michael j. morris

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:

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:

We Were When They Started, and We Were After They Had Gone

This morning, Westboro Baptist Church picketed on the campus of the Ohio State University. I have chosen not to offer any hyperlinks to WBC’s sites, or to offer any photos of their protests or transcriptions of their rhetoric; I have chosen to not reproduce or proliferate what I categorize as hate speech/rhetoric. I think it is enough for the purposes of this post to summarize that WBC considers homosexuality to be “soul-damning” and asserts that the “sanction” of homosexuality in the United States (and around the world) has exposed our country to wrath of god. The Ohio State University is apparently also complicit in this “sanction,” making it a target for these radical protests.

Last week, a colleague of mine named Owen David told me that WBC would be on our campus again. He suggested that we stage some sort of performance response to their presence at OSU. I agreed; while I rarely engage overtly in public protests, it felt important to me to oppose the presence and sanction of these voices in the place I call home. Over the past week, the idea for the performance evolved and developed, settling into its final form this morning. We decided to engage in a walking meditation on intersecting pathways, converging nearby where WBC would be protesting. WBC was set up on the corner of High Street and 12th Avenue. Owen started approximately 100 feet west of the intersection on 12th, and I started approximately 100 feet south on High. Our plan was to take twenty-five minutes to walk from our starting positions to our convergence point only a few feet from where WBC were positioned, hopefully finishing our walks around the time that the protest dissipated. Instead, our walks took over an hour. We started when they started, and long after they had gone, we were still progressing. This transformed the situation of the performance, and in doing so provided me with unforeseen significance for what it was we were doing.
This performance/performative protest was intended as a quiet assertion of the visibility and mobility of bodies that would be prohibited under the politics of WBC. It was important that we were not responding in the same social registers as those deployed by WBC (signs, loud music, etc.). Our response was articulated through silence, sustained mobility, concentration, and contemplation. By the end of our walks, several other themes had emerged for me: endurance was significant, not only in the sense of the bodily endurance necessary to take over an hour to walk close to 100 feet, but also in the sense that our presence/action endured/persisted far beyond the presence/action of those to whom we were responding. I was also deeply aware of how my understanding of visibility had shifted by the end of the performance.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the overall context in which we enacted this performance/practice. WBC protesters were not the only bodies present on the corner of 12th and High. In fact, the crowd of counter-protesters dramatically outnumbered the small but vocal WBC crowd. There was also a large police presence on the scene, some officers spread around the periphery of what felt like a rally, but most establishing a line of protection around the protesters from WBC. The crowd that had gathered in opposition was exemplary of the productive force of power, and the unforeseeable/uncontrollable effects of political action. The hate rhetoric of WBC became a foundation for unlikely alliances: those who showed up to oppose the homophobic rhetoric occupied space alongside thus who showed up out of a sense of school spirit, opposing the anti-OSU rhetoric deployed by WBC, as well as those who showed up out of a sense of national patriotism, to defend the country and the military against the attacks issued by WBC. This church opposes the nation and the university, claiming that both institutions enable homosexuality, and that this enabling marks this nation for destruction. However, these attacks produced unlikely results, namely, provoking a response that allied bodies/individuals alongside homosexuals who might not otherwise occupy such a position. Witnessing this was a great reward.

When we started, I immediately felt as if I had conjured myself as invisible. My quiet, slow progression down the sidewalk seemed to vanish alongside the noise and commotion of the protesters on the corner. This was a difficult place to begin: I had come to this place this morning to assert my visibility, my mobility, and at the start it seemed as if my action had effectively erased my presence from the situation. However, the longer I walked, the more those who passed by me in either direction took notice of my presence. Several people spoke to me. One person asked my permission to photograph my walk for his photography course. Others simply stared or observed from a distance or became aware of me as an unexpected obstacle in their path. In this sense, what I had conceived of as an assertion of visibility became something more akin to a journey from invisibility into the very visibility I had intended to assert.

