repeatedly several times or when a dancer took multiple measures of the music to adjust her hair into a ponytail or her costume—were the moments I saw more individuality between these performers. This was a central tension for me as a watched: to what extent were these portraits of six individual dancers and to what extent were these six bodies trained to “speak” with one voice? The title of the piece was Monologues, but to what extent was this a single monologue, a “speaking alone” through six bodies?
I left the piece with questions, mainly about the music that accompanied each solo. How were these pieces selected? What relevance did they have to the performer or the choreographer? How did they sit alongside one another, and what did they do with these articulately virtuosic bodies beyond provide structure for their movements? Was the movement in any way in dialogue with the content or contexts of these pieces of sound?
In this series of sound related questions, there is one in particular which continues to linger with me the day after: the sound for what I believe was the third solo, danced by Tadas Varaneckas, was a spoken poem by Andrea Gibson entitled “I Sing My Body Electric, Especially When My Powers Out.” I kept wondering how to watch a dance choreographed by a white man for a dancer who is a white man while listening to the voice of a woman, a woman who spoke about her own experiences of her body and queerness. I kept wanting to see something in the dancing that suggested the these white male bodies were trying to learn from the experiences of this woman, from the ways that her experiences are different from their own. I kept want to see her influence on the work, more than simply patterns of speech and moving emotional content to support the virtuosity of the performer and choreography on display.

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Lilianna Kane in Silk, photo by Norah Zuniga Shaw

The final piece of the evening was Silk, choreographed and performed by Lilianna Kane. Before the dance even began, the space was striking, a vibrant red marley floor extending from the place where the white gallery wall met the cold cement floor. The piece began with surprise, Kane rushing into the space like a quick exhale and then collapsing to the floor. As her body folded and unfolded in a repetitive sliding, her hair falling around her face and the red floor, my eyes adjusted to her nearly-naked body, clothed in a sheer white jumpsuit. The near-nudity, the not-quite-naked body that was nonetheless on full display, elicited a haptic quality in my viewing: although I could see the surfaces, curves, and folds of her flesh, the hair on her body, my attention was brought again and again to those centimeters just above the surface of her skin, held in the fibers that draped over and around her body. In a sense, my attention became those fibers, a soft barely-touch wrapping easily around her. The choreography was a deft blend of sensual, solicitous, even erotic gestures—the toss of her hair, sliding out onto all fours, the slump and sway of her spine, different places and parts of her body coming into view as she rolled across to red surface—and a minimalist formalism that held these vocabularies within a structure for our consideration. Gestures and motions were repeated, articulated at multiple scales, brought to the floor and back to standing, using compositional strategies to make what might have been initially legible within particular affective registers into something less familiar, strange even. At one point, she lied in the center of the floor, slowly lowering her foot into her hand. The increasingly proximity between parts, the tension and anticipation of flesh meeting flesh, felt like a personal embodiment of the audience/performer relationship—relationships of attention, nearness, and mediated contact. Once her foot found her hand, she sat up and began kneading the sole of her foot with her thumb as she looked around the audience with a vague smile. She made eye contact as she looked around, and it was not entirely clear if her smile was a result of this contact or the pedal self-pleasuring or both. As she gazed around the audience, her body began to twist, her foot crossing onto her other leg, her body approaching a kind of knot, edging towards something that may have been discomfort.

At a crucial moment, I think during Patsy Cline’s “True Love,” Kane stepped beyond the edge of the marley, approached a person sitting in the front row, and asked if she could hug them. They stood there hugging for a while before settling back down, the person in their seat, Kane on the floor next to them. I sat, at first turned to continue to watch Kane, then back to the empty red dancefloor. Kane eventually made her way back onto the floor, back to the white gallery wall, and leaned against it, allowing it to support her. In the final moments of the piece, she rushed out of the gallery in a grand sweeping gesture as swiftly as she had entered; the audience applauded, and Kane did not return. It felt like a citation of so many elusive, fleeting performances before her, so many sylphs and faeries and ballerinas, always rushing off, out of reach. This encounter was both intimate and an examination of intimacy within performance, and then it was over and gone. The muscles and bones and flesh, the embodied person who had lingered almost within reach was suddenly absent, and we were left applauding the space where she had been.

