michael j. morris


Dancing in the Making Room, or In A Rhythm That Excludes Thinking: Bebe Miller Company Work-In-Progress Showing
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photo by Lily Skove

I just returned to Columbus after spending a month in San Francisco at a yoga training. Tonight I saw a work-in-progress showing of a new project by Bebe Miller Company at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Previously advertised as Dancing In the Making Room, Miller informs us at the start of the performance that they are playing with a new title: In A Rhythm That Excludes Thought. I know it’s unrelated, but I immediately think of the second sutra of book one of the classical yogic philosophical text, The Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliYogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah. “Yoga is the restriction [or cessation] of the fluctuations of thought.” What would it mean to move in a rhythm that excludes thinking? I think I’ve approached this kind of state in yoga and meditation and butoh; it is a sustained, slow-moving temporality. But knowing Miller’s work, I have a sense that any rhythm that excludes thinking here will not be limited to slowness or sustainment.

As I enter the space, the dancers are already on stage, warming up, having small conversations, running through short phrases of movement material. Miller comes in and out of the space, moving a cart that holds different wireless microphones and iPods, talking with the dancers, referring to a yellow stenographer’s pad. On stage is one rectangular panel of gray felt; just off stage left is a large roll of what looks to be white felt. As the piece begins (and I will also maintain the possibility that the piece began before I entered the space, before Miller said, “So, we’re starting now…”), two more gray felt panels are added. One dancer stands on one of the panels as small, nearly imperceptible facial movements flicker across their face. As other dancers enter, they move around the felt panels, and I notice that the presence of the felt introduces the possibility of them dancing “on” or “off” of them into my perceptual framework. As their movements carry them around these felt panels in eddies of weight shifts and gestures that pull them in a new direction, the question of whether or not they step on or around the felt only becomes a question because the felt is there. I can’t yet say whether or not this is important, but I am attuned to the fact that the introduction of these materials in relation to one another—the felt panels and the movement—introduces possibilities for how I might find them significant.

The movement is both familiar to me as some aspect of Miller’s “style,” and also works itself out rather differently on different bodies: small twists become bigger twists, sometimes tossing out a limb or sometimes folding over at the waist, breaking the twist from the middle. Reaching pulls bodies on and off balance, up and over center, back down into the ground. Legs step between wide, low stances and posing up on high relevé, teetering between steadiness and falling into stumbling. Big sweeps and flicks criss-cross bodies in opposition to other gestures, wringing bodies into loose and unpredictable torsion that might fling a hip or head in some new direction. A hand softly caressing the air might suddenly burst into a thrust or punch off balance or down further toward the ground. Tiny gestures abruptly blossom in scale and momentum unit they are propelling bodies through space, alongside or into one another. There’s an element of surprise to how these bodies move. I mean this for myself as a viewer, but I also have the distinct sense that these dancers are intentionally moving in ways that can surprise themselves. [This seems related to my understanding of what is described as “Risky Weight” in the Motion Bank analysis of Miller’s work, TWO.]

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Bebe Miller, Angie Hauser, and Darrell Jones, from Motion Bank TWO

Some time into the piece, Miller says from offstage, “Was that a restart?” In just a few words, I feel disoriented in my relationship to the work. Did the piece begin again? Did a section start over? What did she see that I did not see? Was that a planned question, intended to disorient how we view, or was it actually a question to the dancers? Could it be both? This is one of countless examples of ways in which interruption occurs throughout the dance: songs or sounds interrupting other songs or sounds, with hard cuts (no crossfades). Dancers cutting into duets being danced by other dancers. A unison phrase that disintegrates or frays into solos (is disintegration an interruption? I’m not sure).