However, this experience of visibility became most important—and significantly reoriented—towards the end of the walk. The crowd had dissipated. WBC had left the corner, and it was once again a seemingly neutral thoroughfare. That was when I became aware of my awareness of Owen. He had been at the periphery of my vision throughout the walk, and although he was far off and through the crowd, I recognized him. As we approached one another in the last few minutes of our walk, I realized that this sustained recognition may have in fact been the vital practice of this performance. I kept thinking of this passage from a lecture by Judith Butler:
“So what I accept is the following: Freedom does not come from me or from you; it can and does happen as a relation between us or, indeed, among us. So this is not a matter of finding the human dignity within each person, but rather of understanding the human as a relational and social being, one whose action depends upon equality and articulates the principle of equality … No human can be human alone. And no human can be human without acting in concert with others and on conditions of equality … The claim of equality is not only spoken or written, but is made precisely when bodies appear together or, rather, when, through their action, they bring the space of appearance into being.”
I had shown up to assert my visibility; what I came to realize over the hour of our walk was that it was actually through this performance/practice that I truly “showed up,” came to appear, came to be visible, to recognize and be recognized. It was through our performance together that we conferred visibility and recognition on one another, and it was in part through the walk itself that we created the conditions for that mutual recognition. As we got closer, I noticed that our steps fell into unison. Neither was fully leading or following; rather, we were moving together. We acted “in concert” with one another, and in doing so, established our own experience and possibility for recognition. Afterwards, Owen commented that as we approached one another, he actually smelled by scent before he saw me directly. As we met, we turned towards one another, made eye contact, and then embraced. Seeing and touch became further iterations of recognizing and being recognized. It seems now that the true significance of this performance lies in this conference of recognition, specifically in the presence and aftermath of those who would erase our existences.

It seems important to me after the fact that so much of this mutual recognition was practiced at the periphery of our vision. We did not look at one another directly until we converged at the finish. This seems to me a very queer experience indeed, to not only see someone, but to recognize him, not straight-on, but obliquely, from the side, at the edge. This indirectness that might be read as a form of queerness seems to also have been implicit in our spatial pathways. We didn’t come from opposing points (a rigid binary), but neither did we presume to come from the same place (alongside one another). These variable experiences of seeing, recognizing, and approaching seem essential (if I may hazard that word choice) to what it means to move through the world queerly, and it seems important that these elements made up the primary materials of this performance.

It also seems important to recognize the inherent connection between recognition and desire, between desire and discourses of sexuality, between recognition/visibility and the political projects of civil rights, specifically those that mobilize around issues of sex, sexuality, and gender identity. I’m afraid I don’t have the time or space to fully address those connections, but my hope is that by suggesting them, I might also suggest possible extensions for today’s performance/practice.

I do not know if we were recognized as other-than-heterosexual, as queers or homosexuals moving, but what I do know is that we presented ourselves as moving through the world differently, as moving out of step with those around us. The very thing that differentiated us from those moving around us—being out of step, our slow and sustained progress, etc.—was also what established our commonality, our visibility to one another, visibility that eventually led to a synchronization of our steps.
How significant that what makes us recognized as different is not necessarily something that we are, but rather a way that we do, and that this doing is simultaneously what set us apart and brought us together . . .

A performative polemic on how we watch dance
4 December, 2010, 11:10 am
Filed under: Dance | Tags: , ,

Yesterday as an introduction to the end of the quarter Departmental Informance, Susan van Pelt Petry (chair of the Department of Dance) and I enacted a short performance based on ideas that I have had stewing for a while about how we (as a general audience, but also as those functioning within the field of dance) watch, talk, and write about what we’ve seen. Several people have said they would like the text/script from the piece. So here it is:

[epic music begins to fade out]

SVPP: [standing and cheering] I love it!

MJM: Why did you love it?
-How can you follow your appreciation, those trajectories of your appreciation, to discover more about the work, yourself, your engagement with the work, and the creation of the work through your engagement with it?
-While completely acknowledging and accepting your visceral spontaneous reactions to the work, how can you interrogate them for what more they might reveal?

SVPP: It just made me feel good!

MJM: Great! So now we’re into the realm of feeling, sensation, where perception and reaction resides within the body.
-How can you examine that sense of pleasure as a way discovering where and how watching the piece lives in your body?
-What subjective associations are invoked for you that give depth and weight to your sense of pleasure in the work? What of yourself contributes to the meaningfulness of the work that registers as this sense of pleasure, of feeling great?

SVPP: I don’t get it….  That sucked

MJM: Maybe there isn’t an “it” to get. The sender/recipient model for expression is one way of looking at dance, trying to understand the choreographer or dancer’s intentions for the work. But there are so many other forms of engagement available to you. Rather than stopping at “I didn’t get it,” letting go of the idea that there’s a singular “it,” what do you discover if you instead ask, “What did I get from it?”
-And it’s okay to think that it sucked. But how can the recognition of that valuation reveal for you the criteria by which you decide whether work is good or not, recognizing that there are many many systems for determining aesthetic value, and when you see work that sucks, you have the opportunity to ask yourself, “With what criteria am I coming to this understanding?”
-And it’s important to remember that we, especially those of us within the field of dance, will always have multiple systems of criteria for evaluating work, and that in order for the field to thrive, we need to be able to discriminate between the criteria for work that exhibits qualities of the work we would want to make or be a part of, and work that we can appreciate outside of our personal aesthetics. Especially we who are students and professionals in this field, we have so many tools and lenses through which to evaluate, appreciate, and articulate work, not denying our own aesthetics, but not limiting ourselves to them either.