Accompanying the performance, I was incredibly moved by Kane’s comments in the program for the show, reproduced here:
“Dance training and performance offers a space to practice our ability to listen to each other, see each other, move with each other, consensually touch each other, and exist peacefully together, regardless of where we come from, what we look like, how we identify, and whom we love … Dance celebrates and relies on difference, and teaches the practice of non-judgement. To dance, to witness dance, to love oneself and to empathize with one another are political acts. Dance requires experiencing another body in relationship to one’s own. Dance is a form of political kindness.”

There are two more days of shows:
Friday, December 2 at 7pm
Saturday, December 3 at 5pm and 7pm.
For more information, visit: http://www.uas.osu.edu/exhibitions/one-department-dance-bachelor-fine-arts-master-fine-arts-concerts



MANCHA PRAVESH: Imani Asha Gaston and Odissi

Image by Clarence Alexander

When I enter the MLK Auditorium in Hale Hall on The Ohio State University campus, several instruments surrounded by microphones are already set out on brightly colored fabric on stage right. Just off the front of the stage, a small pedestal is draped with pink, gold, and orange fabric. On top sits a small statue with fresh flowers at its feet. I look around at the audience gathering for this Mancha Pravesh, the debut solo Odissi dance recital performed by Imani Asha Gaston: it is a much more diverse audience than I usually see at arts events in Columbus, Ohio. There are children and college students, parents and elders; the audience is a mix of African-American, Indian, and white people. This is not merely incidental. It is evidence of some of this event’s importance. As the lights dim, the musicians enter and take their places at their instruments and microphones. The MC introduces the first dance, “Vakratunda,” an invocation that pays homage to the Hindu god Ganesha. The music begins, the droning of the veena—a stringed instrument like a very large guitar that lies across the musician’s lap—punctuated by the rapid percussion of the mardala—a small drum. Imani Asha Gaston comes onto the stage, dressed in folds of red and beige silk, shining silver jewelry, and jangling ankle bells that ring in time with the music.

I have reservations writing about an Odissi performance: Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance that dates back to the second century B.C., is not a style of dance that I have studied or practiced. I already know that anything I write about it will be as an outsider to the form. The same would be just as true for a hip-hop or tap dance performance, or a performance in the style of countless other dance traditions that have not been included in my own dance training, which has focused primarily on ballet, American and European modern and postmodern dance, Japanese Butoh, and an array of improvisational techniques. Very nearly all that I know about Odissi, I learned this afternoon at the Mancha Pravesh, from the detailed program and the introductions given by the MC. Beyond that information, when watching this performance of five dances, I could not tell you which of the gestures or steps are codified within the Odissi tradition and which are inventions or innovations particular to this solo choreography. I could not tell you these ways Odissi differs from the other seven forms of classical Indian dance. I could not identify which movements carry broader cultural significance, in the way that fluttering, undulating arms have become metonymic to Swan Lake and The Dying Swan, perhaps even to ballet and its feminine ideal. I could not tell you how long histories of social structures, gender and racial politics, philosophical and religious perspectives, and globalization have potentially impacted the traditions that shape the performer’s dancing body. In short, to write about this work feels, at least in part, like exposing a particular breadth of what I do not know.

As I consider this, I realize that this situation is probably not so dissimilar from the majority of audience members at any dance performance. While a vast number of people—particularly those socialized as girls when they were children—have grown up taking dance classes, most people in the United States do not have any education or much experience in watching dance and thinking critically about it. Most have not studied the dance forms that they view, let alone the historical, cultural, and political conditions from which those dance forms emerged. In many ways, the extent to which I am not familiar with Odissi resembles the extent to which most American audiences are not familiar with many forms of dance. As a result, for me to write about this performance takes me—an “insider” to much of the concert dance that I encounter, as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar—outside of my expertise, pushing me to rely almost entirely on what I perceive about the performance that unfolds in front of me. In this sense, the performance itself will have to be my education in the form. Perhaps this itself can be instructional.
[I do realize that even how I write about what unfolds in front of me with disclose elements of my biases, my dance training, and my education. This will no doubt be simultaneously productive and potentially problematic in ways I do not yet understand.]