Not long after, the six performers form a circle that shifts around the space as different individuals and sometimes pairs move into the center to dance. It reminds me of a hip-hop cypher, and I wonder how many other forms of dance and ritual employ this kind of structure. The circle doesn’t really hold, not entirely. It morphs, sometimes really clearly a circle of people surrounding a person dancing in the middle, sometimes becoming more like a clump of dancers moving as an ensemble. This shifting between circle—clump—circle—clump, this uncertainty or fluctuation between who is in and who is out, who’s at the center and who’s at the edges, feels characteristic of much of what I perceive in this dance.

The dance is full of duets, partnering and pairings, sometimes at close range and sometimes multiple bodies finding partial or near-total alignments with one another with distance between them. As soon as these couplings begin to emerge, I feel like I am faced with choices about how to perceive what I am watching: am I looking at a woman coupled with a man? Women partnering with women, men partnering with men? I teach a course called “Dancing Gender & Sexuality,” in which we examine the ways that dance participates in the constitution and circulation of genders and sexualities, in part through the staging of dances and the spectatorship of those stagings. How choreographers pair bodies of different, similar, or the same genders matters. At the same time, I believe that we as viewers also have responsibilities regarding how we interpret the bodies of others—onstage and offstage. If we recognize that gender identity—the gender with and as which a person identifies—is not necessarily visible or legible based on what we see, then I really only know the genders of the dancers I know personally or professionally. If I choose to interpret aggregates of physical features as indicative of gender, consciously or unconsciously, I am choosing to operate in compliance with certain social norms—social norms with which I actively struggle as a genderqueer/nonbinary person. And so in this writing, just as in my viewing of the dance, I am left to struggle with where and how to attribute gender to performers’ bodies. Throughout this dance, as well as throughout much of Miller’s oeuvre, people partner with other people, not regardless of gender, but in many different combinations of the genders we might attribute to the performers. To the extent that we acquiesce to see women and men on stage, partnering takes place between women and women, men and men, and women and men. I consider this to be a feature of Miller’s work, this democratic approach to gender—and race—when it comes to partnering.

There is a fraught kind of justice in actively suspending the visual attribution of gender when viewing a dance performance. There is also a fraught kind of justice in allowing gender to be a factor in determining the significance of particular moments, even if that performance or presentation of gender may not be identical to the gender identities of the performers: when I see two “Black men” dancing together to a hip-hop track as a group of “women” look on, one at close range, what I am seeing is something that is demonstrative of gender and race, while not necessarily telling me anything about the bodies who are performing this demonstration. This is messy, to be sure, because to ask these bodies to carry these signifiers of race and gender is to ask them to carry a kind of burden, a burden to which they do not necessarily submit; however, an alternative, the pretense of viewing a dance without viewing race or gender, a kind of “colorblind” viewing, does a kind of injustice as well, particularly when bodies differently gendered and racialized differently experience different degrees of mobility and exposure to violence in our country and world. And so the viewing, as well as the writing following the viewing, is full of this tension, this struggle.

At some point in the performance, one of the dancers enters with a notebook computer, and from the computer plays an interview with Toni Morrison and Charlie Rose. Morrison describes her own writing, that she does not write from these categories (of gender, of race), that she doesn’t presume to speak for anyone or represent any group, but rather, she writes in order to deal with the things that trouble her philosophically; her work is where she works it out. This is Morrison speaking about her own work, but having it embedded into Miller’s work at least asks me to consider the position from which Miller is approaching these same issues. Can one know that an audience will see race and gender on stage, and can one take responsibility for what one is showing them, while also not choreographing “from these categories,” without speaking for or representing any particular group of people?

A rhythm that excludes thinking.
I just keep thinking. Thinking during dancing, thinking during writing.
I’m trying to think through this performance, think with this dance. That’s part of how I make my life with dances, thinking with them.
What if I try to not think the dance.
What if I feel my way through the dance. I can’t describe every detail, and what would be the point of trying? What does this dance feel like? Is feeling an alternative to thinking? (I know this is a false dichotomy, but as an exercise, what does feeling about the dance turn my attention towards?)