SVPP: I thought it was really good.  The dancers were beautiful….

MJM: Beauty! Great! Here we can begin to further explore the intricacies of aesthetic values, and ask questions like: Why is it beautiful? What are the criteria by which it registers as beautiful for me? Where did those criteria come from? What are the cultures, societies, histories, and politics that have shaped my notion of “beauty?” What is it that I exclude from the category of beauty by applying those criteria? And what is the cost or result of excluding something outside of “the beautiful?”

SVPP: It just didn’t do anything for me.  Just sayin’.

MJM: Maybe the function of dance and art is not to “do anything for you,” but instead to provide you with materials from which to form your own experience. Maybe a solution would be to ask what you can do with or for it? What different engagement or consideration can you offer to what you’re watching to get deeper inside of it? What of your self can you bring to the work to allow it to take on more meaningfulness? How can you be more available to participating in what the work might be capable of doing?
-So as we watch, how can we practice encountering dance and art not as an experience of a fixed event to be judged, but instead recognize it as a crafted space in which we encounter both the work that has been made and, perhaps more interestingly, ourselves and the ways in which we participate in the creation of the work’s significance.
-And as we move beyond those experiences, how can we practice articulating ourselves in conversation and in writing in such a way that demonstrates this heightened state of engagement and availability to the work rather than foreclosing its possibilities behind reductive declarative judgments?

So with that, ON TO THE NEXT PIECE . . .

[music begins, both look at one another, then learn forward as if to watch]



Another exhilarating dance performance I had the opportunity to experience this week was a performance of Trisha Brown’s Sololos, staged and directed by Abigail Yager, performed in Thompson Library on the campus of the Ohio State University.

There is a video of the performance floating around facebook, but I can’t seem to find it this morning. I did find a video detailing the history and renovation of Thompson Library, which will at least give a sense of the architecture to which I will refer.

To start, I have seen this piece three or four times, all in different settings, and I have to say that I could not conceive of a more apt space in which this piece might be performed. I am a big fan of the architecture of Thompson Library, and its structures provided a wealth of lines, spaces and formal alignments for this dance that has itself a kind of internal architecture (I think there’s a sense in which all dance has a kind of architecture, and there has been a burgeoning mass of research exploring the relationships between dance and architecture; the work with which I am the most familiar has come out of/around the Synchronous Objects project. You can read about some of this research here. I also have a brilliant colleague of mine, Mara Penrose, is currently collaborating with architecture student Renee Ripley on an upcoming project entitled Inscription, another great opportunity to examine the interplay between dance and architecture). Sololos, like much of Trisha Brown’s work, has a very precise geometry to both the movement material and the spatial organization of the dancers. There is a linearity to the movement, and a constant sense the every point on every surface of each dancers’ body both corresponds and is aware of its correspondence to spatial coordinates. In the performance of the dance, its internal geometry enters a dialogue with the geometry of the space; the coordinates of the dance become mapped onto the infinite potential axes provided by the architecture and the viewers. There is also an architecture to the timing of the dance; it goes beyond the precision of the individual actions of individual dancers and moves into the realm of interactive precision: I experience it almost as a temporal geometry, and as dancers move through various phrases of movement, in and out of unison, there is a constant sense of correlation across time. Additionally, related to both the spatial/formal and the temporal architecture of the dance, there is also an architecture to the attention required by this piece.

Before I range too far into my own experience during Friday’s showing, I would like to share the description of the piece offered in the program of the event as a nice summation of the nature of the choreography:

Sololos is one of the purest expressions of Trisha Brown’s love affair with choreographis structure. Created in 1976, it is a study of causality–cause and effect, as well as logical processes, properties, variables and facts in which dancers respond to instructions called to them from a dancer offstage. The piece begins in simple unison, quickly unravels into visual complexity, then re-ravels itself back to its beginning prompted by instructions given by the caller. Governed by strict adherence to a set of rules and requirements, it exists in endless permutation as a function of these improvised calls. The vocabulary is entirely fixed, yet the form is composed in the moment.

“The piece is constructed of three movement palindromes. These phrases of movement material can be danced in forward or retrograde, and can be called to change direction at any time. The foundational phrase, referred to as Main, functions as a central artery delivering dancers to choreographic ‘doorways’ through which they pass to splinter off to auxiliary palindromes referred to as Branch and Spill. Whereas there is only one Main and one Branch, there are four unique Spills created by each of the dancers in response to a written set of instructions.”