As Gaston enters, her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. Her steps are steady then quick, shifting her weight rapidly and often leaving her balanced on one foot. Her feet strike the ground forcefully with her heels or the balls of her feet in the rhythm of the music. Atop these strong, direct steps grounding her movements from their base, her torso is poised vertically—held but not rigid. Although the placement of her body demonstrates constant control, she remains mobile; throughout the dances, her head and shoulders incline and twist, her ribs and her hips circle and roll. Around the careful placement of her torso, Gaston’s arms trace intricate patterns in the air, swinging and gliding and circling gestures that orbit her center like spinning constellations. These gestures fly across a dynamic range of speeds, but even at their fastest, they are not flung out of control. They remain precise, somewhere between shooting stars and needlepoint, always arriving emphatically in clear, distinct postures. There are no details that are not choreographed: Gaston’s eyes cut from side to side, up and down and straight ahead in complex patterns, and even her fingertips dance as her hands shift from mudra to mudra in rapid succession. Intricacy and complexity compound as the dancer’s feet and legs and hips and shoulders and arms and fingers and head and eyes all accentuate the rhythm of the music, sometimes articulating multiple distinct cadences that move across and support each other, and sometimes settling—softly or swiftly—into a single posture, pose, or pulse, bringing disparate parts together into a common unity.

Alongside and yet part of the dancer’s movement, the music crests and falls, accelerating with the beat of the drum, the bright clang of hand cymbals, and text that is spoken in rapid syllables, then dissolving again into ringing drone of the veena and the longer tones of the singing vocalist. None of the text that is spoken or sung is in English, which holds some part of what is happening in mystery, reminding me that my access to what I am experiencing is always partially limited by my own history and situatedness.

There are five dances performed in this program, all choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Each one differs in intent, as described by the program: following the invocation to Ganesha, the second piece unfolds through a series of sculptural poses strung together with steps in varying rhythms in honor of Shiva, the cosmic Lord of Dance. The third piece evolves through accelerating tempos of gestures, postures, steps, and movements of the eyes, demonstrating the dancer’s skill. The fourth piece is part of a narrative, in which the dancer embodies multiple characters in the story of Radha and Krishna. The final piece, entitled “Moksha” which means “spiritual liberation,” represents “a spiritual culmination for the dancer who soars into the realm of pure aesthetic delight.”* Each piece shares a different facet of Odissi as well as the dancer, which is appropriate for the event. This Mancha Pravesh is a debut dance recital, a transformative moment in the life of the dancer as she becomes a professional solo Odissi performer. In a sense, this recital is a ritual, not only marking but also enacting the transition of the dancer from one phase as a student to another phase, as a professional performer. Moving from the opening invocation, through various demonstrations of skill, and culminating in a dance of liberation, each piece embodies a step in the dancer’s journey.

While each piece is clearly within the same style of movement—focusing on idiomatic uses of the eyes, the hands, the subtle control in the torso, the forcefulness of the steps, all closely following the music—each also has subtle characteristic elements that make it unique. The first piece feels very much like an address, performed mostly facing the audience, the palms of Gaston’s hands opening and closing in gestures that feel both sacred and welcoming. There is more turning in the second piece, more acceleration in the third, more looking side to side in the fourth, and a spaciousness and stillness in the final piece that is unlike all of the others. I think the final piece is my favorite. While still threading between intense phrases of rapid, driving steps and gestures, the dancer also moves through passages of pause and sustainment. Her body gradually rises and sinks, and the slower transformations between gestures and mudras almost drift around the soft and steady current of her weight. In the final moments of the piece, Gaston balances in what I would call in my yoga classes Virabhadrasana III—Warrior Pose III—balanced on one leg with her other leg and torso parallel to the floor, first facing stage right, then left, then the audience. She lifts up into what I would call Tadasana—Mountain Pose—her feet flat on the floor and her arms lifted above her head. Slowly, her hands drift downward, shifting through different mudras, and carrying her into a low squatting position. This is where the performance ends.

But this is not the end of my thinking. Between the third and fourth pieces, several people spoke, offering a few words about the performance, including Kaustavi Sarkar—Gaston’s Odissi teacher who is a doctoral student in the Department of Dance at OSU and an accomplished Odissi dancer, choreographer, and educator—and Gaston’s mother, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the Vice President for Student Life at OSU. Both speakers were moving, but Dr. J—as Adams-Gaston is affectionately known on campus—spoke to something I was feeling since I first arrived. In addition to honoring her daughter’s accomplishments and Sarkar’s important work with Odissi at OSU, she offered that this performance also told the story of the university, what it allows students to do, and what she described as “what we mean by higher education”: bringing out the best in each student by allowing them to see themselves as bigger than their backgrounds or the perceptions and perspectives with which they arrived. She said that the university can be a place where we become global citizens, citizens of the world, and that the dancing we saw today embodies that potential.

