michael j. morris


PARTIALLY NOTHING + WHOLLY SOMETHING

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

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

Anna House and Tyisha Nedd

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

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

Tim Bendernagel and Claire Moore

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

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

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

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

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

Assembled Hearts ensemble

Assembled Hearts ensemble

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

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

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

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taking back the short end

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Last night I had the opportunity to see two new dance works by Abby Zbikowski and Paige Phillips in their shared production Taking Back the Short End at Skylab. It was an intimate showing, the audience sometimes only inches away from the performers, giving both works a heightened immediacy that amplified their distinct intensities.

Zbikowski’s work Unstable Stable, with performers Fiona Lundie, Jen Meckley, Clara Martinez, and herself, is exemplary of characteristics that I have come to treasure in her choreography: rigorous athleticism and minimalism, utilitarian functionality in the movement, rhythmic patterns that emerge in silence entirely from the coordination of bodies and their parts, and an exhaustion of possibilities for what a body—these bodies—can do. There’s a “no bullshit” punk-rock quality to Zbikowski’s choreography and the performances of the dancers with whom she works: the movements are stripped down to their necessary parts, even when there’s a lot of movement vocabulary. As I watch her work, I see her in the lineage from early postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer—if Rainer choreographed a parkour workout. The movement is usually difficult and always seems to have a function, whether it is to complete a rhythmic structure, recover from a fall, test the limits of an action, or a more abstract utility: doing this so that it is done. Specifically in Unstable Stable, I see experimentation, repetition, and careful measured attention to the space. Whether it is Lundie and Meckley falling forward and running/stumbling to stop their momentum at the other end of the room, or Martinez and Zbikowski struggling with accomplishing a series of tasks with the soles of their boots duck-taped together, or spinning in circles with head and torso arching through space before quick drops to the floor, the movement feels like an experiment—a repeated experiment—testing the limits of specific actions and bodies. Like experiments, these actions must be repeated, in order to verify the findings, or perhaps in an ongoing investigation, still trying to figure out what this movement or this body is. Some of these actions are small and rhythmic, quick steps and shifts of weight or arms flinging wide; others are more brutal, shoving whole bodies full-force through space or into the floor. But even when the dance edges towards violence, even interpersonal violence, it does so in ways that seem quite practical. Again, this is a credit to the performers as well as the choreographer: they approach the movement with absolute commitment and conviction, and even when they dance together and I could imagine so many layers of psychological metaphor—these two people duck-taped together, dragging and carrying one another, supporting each other, pushing apart, pulling back together—I can never quite escape the practical, mechanical reality of these bodies, their interpersonal tumult an expression of bones and joints and muscle as much as any narrative I might construct for myself. Essential to this piece is also its very precise attention to the space, which gives an almost installation site-specificity to the dance. For Zbikowski’s piece, the audience is asked to stand at the edges of the room behind lines of blue tape on the floor. Throughout the piece, I watch as bodies moving with often extreme force come just up to the edges of the performance space, their momentum perfectly calibrated to the size of the room. Or a dancer moves to a seemingly arbitrary position, then swings a foot or a leg, just brushing the surface of the wall. The dimensions of the space are incorporated into the choreography; perhaps this dance could take place anywhere, but it would no longer be the same dance. It would be reshaped, re-calibrated, a forceful yet fine-tuned measurement of space in movement.

Phillips’ work, Après moi, le déluge (After me, the flood), is more theatrical; after the show, I told one of the performers that it felt like some of Meredith Monk’s work, some of Pina Bausch, with pages out of Grimm’s fairytales, like Where The Wild Things Are, but more gruesome. The dancers in this piece have distinct characterizations, even if they never fully disclose themselves as characters: two giggly tarts making eyes at the audience and winnying like horses (Jill Guyton-Nee and Gabby Stefura); a small community of three people who seem both childlike and savage, somehow both prior to and after the fact of some civilization (Owen David, Ani Javian, and Tyisha Nedd); a grizzly man who lurks blindfolded in the corner, then chases the child-savages, pins one of them to the ground in what feels like a simulated rape, and eventually becomes a figure who is devoured at the conclusion of some myth (Preston Witt). There is a narrative quality to the dance without its story ever becoming entirely clear; it doesn’t feel linear although it is unfolding in time. It feels like a mythology or a morality tale abstracted into grunts and shouts and gasps and gestures. At times it feels playful or innocent: children playing a game of tag or hide and seek; but then it takes a sinister turn as the movements become more abrupt, more startled; the unintelligible sounds the dancers make sound more terrified, and it is no longer clear if any of us are safe. In another scene, a dancer simulates death, perhaps by drowning, gasping for air and collapsing to the floor. In several moments, the figures interact as if discovering or inventing their own sexualities, suckling at one another’s bodies, shouting with one’s mouth pressed to the belly of another, undressing and redressing, rolling over and around one another, dragging each other across the floor. The dance is esoteric, mysterious, like only part of a story—the most intense parts, the parts most epic. The dancers feel a bit like archetypes, the kind that populate antiquated tarot cards: the Hanged Man, the III of Cups, the Chariot. Like Monk’s work, it feels very period and of a specific culture, but from a time I cannot quite recall and a culture that has either been lost or yet to be discovered. In that sense, it evokes a very specific timelessness, somehow both vaguely familiar and almost otherworldly, evocative of something I am trying to remember but cannot. It has a dreamlike quality, where figures and situations seem like people and places that I know while also seeming to not be what they seem. The dance is episodic, moving back and forth through the rooms of Skylab with the audience moving along with it, the performers alternating through different scenes. It gives the dance a tidal sense of a journey, literally moving back and forth through the space, requiring the audience to follow along as this cast of characters drift and transform from one vignette to the next. By the end of the piece, I feel somewhat displaced, as if I have been partially initiated into some kind of tribe through a rite-of-passage ritual, while still feeling on the outside of the performers’ gestures and relationships, executed with a fervency that feels almost religious, a lengthy pagan mass, traces of a secret society that will not make itself fully known.