These sets of rules and requirements are one aspect of what I am thinking of as the architecture of the dance. While the materials are meticulously set, the ways in which they work themselves out, driven primarily by the directions of the outside “Caller” (on Friday, Meredith Hurst and Mara Penrose functioned as the Callers for the dance), is improvised within those rules. Like the physical architecture of a building maintains a certain concrete fixity, a container for infinite possibilities of human movement through the structure, the movement itself is essentially improvised within these structures. Perhaps a bit more phenomenologically, I think there is something also to be said about the “fixity” or “mobility” of the architectural structures within the field of human perception. The way in which we experience a space is entirely informed by the conditions of that experience (others in the space, time of day, personal conditions, memory, etc.), and it is in this perceptual fluctuation between fixity and mobility that I felt Sololos primarily in dialogue with Thompson Library.

I had the distinct experience of the enactment of the dance re-enacting the space. A primary device of this enactment was geometrical alignment. Lines of bodies in space falling into parallelisms or perpendicularities with the formal elements of the library brought those elements into my perception in a new, previously unrecognized, way. Thompson Library is full of grids, some of which are more or less parallel (the shadows cast from the skylight, offering a grid to the floor on which they danced; the central column of the stacks, housed in grids of glass and steel which provided the backdrop for the dance; etc.), others not so rigid (the lines embedded in the floor are sometimes curving, sometimes diagonal, offering lines off of the strict grid with which bodies might find alignment). In this sense, the revelation and transformation of the dance become a frame or device for the revelation and transformation of the library’s architecture in the field of my perception. While this could be said of any dance in any space, it was between the specific linearity of Sololos and the rich complexity of geometrical forms within Thompson Library that I felt a deep affinity, and it was through this affinity that I experienced the mobility of the space itself.

Other factors contributed to this experience: I was aware of how my perception of the space transformed through the expansion and collapsing of space between the dancers’ bodies. The shifting distance between myself and each dancer functioned as a constant re-negotiation of the distance between myself and the structure surrounding us all, the space beyond the bodies.

Perhaps the most overwhelming of my sensorial experiences with this dance had to do with the formulation of spatial coordinates for the bodies in space. Coordinates are defined by a point of intersecting axes. Throughout the performance of the piece, I was constantly aware of the seemingly infinite possible axes in the space. It went beyond recognizing the situation of bodies between one thing and another; I became aware of the trajectories of lines into space, lines extending as planes, the potential to consider the viewers’ gazes/attention as axes for the situation of the bodies (in constant motion). Because of the unique architecture of the atrium of the library, spectators were fully in the round (all four sides of the dance) on four separate levels. My situation was on the first floor, level with the dancers, but I was constantly aware of the viewers two, three, and four stories above the dance, and the potential to consider those gazes as the definitive axes for the coordinates of bodies. The most explosive moments for me came when bodies fell into formal alignments with one another (whether or not they were dancing the same phrase of movement): inevitably the body of a dancer would shift dramatically in my field of perception, now re-situated due to the alignment with another body onto the axes (that I had constructed perceptually) for that other body. Similar shifts occurred when bodies fell into alignments with the library’s architecture; the recognition of the alignment trumped whatever other spatial situation I had previously constructed for that body, and thus in those moments of simple reciprocity between bodies and structure my perception of the situation of those bodies (and thus the bodies themselves) became radically reconfigured.

Through this process of viewing, I became increasingly aware of the constructed nature of these “axes,” “coordinates,” and “situations.” My knowledge of the “object” was entirely informed by my perception of its situation, and the qualities of that situation were arbitrarily constructed. On a more existential level, this offered some space for reflecting on the arbitrary and constructed understanding of “the nature of things.” If we (primarily) understand a thing because of its relationship to other things, it becomes important to recognize that the “other things” that we collect in order for the object to be consider is both limited and arbitrary. This is perhaps the value of intertextuality, recognizing that the meaning of a thing emerges primarily from its situation amongst others, and that by reformulating the situation of a given topic or object, we reformulate the qualities of what we know/experience it to be.

The alignments of bodies with one another also affected the way in which I became aware of other bodies in space and their alignments: patrons of the library walking in unison with one another, parallel spatial pathways, oppositional spatial pathways, etc. Making my way to the arching theme of my experience, the viewing of the dance in this space began to inform me experience of the surrounding activity. Along these lines, the dance and the library’s architecture mutually redefined one another for the duration of the piece (and perhaps even after the piece, if we want to range into a discussion of something like spatial memory). A significant concern for architecture/the architect is how the structure facilitates, enables, and limits the movement of bodies in space (this might also correlate to a central concern of the choreographer). The presence of this dance occurring in the main atrium and entrance area of the first floor dramatically reformed the way in which the architecture functioned by contributing additionally limiting structures (dancing bodies) to the space. Library patrons were no longer corralled by the structure of the building, but also the disruption of the structure by the presence of a dance. The flow of human motion in the building was diverted, and in this sense, the architecture augmented. Coextensively, the function of the space contributed to the dance itself. Most overtly, one woman, engrossed in text messaging, literally wandered into the dance performance space. She appeared horrified when she recognized her intrusion, but in those moments she contributed an additional body that had to be negotiated in the dance. Besides the over intrusion, it was simple enough to consider all the moving bodies in the space as complicit in the dance. Unlike the proscenium situation in which the only obvious moving bodies are those on stage, this dance was surrounded by moving bodies, and they then entered the field of awareness in which the dance could be considered.