I appreciated Dr. J’s discussion of what the university can provide. As an educator working in one university who is starting a new job at a different university in August, at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly privatized as a business of buying and selling and debt, I feel a lot of gratitude for Dr. J giving voice to what higher education can provide not only to its students but to the world in which they live, the world that they are making. I don’t want to diminish the specificity of what happened today, Imani Gaston and Kaustavi Sarkar’s labor and exceptional work. Rather, beyond my descriptions of the dancing and the music, I want to acknowledge that part of what made this work remarkable was seeing an African-American woman becoming an expert in an Indian dance tradition, working with an Indian woman who herself is studying, practicing, and teaching within an American university. One important aspect of this joint project relates to how we share culture: at a time in which I see the words “cultural appropriation” again and again across Facebook, twitter, and blogs that I read, I would like to point to Gaston’s work with Sarkar as one model for responsibly participating in a different culture. Months and months of hard work, hours and hours of dancing, the careful, strenuous training through which a dance tradition from India comes to live within the flesh and fibers of an African-American woman’s body, all participate in a form of rigorously responsible cultural exchange, becoming so embedded in a practice that the practice then becomes undeniably embedded in you. Our world could benefit from more of this kind of exchange.

Finally and also remarkably, in response to the inter-cultural situation of Sarkar and Gaston dancing, teaching, and learning together, an audience of friends, family, community, and academics, a multi-generational audience who was Indian—and potentially Indian-American—African-American, and white, showed up, shared space, and shared an experience of witnessing something that ranged from a deeply treasured cultural tradition for some to an art event in an unfamiliar medium for others. I can’t help but think that in the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves, in which race and class continue to stratify our society in ways that continue to result in unacceptable violence, today I saw something—was a small part of something—that performed a different socio-cultural paradigm. Many of us had different reasons for attending Gaston’s Mancha Pravesh today, but perhaps—like the different parts of the dancer’s body moving in different rhythms yet somehow finding harmonic resolution as one—by finding focal points that we can share from different perspectives and organizing ourselves around them, something personal can becomes communal and in turn becomes something global. I would like to think that in as much as this performance enacted a transition in Gaston’s career as a dancer, it also marked a potential for transformation at other, larger scales, not only in concept, but in practice: a way we might move towards a more just world in which we want to live.

*Quoted from the program notes.

Additional Program Information:

Musicians:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar



documentation of TOWARD BELONGING

On April 29 and 30, I premiered a new dance work entitled TOWARD BELONGING, featuring performers Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison. Over the last several years, while working on my PhD, my choreographic practice has been almost entirely focused on developing solo queer burlesque pieces, dances that I choreographed for me to perform on burlesque stages in and around Columbus, Ohio. TOWARD BELONGING was a step back into the studio, working with people I care about on making something meaningful and critical together. If you were not able to see the performances, I have finally gotten documentation posted.

April 29 in the Barnett Theatre in Sullivant Hall in the Department of Dance at the Ohio State University, videoed by s lumbert:

April 30 in Studio 290 in Sullivant Hall in the Department of Dance at the Ohio State University:



TOWARD BELONGING

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On April 29 and 30, I will be premiering a new dance work entitled TOWARD BELONGING, featuring performers Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison. We have been developing this week since the beginning of January, and now we are mere weeks away from sharing our work with you. This new dance moves through the mechanics and formal dimensions of sociality, the physical vocabularies of how bodies are together. It examines how bodies follow one another along paths that are straight or along trajectories that veer queerly, how they fall in line and out of step, how they carry one another along and are moved by what other people do, how they gather and separate.

Here are the details for the performances:
TOWARD BELONGING
choreography: Michael J. Morris
performance: Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison

TWO PERFORMANCES:
-Wednesday, April 29, the Sullivant Hall Barnett Theatre, 8pm
-Thursday, April 30, Sullivant Hall Studio 290, 8pm
Sullivant Hall is located on the OSU campus at 1813 North High Street in Columbus, Ohio.
This event is FREE and open to the public.

Please enter from the front (east) entrance facing N. High Street. Other entrances to the building may be locked after hours.
The Barnett Theatre is on the third floor, just off the rotunda.
Studio 290 is on the second floor, in the north-west corner of the building. Follow the second floor north corridor.

Accessibility:
Sullivant Hall has an elevator to the second and third floors, located just off the rotunda.
The seating in Barnett Theatre is folding chairs on risers, with floor space for additional adjustable seating.
The seating in Studio 290 is folding chairs and floor seating.
Please contact me at morris(dot)787(at)buckeyemail(dot)osu(dot)edu if you have any questions about access or have particular access needs.