This dance is playful, unattached, in the sense of letting things begin and then letting them go, letting them become something else. There’s an utter lack of certainty (which is not the same as a lack of clarity) throughout, not only in the structure or organization of the space, but in even the smallest gestures, the never-quite-ness of shifts of weight and establishing connections between bodies and body parts, the big movements that pour bodies rapidly from one place to another. Never certain but nonetheless deliberate; intentional with no promise of permanence. That’s what this dance feels like, very much an ensemble feeling their way together through this intentionality and deliberateness that is fervently and playfully committed to uncertainty, impermanence, and non-attachment. And it’s not just in the service of relentless innovation; there’s plenty of going back, of returning to something we saw before, or letting something become something else only to go back to what it was. If the question is constantly, “What else could this become?” then slipping back to somewhere we’ve been before is an option as well, as long as this also remains active and dynamic.

At the end of the piece, Bebe walks around the stage speaking. I retain fragments and phrases of what she says:
“…how do we live there…so much of what we’re doing is trying to figure out what’s important…what is the meaning of this…what are we trying to say, and how…so elusive”
“it’s lightening the burden…it’s not avoiding all that happening in the world, the horror…”
“…demonstrating the music…am I demonstrating—could I be perceived as demonstrating, that’s part of this too…”
“I’m going to stop this.”

And then it was over and we transitioned into the talkback.
At the end, as Miller described “demonstrating the music,” I was struck by how little I thought about the music at all. This is an aesthetic bias to some degree; I hardly use music in my choreography, and in one kind of postmodern American approach to dance (not the only kind), I see music and dance as detachable from one another. I’m also suspicious of this. Is there something about whiteness in the fact that I hardly remember the music, that I can detach movement from music so easily in my spectatorship?

As I settle into my night, I’m thinking about how this dance/dancing lives within our world today, our troubles and joys, our political unrest and injustice, our changing climates, our pursuit of ethical coexistence, and all the questions with which we move through our daily lives. What this dance offers me is this complex mode of taking deliberate and intentional action, together, and doing so playfully, without attachment to permanence, doing so lightly, even when the actions themselves might be full of strength. I am reminded of another Yoga Sutra, sutra 1:12: Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. “The fluctuations of the mind are restrained (or quieted) through dedicated practice and non-attachment.” Perhaps deliberate, intentional action that is done playfully, without attachment, is a rhythm that excludes thinking after all.

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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
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https://www.facebook.com/scarlettemagazine
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and with: my body is possessed by past dances, my dance is possessed by bodies yet-to-be danced