With all of these elements contributing to the perception of both the dance and the space, it seems simple enough to assert that the Callers for the piece functioned as both choreographers and architects for Sololos and Thompson Library for the duration of the piece. The ways in which they solved the functions of the dance shaped not only the choreography but the space as well.

And this is perhaps a good moment to offer a summation of the reward this expeirence provided: The experience of the dance in the space, by way of directing fresh and reciprocal attention into the space, made the architecture of the library (a space I inhabit persistently) more alive, more dynamic, and in effect more meaningful. This then might be said to be a rare opportunity that dance in non-traditional spaces (or, more specifically, familiar spaces in which dance does not usually occur): it provides a perceptual opportunity in which the space might become reinvented, revitalized, and reinvested with meaningfulness.

I could write so much more about the meaningfulness of this experience: how shifting my position/perspective from one side of the dance to another between the first and second run of the piece dramatically reformed my experience; how understanding the functions of the choreography and my intimacy with the dancers/callers made an emotional landscape, going with them on a journey of problem solving, moving near-far-and near to the solution (getting all the dancers back to unison Main in reverse, I think); the moment at which one dancer, Quentin Burley, literally ended up partially in my lap because of where I was sitting and where the improvisation of the dance took him, thrusting me not only into the space of the dance, but also a heightened interpersonal awareness of the piece beyond the perceptual/formal concerns that dominated my experience; the potential metaphors for social/cultural mediation embedded in the function of the dance (if we were to allow the end unison to represent a cultural value for harmony, and consider elements like unison, deviation, minor and vast disjunctions between dancers, the range of flexibility that allows for synch-ups, etc. as informative to cultural configuration); but already being over 2000 words, I think I might have to conclude, with the acknowledgement that this dance by Trisha Brown, the superb work of Abigail Yager in its staging, the performance of the dancers and the architecture of Thompson Library, all the connections in between, offered a profound experience for my week, one about which I could write much, much more.

The piece is being done once more this quarter at the OSU Student Union, 4 June at 1:30. It will be different in the Union (a building I find to be vulgar on multiple levels), but I encourage you to see the piece if possible, and perhaps carry a mindfulness of its transformative potential in your viewing.

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.

Reflections on Dance Downtown: The Event that Comes After the Event

Last night I had the opportunity to see “Remix Culture: OSU Dance Downtown” at the Riffe Center’s Capital Theatre. There’s another show tonight, and I highly recommend it.

Although I hardly have the time for such an endeavor, I feel a strong conviction to spend more time with this experience. So often we simply view/experience art/dance (life) and just keep moving forward. While there is certainly something to be said for being fully situated in the present, I also feel the need to process how these incredibly significant experiences live with/in me. This is not the first time I have written about a dance performance or art exhibit; it won’t be the last. These are not reviews or even critiques. They are an opportunity for me to reflect on my experience, give space for it to live and sink in and develop into something more particular in which to live. I post it here on my blog as a way of sharing that reflection.

While this should be obvious, this writing is not a telling of what happened in this show. It is not even a description of the dances, per se. It is more accurately a reflection on my own experience, constructed within my perceptual experience from the materials provided by the performance itself. There is nothing authoritative, “accurate,” or “inaccurate” about this writing. It is simply a record of my experience, and it is as such that I offer it to you.