You can RSVP on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1411144869192127/

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PARTIALLY NOTHING + WHOLLY SOMETHING

There are many reasons that I love living in Columbus. Tonight I was reminded of one of the most prominent reasons: people here make things happen, and other people show up. I had the opportunity to see the opening night of Partially Nothing + Wholly Something, a new dance work by Kat Sauma | Assembled Hearts, presented at MINT Art Gallery. The project was choreographed and directed by Kat Sauma, a recent graduate of the Ohio State University Department of Dance. Sauma’s project moves into an important, necessary role for our city: the production of dance by independent dance artists. I believe that this is the first dance performance that MINT, a relatively new space in the Columbus scene, has hosted, and I am delighted to see Sauma partnering with this art collective. The evening of dances unfolds through multiple spaces inside the MINT warehouse; there are always multiple choreographies, enmeshed and pushing into the next. In addition to mobilizing dancers through a series of small vignettes—duets and trios and solos alongside other small groupings—the piece moves the audience through multiple rooms and facings and configurations. We are quite literally moved by the dancers, sometimes given verbal directions—”You can go to the center of the room; you can line up against the wall”—and sometimes following tentatively as dancers weave through darkened doorways and down dimly lit hallways. The dance is certainly comprised of moving bodies, but it is also heavily inflected by innovative uses of simple, lo-fi lighting—courtesy of Ethan Schaefer. Most rooms are dark, but the minimal lighting with bright flood lights on the floor or colored fluorescent bulbs along columns and walls fills the spaces with atmosphere and a flurry of shadows cast above and around the performers and the audience.

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

As the performance begins, the overhead lights are cut off, and the crowd gathers facing two stools lit in the corner of the space. Two dancers—Anna House and Tyisha Nedd—make their way through the crowd and sit down facing the corner. They dance a duet of reaching arms, twisting torsos, and turning heads before standing, picking up the stools, and moving to another wall. They sit down again, this time facing us. More reaching and twisting, elbows pulling their shoulders and faces away and towards one another. These seated duets are tender and intimate; at moments, their fingertips brush against each other, and at other moments, their faces are so close they are almost kissing. They stand again, relocate to a third wall, and dance in unison, mirroring each others’ movement. Now standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, facing each other, turning away in complimentary opposition, their unison offers sameness while their skin—House’s light and Nedd’s dark—and hair reminds me that there are differences even when they move as if the same. These three brief vignettes escalate in openness—first seated and facing away from the audience, then seated and facing us, then finally standing and facing each other—and as we move into the second room, I feel that we are moving into something somehow already more vulnerable.

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

The second room is lit with bright pink fluorescent bulbs. The audience is directed to gather around a column in the center of the room and along the outer walls. We create two rings of viewers facing each other, and between us, two dancers—Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore—circle the room, walking in opposite directions. Already their is a simple complexity to this arrangement, four circles—the two rings of viewers and the two dancers’ pathways—overlaid into each other, and somewhere between or across these circles is the dance. The dancers’ walking becomes stylized—skipping and rocking steps. Moore stops in a single spot and rotates, jostling her hips in tiny thrusts with her arm lifted straight and rigid in the air, while Bendernagel lurches in a heavy skip, as if tossing his ribcage forward after which his body follows. Moore provides an anchor to the space, a fixed point with a strong, direct gaze; Bendernagel is more difficult to pin down. The precise articulation of his feet, his torso tipped forward at the waist, his eyes turned downward, his path wavering: I think that the quality is like a tipsy doe, something elegant and potentially excessive, something not-quite-sober and not-quite-tame, timid and not-quite-threatening. The two eventually meet and walk facing each other, each looking into the others’ eyes as they make their way around the room. They partner with each other briefly, then a line of other dancers enter and move us into the next room.

In the third space, the only lights are tucked between the dancers’ hands. The effect is something like fireflies swarming in loose patterns or constellations pulling back and forth into each star’s gravity, with hints of surfaces following in their wake: the soft glow of fleshy arms and legs and the swish of black chiffon skirts trailing behind the tiny lights. One by one, the starlight-fireflies process down a long hallway, and the audience condenses and follows after them.