The last two days have been completely saturated with performance. Last night I saw the premiere of FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER: what was once digital is dead & now lives on as a dance at FEVERHEAD, a new work by CoCo Loupe and They Might Be Dancers Too (Zachariah Baird, Counterfeit Madison, and Eve Hermann), with appearances by They Might Be Dancers (Noelle Chun, Nicole Garlando, Lindsay Caddle LaPointe, Noah Demland, Leigh Lotocki, CoCo Loupe) and Karen Mozingo, with original music by Counterfeit Madison and Noah Demland. Following the performance, I made my burlesque debut with the Velvet Hearts in the Red Light Girlie Lounge at Wall Street Night Club. This afternoon I saw Bebe Miller’s new work, A History, at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Each of these experience deserves to be written, to be told through writing, but I am particularly interested in trying to articulate the play between FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER and A History, how the two are operating as a diptych in my experiences of them within the last twenty-four hours, uncovering themes and concepts that are surfacing for me within the reverberation between these dances. In both works, my attention is directed towards the dance/dancing as a form of community, towards the ways in which dances and dancing both cohere and emerge from relationships, towards the choreographic strategies that come to operate as cultural values within the community of these dancing bodies (“these” being in one instance the bodies of They Might Be Dancers Too and They Might Be Dancers, in the other instance, the bodies of the Bebe Miller Company, specifically the dancers Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones), strategies such as mutual seeing and being seen, mimicry, audience interaction, partnering, and so on. In both instances, relationships become a kind of choreographic device, or at the very least, a material within the dance making. The relationships are not (merely) the conditions of the dance; they are formative. The work of making dances come together and comes out of the relationships between people, between bodies. The pieces also do something quite different: in A History, the attention of the choreographer/company is directed towards the archive of their work together, a history of dances and dance making, and the ways in which the memory of that history lives within their bodies. The work is a “remembering remembering,” creating something now from what was then, from how “then” lives within “now.” Dating back to a working/dancing relationship that began with Verge in 2001, through Landing/Place in 2005, and Necessary Beauty in 2008, A History (in 2012) builds itself from the re-membering of the memories of years of developing and rehearsing material, years of practicing and repeating, years of bodies coming into contact with Miller’s choreography, one another’s movement and flesh and personalities, and so on. This dance emerges from their history of dancing. In fact, their bodies themselves materialized through this history, a history with and through and alongside one another. In FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER, Loupe foregrounds the dancing bodies of three individuals—Baird, Hermann, and Madison—who have only just begun their dance training this year. My attention is directed towards a horizon of potential. These three bodies entered FEVERHEAD with a lifetime of experiences, lived embodiment, habits and patterns, preferences and predilections, and through their work with Loupe, those bodies of experience have become dancing, and then they became choreography, and then they became a dance. This dance/dancing is situated alongside seasoned dancers (They Might Be Dancers et al), in a move that creates a flattening/leveling of movement experiences, emphasizing the interest—the importance even—of bodies moving with one another. Foregrounding dancers who came to dance only this year makes the concept of “dancer” not about hierarchy—those with more experience are more important—but rather emphasizes that “dancer” is truly about a willingness/eagerness to dance, to be with one another dancing.