The concert began with Michael Kelly Bruce’s new work entitled Sinuous Moonlight. The rewards of this piece included the energy of the dancers, the swishy, swooping, almost sultry quality to the overall body attitude of the work, the transparency of the dance as a dance, and the persistent (but not heavy-handed) potential homoeroticism of the choreography. Bruce worked with a cast of incredible dancers (this could actually be a blanket statement for the entire concert; Dance Downtown was, as a whole, an exhilarating demonstration of exceptional dancing and dancers), and the spectacular spectrum of their unique abilities seemed to be a through-line in the piece, exemplified perhaps most specifically in Erik Abbott-Main’s expert performance of hula-hooping in the second section of the dance. The second section began with Abbott-Main’s entrance and the descent of a light-up hula hoop from the ceiling to the immediate elation of the audience. I appreciated the opportunity that the hula hoop (and hula hooper) provided for multiple readings: it could be a symbol, a metaphor, signifying some more esoteric content; or it could function as an absurdist device, throwing the internal logic of the piece into a tailspin; or it could simply be an element of spectacle, something purely for fun and entertainment. One of my favorite moments of the evening occurred during this section. During Abbott-Main’s hula-hooping, a second male dancer (Daniel Holt) entered the space, gazing at Abbott-Main. In a pricelessly (potentially) homoerotic moment, Holt (in a low lunge) rhythmically thrusts his hips while watching Abbott-Main (topless) touch himself sensually, hula-hooping all the while. It was not heavy handed, and I suppose there could be multiple readings of this particular moment, but I took pleasure in seeing what could be blatantly homoerotic content on a Columbus dance stage. This was not the only potentially homoerotic content in the piece: male-male partnering was throughout, as was female-female partnering. On the surface this could simply be “homo-social” (not necessarily homosexual) demonstrations, but situated in a long history of partnering connoting intimate relations (supported by the lyric content: “But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance/Let’s face the music and dance,” “If you say run, I’ll run with you/If you say hide, we’ll hide/Because my love for you/Would break my heart in two,” Peggie Lee talking about falling “head over heels in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world;” the lyrics provided a setting in which romance/sexuality could easily be at the surface of any reading), I simply offer that if one were to look for homoerotic demonstrations in the work, there was a plethora of choreographic content from which to construct such a reading.

In a lovely gesture of reflexivity, the dance was performed on an exposed stage space: no wings, no cyc, lighting instruments clearly exposed, ladders and scaffolding providing “set” pieces. Another recurring lyrical theme throughout the soundscore was “dance” (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Let’s Dance,” “Is That All There Is?  . . . If that’s all there is friends, let’s keep dancing”). The exposure of the stage space seemed to be a further acknowledgement that it’s “just dance,” an exposure of the reality of the situation, a spectacle without illusionism, perhaps inviting the viewer to consider the spectacular in the mundane, or perhaps offering an endorsement of the particularly spectacular quality of the “mundane” activity of dance. This reflexive frame was a successful lens through which to give attention to the activity of dancing itself, without necessarily looking for meaning beyond the dance, without speculating as to the mystery of theatricality, and to find simple pleasure in the energy and unique virtuosity of this particular ensemble of dancers.

Ming-Lung Yang presented a new work entitled No Trace. It was one of the most elegant group pieces I have seen in quite a while. My initial experience with the performance, I must confess, had mostly to do with the costumes. I work as an assistant to Mary Yaw McMullen, the costume designer/director for the department, and thus I have spent a significant investment of time, energy, and attention in these costumes. The basic forms for the women were grey chiffon kimonos, accented with colorful fabrics. From the first entrance of a female dancer (I believe this was Amanda Byers), when she spread her arms and the floor length sleeves trailed in the air, I started to cry. My sense of pleasure can be incredibly simple: sometimes chiffon carried on the air is all it takes.

But beneath the costumes was the dance. Thoughts that linger with me are an almost unthinkable precision, an attention to personal/individual detail that created a flawless support for a macro composition that was somehow equal parts simple and complex, a fluid interplay between weightiness and lightness, and a recurring sensation of “How did we get here?” The movement, transitions, and partnering were of such an expertly crafted and cleanly practiced nature that I constantly found myself witnessing arrivals with no clear sense of how the dancers came to be in such positions/formations/configurations. I think this is a mark of truly great craftsmanship.

The most rewarding aspects of this dance were the seemingly impossible fluidity and ease of the partnering and delicate subversion of a gendered logic within the movement vocabulary. The partnering was some of the most weightless partnering I have ever witnessed. The ease with which one body’s weight merged into the support of another was almost imperceptible (contributing to that sense of “How did we get here?”). On a kinesthetic level, this was one of the brightest gems of this piece. Second was the subversion of the dance’s own gendered logic. From the onset of the piece, there seemed to be a clearly gendered nature of the movement: the men moved with strength, groundedness, and weight; the women moved quickly, lightly, skimming across the stage (although still with a sense of moving through the earth rather than on top of it?). I thought of the Laban association of the feminine with the light and buoyant, the masculine with the weighted and grounded. And this gendered vocabulary was fairly consistent throughout the first half of the piece. But then I began to recognize the gentle subversions of this explicit binary: the lightness of the men as they danced with one another, the strength and groundedness as the women lifted the men, the implication of a fluidity across these vocabularies, and perhaps, by extension, across genders. The binary was never fully subverted (it was particularly concrete in the toplessness of the men, and the uniform tank-tops on the women; the costumes reinforced a binary that was never dissolved), but these subtle subversions added to the elegance of the work.