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

The next room is lined on one side with rows and rows of metal scaffolding. The dancers are lined up beneath it, their backs against the wall. One begins to move, and the others follow in turn. Eventually they are all moving as a pack from one end of the scaffolding to the other, swinging and pushing against the metal structure like an industrial jungle-gym for serious play. Their movements are sudden and layered, twisting and leaning through the gaps between the beams, and where their hands strike the metal, it gives off the sound of a heavy clang, an irregular gong. They do not dance in unison, but once they are all moving, they are held more or less together by an elastic proximity to each other. The fluctuating give of the relations between their bodies stretches in contrast to the heavy rigidity of the scaffolding around and through which they move. However, while they stay near to each other, I never see them touch; for as much as this sections presents a group of people and their flexible relations to others within a fixed structure, it also presents them maintaining some distance.

In the next space, three dancers—House, Nedd, and Sauma—begin in one corner, bouncing lightly on two feet, the left foot flat on the ground and the right heel pushed up off of the floor. The room is a dim blue, and the audience forms a loose, irregular semi-circle around the corner that the trio occupies. Their bouncing is interrupted by a sudden jerk in one direction, a twist and reach in another. Their arms fling up and wide open, and somehow the trio splits, becoming a pair and a solo. Sauma, a few feet behind the others, performs similar choreography, but her version is heavier, smoother, and more sustained. She is set back from them, a bit of an outsider now, but performing similar gestures; her movement quality knits her dancing to theirs, carrying across and filling in the gaps of their staccato execution. All three eventually move through the audience, and just as I think we are moving on to the final space, they swerve back into the crowd, dancing again now in the middle of the audience. I can’t see them from where I am, but I can see a crowd turned in on itself, watching something at its center that not everyone can see. To the degree that we as viewers are made into a community by the commonality of our experiences—we’re all watching this dance together and we’ve all been led through this building together—here our community takes on a kind of mystery at its core. Suddenly we’ve become members of a secret society with different levels of initiation, and those of us at the outer edges look inward, trusting that those closer to the center are seeing what we do not.

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

In the final room, back where we began, all six dancers occupy the long space of the MINT gallery. Although the space is still dimly lit, something about the use of the wide open depth and white walls make it feel bright. Tommy Batchelor stands at the center of the space, and when he begins to dance, it is acrobatic, leaping and spinning through the air, a dazzling spectacle here at the denouement. The dancers move through different groupings—Batchlor’s strong solo set against the gradual sweeping gestures of a trio, Sauma roaming at the edges of the space. There’s a moment with Bendernagel and Batchelor face each other and arch their hearts forward, then all of the dancers find their ways back to their partners from their previous vignettes—House and Nedd, Bendernagel and Moore. Sauma continues to stroke her hand along the outer wall, and House and Need come to Batchelor in the center of the room as the dance finishes.

As the lights come up, I am left thinking about two elements that pervade the materials of this work: throughout the dancing bodies and different rooms and innovative lights, what carried me forward was a sense of anticipation. I knew that we would move on into another space, and while there were sometimes clues as to the timing of these developments, each moment of each vignette persisted with the question: when?
The other element that inflected how I experienced everything I saw was an edge of sado-masochism  suggested by the costumes. The dancers were barefoot and each wore a mix of sheer and solid materials. There was a lot of bare skin, and even with my own three or four layers of clothing, I was very cold in the MINT warehouse. As I watched them dance, I couldn’t ignore the strong sense that these dancers were putting themselves through something. Their bare skin against the cold air, their bare feet against the concrete: the effect for me was a solicited concern, the way one might feel watching someone you love insist that they deserve to suffer, somewhere between empathy and care. To be clear, I take no issue with dancers putting themselves through something difficult or painful; I have danced through bruises and broken skin and blood and tears like most dancers. In a sense, this is a part of our art form. And: tonight, as these six dancers moved through their pairings and trios and solos and groups, as they moved us through the MINT spaces, endurance and empathy were tangible materials that tugged my own body along with theirs. As I hugged several of the dancers goodnight, I said, “Have a great show tomorrow night,” but what I meant was, “Thank you. I see you. Take care of yourself.”

Partially Nothing + Wholly Something will be performed once more, Saturday, March 7 at 8pm at MINT, 42 West Jenkins Ave, Columbus, OH.
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/227394634097889/



Watch From Here: Part 1 | Elsewhere and Trace Forms

Tonight was the opening of Watch From Here, the 2015 OSU Department of Dance MFA Concert Season presented in two parts over two weeks. Part 1 features the work of choreographers Ani Javian and Megan Davis, along with their collaborators, at the Urban Arts Space in downtown Columbus.

