michael j. morris


scarlette fall fashion preview

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Scarlette Fall Fashion Preview on the Wexner Center for the Arts Plaza.

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Scarlette Magazine is the Ohio State University’s first fashion magazine, released twice a year. Friday’s runway show previewed looks from the magazine’s upcoming Fall Issue.

Taking place on the Wexner Plaza, Sullivant Hall, currently under renovation, served as the backdrop for the event. As I sat in the overbearing sunlight waiting for the show to start, the DJ blasting sounds across the plaza, I thought about how the context and setting were already coloring my experience of what was yet to unfold. I came to graduate school in 2008 for my MFA in Choreography. Sullivant Hall was my second home for three years. To date, I have probably spent more hours in that building than anywhere else in Columbus. I have danced, choreographed, studied, taught, and shared so much inside those walls. But over the last two years, the Department of Dance has been displaced, spread throughout a handful of buildings across campus while Sullivant was gutted and rebuilt from the inside out. This fall the Department will gradually begin to move back into our spaces, along with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, the Department of Arts Administration, Education, and Policy, the Advanced Center for Computer Art and Design, the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise and the Barnett Theatre; the new building will no doubt hold wonders untold. As I sat in the sun anticipating this fashion preview on the OSU campus, I felt suspended before renovation, somewhere between a manifold of memories of what once was and all the promise that is suggested by what is yet to come.

Then the show began. Photographers, maybe five or six, hovered around the crowd and at either end of the runway. The first model was one of my former students, wearing a palette of golds, khakis, and beiges, a kind of sarong wrap skirt, a lace midriff camisole, and golden lips. Gold was a theme throughout a number of looks (nineteen in all?), a kind of anchor that shimmered across the surface. I am not a fashion writer, and I cannot pretend to be; what has lingered with me days later was the event as a performance, how the event enacted a version of fashion within a particular choreography, within a particular context, and with particular bodies. The choreography, with minimal deviation, involved a long single pass down the cement runway at one side of the plaza, a pose, another pose, and a second long pass back up the runway, affording the audience the opportunity to apprehend, accumulate, and appreciate the bold and subtle details of each look. The pace of the steps was driven mostly by the music of the DJ, with only one or two models experimenting with different layers of tempo, differing the rhythms of their steps. Throughout a show that seemed run through with individuality and personal expression, the rhythm of the runway had an odd regulatory effect, these bodies falling into step with tempos being given to them by the DJ. This is of course not uncommon for runways, but perhaps that is something to be considered: the runway as ambivalently given over to both individual expression and a—can I call it disciplinary?—regulation of bodies. Fashion [shows] as a form of corporeal discipline? This all collapsed momentarily when the sound system overheated and shut off, leaving the models to walk the runway to no given beat, only the busy sounds of the Friday campus outdoors. After the initial flurry of, “What happened? Is something wrong?” settled in the crowd, there was an almost John Cage-ian quality to watching these models walk with whatever sounds there were, as if they were simply walking through daily life.

And this is an important part of how the show has lived with me over the last few days: what it had to do with daily life. These were students’ bodies on display in an outdoor public space on the campus where we live our daily lives. That we were all sweating together in the intense sunlight—the audience and the models alike—made this liveliness tangible. Behind the models was Sullivant Hall. Pedestrians—possibly their professors and classmates—stopped throughout the show to take a look at what was happening. I myself have walked across the Wexner Plaza more times than I can imagine, on my way to teach or take class; I’ve danced with those trees, walked that cement runway, noticed the bodies of other people moving around and alongside one another in loose choreographies, and in ways that are likely both similar and distinct, I’m sure most people sitting there or walking that runway have lived portions of their lives on that plaza. But it wasn’t just the context the gestured to everyday life; it was the fashion itself. I can’t go into detail about every look—there was a black dress with what seemed to be white metallic paint on the front side, worn by a model with severe black eyebrows penciled in and carrying a candle; there was a beige open back halter shirt draped with a loose harness made from ropes and tassels, a kind of baroque suggestion of a BDSM aesthetic—but what I noted was that most of the garments were what I would call found and/or altered pieces. This was not haute couture, and it was not big budget. Most of the models wore their hair in ways that likely isn’t that dissimilar to how they wear it any other day, and most of the shoes were what I would think of as a “best fit,” the shoes that worked best given what people had to work with. In short, this was a student fashion show. And herein was its brilliance: it was not a display of the unattainable, garments fabricated from far-off fantasies and aspirations. It was a parade of looks cohering around several tangible themes—gold, black and white, the juxtaposition of athletic wear and formal wear, among others—all of which were imaginable and realizable by and on the bodies of students, in some ways that echoed currents trends and aesthetics in RTW and couture fashion lines, and in other ways that seemed to emerge from the possibilities suggested by these found pieces themselves. For me, this was a glimpse of what a campus like ours could look like, with students experimenting with what they have in order to make something new and different and exciting. By the end of the show, the backdrop of Sullivant, in the process of renovation, somewhere between what it was and what it could be, felt very appropriate.

Scarlette Magazine makes its mission “to showcase campus individuality and beauty, presenting new ideas and exciting photography both to the Ohio State University campus and to the world.” If the presentation of both new ideas and the potential for beauty and individuality on campus within their Fall Fashion Preview is anything to go by, I would say that they are serving that mission. And I look forward to seeing the forthcoming Fall Issue.

For more information about Scarlette Magazine, its staff, past and current issues, and writings about fashion, visit:
http://www.scarlette.osu.edu/index.html
and
https://www.facebook.com/scarlettemagazine
and
http://scarlettemagazine.tumblr.com

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Separate Panes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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