I had a one extremely particular experience while watching Ming’s dance. I had the honor of sitting next to David Gordon (of the Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union) last night at the concert. During a duet performed by Kathryn Vickers and Meredith Hurst, I was struck by the way that Vickers moves, immediately recollecting the way that Abigail Yager (Ming’s wife and technique instructor at OSU, formerly of the Trisha Brown Company) moves, which recalls Trisha Brown and the Judson period. It echoed my experience of dancing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, and I took delight in relating Vickers’ movement with my Trio A experience. I suddenly came upon the realization/recollection that David Gordon, next to whom I was seated, danced in the premiere of Trio A in 1966 as part of The Mind is a Muscle, Part 1. I felt like a puddle of myself, in awe of the intersubjective space between Vickers, my association of her movement with my experience of Trio A, my knowledge of Gordon and the decades that his body has known the dance with which I was making this association. It was a rare experience, completely unique, yet deeply enriching my experience of Ming’s dance.

Esther Baker-Tarpaga premiered a new work entitled Down the Road, which also marked the premiere of its newly commissioned musical score (performed live) by Olivier Tarpaga and Michael Wall. This piece offers an intense emotional landscape of personal histories, family, physicality, and community. Last year I had the opportunity to hear Esther give a research presentation in which she discussed her choreography and video dance practices. She said of her choreography that it really emerged from the unique situations of who she was with and where she was at. In this post-modern dance era in which movement is constantly sourced from dancers, I can be extremely skeptical of this description of creative process. Often work that is described as emergent from the particularities of the dancers turns out to be without compositional cohesion, a watered-down stream of disparate movement vocabularies repeated ad nauseam alongside and amidst the phrases generated by other dancers. This was not my experience of Esther’s piece; she offered an exemplary model of the rich possibilities of sourcing individual contributions from a unique cast of dancers crafted into a cohesive compositional form. This piece found a particular (as opposed to the non-particularity that can be a danger to this kind of work) expression crafted very much in between and from these individual offerings.

The piece ran the gamut of movement from stillness to frenzy, fluidity to violence. It was grounded and wide; the partnering was rewarding in its obvious impacts, collisions, yanking, etc. I might range into the realm of interpretation and meaning making (fully acknowledging that this meaning is entirely my own, constructed from the materials provided by the dance/dancers) and say that an arching theme for this piece has to do with pulling together and pulling apart, the (sometimes violent, sometimes tender) tensions of individual identities and cohesive community. I was left with the social/cultural/physical/personal question of how we are to cultivate/maintain a community that acknowledges and speaks its difference, its diversity, while committing to co-existence, collaboration, cohesion (even punctuated by collision). I might suggest that this sense of unity with disparity was reinforced by formal elements within the work: the wedding of live music (produced by two very different musicians) with live dance; the (stunning) costumes that articulated individuality in form while adhering to a narrow, unifying palette of reds, burgundies, and pinks; the weaving of spoken text into movement without a sense of unnecessary interruption. But beyond this particular thematic interpretation, there was exceptional reward in the intensity of the dancers’ energy, the power of the physical expressions, the tension between their strength and abandon. Esther succeeded in the difficult task of creating a richly meaningful dance articulated through powerful dancing, bringing together dynamic disparity into a demonstration of the potential for unity.

Bebe Miller’s new work entitled How to Remember left me without words. Last night I actually asserted that I don’t know how anyone writes about Bebe’s work. It is so constantly shifting, continually transforming and becoming and re-becoming and re-becoming. As soon as I move to take note of what I have perceived it to be, it changes into something else, sometimes something reasonably adjacent, sometimes (more often) into something completely unexpected. This is what I consistently experience as the utter brilliance of Bebe’s choreography, it’s ability to adhere to itself as a composition, iterating its own kind of internal logic, while never exactly assuming or displaying itself as a concrete, recognizable identity. This piece expertly demonstrated this particular brand of brilliance, and it left me stunned.

And so here I find myself, attempting to put words to an experience that I already appreciate as presumable ineffable. I don’t know how to articulate my experience. But, as I hope to elucidate, the retelling of the piece seems to be necessary, an implicit request from the piece itself for a furthered understanding of itself.