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Javian’s Elsewhere was the first piece of the evening:
When the audience is allowed to enter the performance space—a long corridor with cement floor and high ceilings on the south side of the Urban Arts Space—four dancers are already present, their bodies crumpled softly on the ground, all at different angles, their limbs askew. Above them, sculptural elements by Leah Frankel are suspended at many different elevations: the sculptures, what look like wooden dowels painted different tones of beige hanging from filament, all hang parallel to one another, running along the length of the gallery space from east to west. The audience sits or stands on all four sides of the space, and small, almost tentative rocking and swaying actions shift through the dancers’ bodies.

A fifth dancer, Shannon Drake, runs suddenly into the space, making her way through the bodies on the floor to the far end of the gallery. Whereas the four dancers on the floor move almost beneath the threshold of perceptibility, Drake’s movements are strong and full-bodied, their force pushing impatiently through the duration of each passing second. She runs back and forth along the longitudinal length of the space, across and around the bodies on the floor.

As if stirred by Drake’s rapidity, the four on the floor—Abby Carlozzo, Kelly Hurlburt, Sarah Levitt, and s.lumbert—quickly move towards each other and line up, horizontal and side by side. Their tiny shifts and swaying now press into each other, and I am drawn into soft places when flesh presses into flesh. Their costumes—sleeveless tops and pants all pieced together from multiple shades of beige and tan—along with their skin—all of the dancers are white—give the group of bodies a kind of homogeneity. The skin, the costumes, and the multiple beiges of the sculptures hanging overhead comprise a narrow consistency across multiple elements of the dance; the dance develops as bodies push and roll and speed up and come together and apart all within this narrow space.

Over the duration of the dance, the dancers roll over and alongside each other; they lift one dancer into the air and maneuver her around the space; they crawl and dance in pairs and other small groupings; they drift in and out of unison with each other; they inhabit any number of levels of space, moving high up into the air, down flat on the floor, and many elevations in between. Across the group, the choreography introduces a range of dynamics and speeds: legs and arms slicing and flinging through the air, rolling quickly across hands and knees and hips, and also standing still and slowing down, the dancers carefully circling limbs in their joints, as if never fully deciding where they could move next. My initial reaction to the dance is that it shows something about the multiple dimensions of variability within a presumably narrow range of possibilities, the speed and intensity and spatial configurations that are possible within the limits of various approximations of beige.

But it is more specific than that. It is not only the colors of the costumes and dancers and sculptures that suggest narrow possibilities: the parallel alignment of the sculptures, their cumulative adherence to the longitude of the room, and how they mark out a collection of singular, rigid elevations in space, all introduce systems of measurement, lines and levels that organize how I perceive the dimensions of the space and the bodies moving within it. The sculptures establish a three-dimensional grid, striations across the space that refer to global(izing) perspectives for the linear demarcation of position within a given frame—longitude, latitude, elevation away from the center of the planet. The architecture of the space, its four walls, its floor and ceiling, already iterate these dimensions; Frankel’s sculptures extrude these dimensions into the air and give a constant frame of reference for determining how these dancing bodies do and do not line up within that frame. Sometimes the dancers literally line up, flat to the walls or ceiling, all in a straight queue. But more often, they move across and between these straight lines and planes; they accelerate and decelerate over and through curving pathways and diagonals that cut the space in temporary, renegade formations. And most importantly, they do so together.

Not only does the choreography the dancers perform never fully or permanently conform to the geometry of the room or sculptures—or the rigid linearity that those structures impose—neither do their connections. This dance is full of bodies coming to one another, pressing against each other, sometimes moving apart, but then keeping up with each other as they move. The soft places where bodies come into contact, the shifting dynamic relationship between two bodies that may not be in contact but nonetheless attempt to move with each other in some direction, map out a different geometry, a fleshy, sweaty, pulsing spatiality that knows nothing of rigid structures or hard lines. Where and how bodies meet and stay with each other exceeds the terms of the grid above them. Even in the final moments of the dance, all five bodies have once again crumpled to the floor at various elevations, more or less in line with each other along the length of the room. But their lines are multiple, soft, and loose, curving smoothly around their shoulders and hips and spines, facing in directions that are not fully one way or another. The right here-and-now of bodies with each other refuses to be constrained within totalizing frameworks of rigid spatialities; bodies, it seems, are already elsewhere, even when they are right here.

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis’ Trace Forms, developed in collaboration with the performers—Lilianna Kane, Maddie Leonard-Rose, Claire Moore, and Stacy Shelts—involves both a dance and an exhibition of various forms of documentation of dancing. The walls are lined with sketches, drawings, video documentation, and writing about dancing that came out of the choreographic process through which the dance was developed; the dance takes place surrounded by these various traces of dancing in several media.