And:
I’m dancing through my own memories.
Modern dance class with CoCo at the Dancers’ Workshop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, circa-the-early-2000s. The class is fast and difficult, and I never feel strong enough, and I am becoming intensely aware of how difficult it will be to be a dancer. We’re listening to the soundtrack from Run Lola Run. We do “G.I. Jane’s,” a series of crunches and pushups that I can never quite finish. We “shnorkle.” We do “illusions” and lots of work upside down with our legs in the air.
I know I want to dance with CoCo, for CoCo. I’ve seen a video of a piece she made with Amiti Perry called Two Arms Full Circle, and it’s the most amazing dancing I’ve every seen. I know I want to be a dancer in part because of CoCo.
Years later, I am in my junior year of college, and I present a solo at ACDF at the Ohio State University. CoCo presents an excerpt from her MFA project, In the Clear, and I fall in love with CoCo’s work all over again.
In 2008, I move to Columbus, Ohio, to start my MFA at OSU, and finally, CoCo and I live in the same city again. In the months preceding my move, I’ve been actively engaged in conversations with CoCo and others on her blog, from one foot to the other. CoCo’s blog is a lifeline to critical dance making during the year after I finished my BFA, and it is emblematic of the kinds of dialogue I desire in grad school.
In grad school (I think in the spring of 2009?), I take modern dance with CoCo again, now at OSU. I am startled by how much is familiar, how much of how CoCo moves lives in my body and my movement, and how pronounced our differences still are. I still get tired. I still don’t feel strong enough. And yet the forcefulness, the relationship of distal actions to the core of my body, the evidence of attention is the body (even when my eyes glaze over) harken back to my first modern dance classes with CoCo in Baton Rouge. I do not dance like her, but she is in the dancing that I do.
In 2009, I dance in a new work by CoCo Loupe entitled click here for slideshow or 6-8 character limit, with Eric Falck and Jeff Fouch. We are goddesses and boys and pop stars, and I am finally dancing for/with CoCo Loupe.
For years, CoCo and I watch and respond to one another’s work. We improvise together. We sometimes perform together. We sometimes take class together.
In 2011, CoCo and They Might Be Dancers start FEVERHEAD, a creative dance/arts space. They have classes and performances and workshops and exhibitions, and FEVERHEAD becomes a home for dance artists in Columbus. FEVERHEAD also becomes a home for people who are not dance artists, but who want to dance.
Last night CoCo premiered FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER, working with people who are new to dancing, building material from ideas taken from her old blog, building a dance from the improvisatory movement of Zachariah Baird, Counterfeit Madison, and Eve Hermann, where their bodies, their histories of movement, interface with these old, digital ideas. Something new happens.
The piece begins with ten performers in a line holding hands, shifting their weight from their left foot to their right foot, back again, over and over. They look at us, the audience, and we look back at them. And I am already overwhelmed by the tenderness of soft and open faces, the interdependence of bodies articulated through interlocking hands, the shifting ankles and metatarsals on the floor as bodies maintain standing (together), from one foot to the other. Zachariah (my boyfriend) is directly in front of me, and I am undone by the vulnerability that is made visible just by standing on one foot, then the other foot, then the other, and then the other. We make eye contact briefly, and he exhales audibly, and I feel myself hope that I somehow remind him to breathe. I catch Eve’s glance, and we both smile broadly. I am warmed by the gentleness and kindness of Nicole’s eyes as she scans the audience, also smiling; she is beautiful and reassuring and exudes an energetic calm. I am drawn into Noah’s stance, noticing how very still he is, how steady he seems, and wondering how that steadiness extends inwards within his inner world and outward to those hands he is holding. I watch Counterfeit, and notice that something about the space between her neck and shoulders and how she holds her chest looks as if she is barely restraining the force of her excitement and anticipation. And so on. I am falling in love with each of them.
The dance that unfolds is complex and layered, a play of attention (lots of watching one another), imitation, repetition, and proximity. I watch them watching one another, watching me.
I can’t watch CoCo without feeling the swell of history, the “us” that is “me,” her dancing body in my dancing body; I never can. I can’t help but think that we are so much softer now than we were then, and how remarkable that is. And here she is surrounded by (other) dancing bodies that she has inspired, and that have inspired her.
This dance does critical work, flattening the plane in which movement is appreciated, playing with the roles of performers and spectators, experimenting with perception through the alignments of bodies, music, lights, and text.
But would it be too sentimental to say that it is more about love? That when I’m watching, all I care about is how much I appreciate each of these performers, the nuances and individualities that only find expression in the context of one another, in the repetition of phrases and the mimicry of movement, and the performances of “solos” alongside one another. That I feel a part of something so simple and profound just in watching someone else watching. That I am honored to see bodies excited to be dancing. That it’s all about relationships and what is produced in-between: how CoCo and I go back so far, how CoCo told Zachariah that he needed to meet me, how Leigh told Counterfeit and Zachariah about FEVERHEAD, how Eve found her way to FEVERHEAD, and how just by their persistence in taking class and their insistence to move—to dance—CoCo was inspired to make a dance, how the room was filled with people who know and love someone(s) in this piece, and how this dance is the site of so many relational articulations…
I apologize.
This dance deserves to be described. How they never stop watching one another, seeing one another, both while they are dancing , and while they are sitting on the sidelines. How I can watch as their attention—so evident in the directness of their foci—sinks into the action, into the others, in ways that are intense and serious, and in ways that sometimes erupt or dissolve into inexplicable laughter or a smile. How when they stand in line, their feet rock minutely, their toes lifting away from the floor, how their toes find the floor again and press into it, just as the performers find one another palm to palm and the tendons of their wrists flex as they press into one another. How the shove of Zachariah’s weight into a lunge tangibly softens into care as he approaches the floor, and how at other times he never quite settles into the ground, quick to push back out of it as soon as his weight shifts into it. How his fingers seem to direct his shoulders, lifting and falling and reaching together. How the precision and clarity of Eve’s lines exude incredible power, and how when she suddenly stops, alone in the middle of the space with her back to me as the others move to the sides, she seems small for the first time all evening. How Counterfeit seems so strong and steady, and how her limbs reach and fling and fly with such freedom, anchored to the strength of her core. How every joint in Leigh’s body seems to rotate around and orbit every other, as if her flesh is wrapped around a constellation that is constantly reconfiguring itself. How Noelle can stand on one leg and shift her weight dramatically in every which way, while still never losing track of where her support presses into the earth (and where it presses back into her). How Karen seems to be crafting, literally sculpting, a different world as she dances, tenderly opening and collapsing space around her, and how I feel as if I could spend the whole duration of the piece just watching her watching.
And see, there I go again, swept down these tangents of what I feel while watching…