One of the profundities of How to Remember is its many points of access. It can be appreciated on so many levels, and offers itself, it seems, on all of these levels. There is energetic, spectacular dancing for the viewer interested primarily in spectacle and entertainment. These dancers are fiercely capable of powerful demonstrations of physical ability and testing the limits of what is doable, thinkable even. There is a level at which it functions didactically, not in a limiting or oppressive way, but in an offering of how the viewer might consider this dance (or all dances; or living, perceiving, remembering in their largest senses). Early in the piece, there is recorded text discussing the Theory of Relativity as a philosophy of cocktail philosophers, simplifying the explanation of the theory as (simply) acknowledging that a person looks differently from the front than from the back, and that one’s perception depends entirely upon one’s situation. This theory seems to permeate the complex situation of looking constructed within the piece: myself looking at the dancers, the dancers looking at one another, the ceaselessly unfolding awareness that these people/bodies are in a constant state of transformation/construction amidst the complex field of intersubjective perception. And it is also just as simple as recognizing that my perception emerges entirely from my situation (both my spatial situation and what is visible to me from that vantage, and my larger situation of history, experience, my own identity, my unique relationship with each of the dancers on the stage, my relationship with the choreographer, my familiarity with the costumes as the costumer’s assistant, etc.). And as I find to be a recurrent quality of Bebe’s work, the situations are constantly reconsidered, recontextualized, and as I perceive those changing contexts, I recognize my implication/participation in the uniqueness of those changing contexts. Dancers move from space to space, partner to partner; particular phrases of movement are repeated again and again, across multiple bodies and various spatial/temporal situations. The recorded text addressing the Theory of Relativity offers the viewer a method for viewing, a particular concern or consideration for an attention to constantly transforming particularities of situation and perception, and the question of what “it” (the dance) is woven throughout this kind of attention.

There were other relevant (and exquisite) texts in the piece (in the program, the text is attributed to Richard P. Feynman and Ain Gordon). I wish I had a transcript of the particular language of these additional recordings; my own paraphrased reconstruction of them will not do justice to their beauty. The ideas I took from these additional texts were a consideration of the nature of the event, and memory. Something occurs (at first this seems as if it is the start of a narrative), and then the event has passed. The event now becomes the recollection of the event, the retelling of it, the reconstruction of it from memory. The event changes over time, particular pieces are lost, the event becomes lost; the place and people originally involved in the occurrence of the event fade from existence, and we are left with a road to take us somewhere else. Again, this text seemed to offer itself as potentially didactic, a way of considering the dance, its performance, and where “what it is” exists between its doing, the seeing of the doing, the memory and subsequent retelling of what was done. [And now I find myself implemented within the scope of the dance. The event is gone, the event of the dancing in the Riffe Center’s Capital Theatre last night; now the event has become a person sitting at a laptop computer in Starbucks, surrounded by a flurry of activity and noise, remembering, recollecting, reconstructing the particularities of my experience of the dance; pieces are lost, the original event becomes lost, and now the event lives in the scurry of fingertips across keyboard keys, pixels and text providing the road to somewhere new.] This notion seemed articulated throughout the choreography, phrases of movement recurring throughout the piece, across various bodies, in new contexts/situations. It became not only a nod to the Theory of Relativity and an opportunity for attention to the nature of perception; the dance became an act of corporeal memory, phrases recalled, changed, no longer as they first occurred, but now dancing spaces for something new.

Which leads to what I found to be perhaps the most intoxicating point of entry/level of appreciation, that which I experienced as a dancer, informed by a significant detail from the program: “Our process includes choreographic contributions from the dancers; their creative energies are an integral part of this piece. The work also contains choreographic references to past Bebe Miller Company repertory. As such it reflects the peculiar and mysterious process of experience and knowledge passing from dancer to dance, over time and generations.” As I watched, I am drawn into a saturating sympathy with the processes of memory, dancers in a studio reaching back and reconstructing the past in/as their own bodies. I am breathless at the physical act of remembering, negotiating the spaces of what has occurred before and what occurs now within this new, unique event/situation/context. I am suspended along the incredible attention to what each thing is, each action, and the spaces between the dancers and their actions. It is a quality of attention to each action as it is NOW, fully within the present, but knowingly constructed to what it was before, as it occurred in/as the past. This sympathy for the practice of memory, the transformative legacy of the event(s), fragments of dances from the past recreated in/as new bodies, practiced (each repetition both a reiteration and an evolution), performed, lost. The event now lives in memory, the retellings of it.

That seems like a perfect conclusion, but I also feel the desire to acknowledge the particular body attitude of the piece, something I can only describe as recognizable as very “Bebe” (a kind of restlessness of position, an energetic fascination with possibilities, asking, “If I am here, where else can I be? Can I get all the way to there from here?” paired with a willingness to exhaust the possibilities of what a thing is or might be), infused with the less familiar, the contributions of this unique community of dancers in this piece. I had a sense of Bebe as danced through each of these dancers, but also these dancers as danced through one another, as understood and composed through Bebe. The layers of hybridity, the sense of corporeal/kinesthetic identities articulated in/as/through multiple bodies was stunning.

And so Dance Downtown becomes an event of memory, of re-telling, a reflection of my experience becoming my experience.

The show runs again tonight. If you have the opportunity to see it, I highly recommend that you do so.