The dance begins, and from where I am sitting on the floor, I can see two dancers leaning against a wall, rolling against it, and sweeping their hands over its surface. A foot emerges from behind one of the large columns in the middle of the gallery, and gradually two more dancers come into view. These first few moments are very tactile: the contact between the dancers and the wall seems more important than the specific gestures or movements that they are doing. The movement seems to come from the contact, to support to tactile encounter, to experiment with it.

Eventually the dancers move out into the space, and form a line at the east end of the gallery. In front of them, two monitors display video of these dancers in rehearsal. I don’t know if they are watching themselves in the videos, but I am watching them, their actual bodies in space, the images of their bodies on the screens beyond them. Their line turns, and they begin to move as a pack, maintaining degrees of proximity to each other. The movement is simple: walking, assuming a position, gesturing from that position, the arms or legs extending in lines or arcs around where they began.

Two dancers move out into the space with a long roll of paper, and as they unroll it, I can see colored lines looping and curling and streaking down its length. Given the context of the exhibition materials, I understand these lines to mark out some piece of the choreographic process, some trace of movement—drawing, if nothing else—that has been recorded along this scroll. The dancers circle around the space, carrying the paper into different spatial orientations, twisting it, folding it, manipulating it. In a way that is quite literal, they repurpose this history, rearticulating this record of something that occurred before in a new way for new purposes in the present. As I watch, I am thinking about the records that we keep, these lines on paper, the gestures of dancing images on video monitors, the lines and shapes the dancing bodies make in space that disappear as quickly as they appear. Within moments, the paper is rolled back up, and I realize that whatever may be retained from the past may not remain accessible. Davis and the performers are dancing at the edges of archives—how we retain what has happened, how we use or access what we have retained—moving with and between these records, these lines and paper and digital images and words.

Later in the piece, the four dancers create a loose circle, and one by one they each dance as the others watch. As a viewer, I am not only watching a dancing body; I am also watching three others watching her dancing. I cannot avoid the fact the this body is viewed/viewable from multiple perspectives, and no one perspective can provide a full view. This multiplicity of perspectives—or my attention to it—is compounded as the dancers move forward, and the rest of the audience comes into my sightlines. As we are watching them watching each other, we are also watching each of them and each other watching them: more perspectives of more perspectives.

The dancers break into pairs and move in contact with each other, reminiscent of the opening dancing in contact with the wall. Here they dance with their eyes closed, their bodies feeling and following each other. Moments before, we witnessed them witnessing each other; now their witnessing has become entirely haptic, tactile, touching and feeling touching, body to body in a much more personal, intimate way. Gradually, they drift apart from each other, each dancing on their own, and I feel a wave of sadness: I continue to watch them, we continue to witness them in their eyes-closed dances, but they no longer see or feel each other. We witness them and we witness them no longer witnessing each other. Like the scroll that was rolled up and taken away, like the limited access to records, witnessing, it seems, has its limits and will not go on indefinitely. There comes a time when each body is left to itself, its experience of itself and no other.

One by one, the dancers open their eyes, make their way out into the audience, turn, and join us watching the others who continue to dance. At last, the space is empty, and we are all looking around at each other looking around until the music ends and the clapping begins. These final moments are crucial as the dance directs us from seeing the dancers perform back towards seeing each other.

From the dance to the exhibited materials and back again, Davis examines traces, records, the accounts that remain from the multi-faceted experiences that each of us undergo, on our own and with others. Whatever is happening right now is only part of any story; it is a point along a process—or any number of processes—that extend in any number of directions into the past and towards a future. In Trace Forms, Davis shows that no action or event fully discloses its own history of formation. No moment of any person can reveal that person in any entirety. Across multiple media, marking out pieces and outlines of what has come before, pushing into what is unfolding right now, and holding up some possibilities of what might remain, the dance and the exhibit together offer not a singular, authoritative record of happenings, but an account—or several—of experiences from a collective of perspectives. There is no total account of what has happened, what is happening, where it came from, or where it might lead. Rather, accounts are multiple and partial, incomplete, and rely on countless points of view;  they never add up to a complete record, but accumulate traces that we share, tracing what and how we share what can be shared, and opening up any number of possibilities for where we might go from here.

Watch From Here: Part 1 continues at the Urban Arts Space on Friday, February 6 at 6pm, and Saturday, February 7, at 1pm.

watchfromhere_poster