At the end of the piece, the giant loading dock door is raised, and the dancers run out into the parking lot. The audience turns in their seats to look through this “reverse proscenium arch” to offer their applause. It is as if in here, inside FEVERHEAD, is the “real world,” and out their, in the streets beneath the stars, out their in the world, is where they/we have been training all this time to finally perform, to finally witness one another. It is significant that this piece features three dancers who are newcomers to dance training, but their dancing does not come only from their training in the last six-to-eight months. Their recent training and the creation of this piece has simply given them skills and opportunities to dance what they had been learning and practicing all along.

We are each and all a history.
When we dance, we dance those histories. When I watch, it is my history watching.
It is a perspective of the past looking out onto a horizon of what is coming into being, where history unfolds into potential. It is a perspective that is not singular; it is defined by those standing behind and standing on either side, hand in hand. And it is not an empty horizon that is faced; it is a horizon populated by the (dancing) bodies of those with whom we are becoming.

Whether it is the dancing of bodies looking back through now to then, or whether it is the dancing of bodies only beginning to form such a history, oriented towards what might be, what could become possible, the potential of bodies dancing, for both A History and FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER, what becomes most prominent is that the dancing is dancing with. The body is always more: it is a history of dancing, it is a horizon of potential, it is the coalescence of relations and attention and awareness and contact and surface and inner worlds and outer worlds and and and and and. And with.

performance photo from FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHERphoto by Michal Mitchenson 

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rehearsal photo from FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER; Zachariah Baird, Leigh Lotocki, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison
photo by CoCo Loupe

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Bebe Miller, A History; Darrell Jones and Angie Hauser



John Jasperse’s Canyon: at the precipice of chaos

Photo by Tony Orrico

My experience of John Jasperse‘s Canyon, performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts on 28 April 2012, is a play of territories at the precipice of chaos, a shifting superimposition of structures and organizations—of bodies, of time, of space—that enact opportunities for disruption, deterritorialization, and disorganization, and a gesturing towards a fullness of that provides the very grounds from which organizations like “bodies,” “time,” and “space” emerge. My vocabulary here is particular, and it is worth clarifying at the front end. In watching Canyon, I am immediately struck by the multiple dimensions that are at play within the work, not simply “space,” “time,” “bodies,” etc.—fundamental elements of dance/choreography—but the particular structures through which these elements take on definition. I think of these structures as territories, following Deleuze and Guattari. Elizabeth Grosz, discussing Deleuze, writes, “… the constitution of territory is the fabrication of the space in which sensations may emerge, from which a rhythm, a tone, coloring, weight, texture may be extracted and moved elsewhere, may function for its own sake, may resonate for the sake of intensity alone. And, equally, insofar as its primordial impulse is the creation of territory in both the natural and human worlds, art is also capable of that destruction and deformation that destroys territories and enables them to revert to the chaos from which they were temporarily wrenched. Framing and deframing become art’s modes of territorialization and deterritorialization through sensation; framing becomes the means by which the plane of composition composes, deframing its modes of upheaval and transformation” (Grosz 12-13). Sitting in the audience in the Wexner Performance Space, I am met with a collection of such framings, mappings, and organizations: a white Marley floor set askew (not parallel to the walls); a line of bright orange flags—themselves reminiscent of staking claim to land as a new “territory”—dividing the floor into two halves; structuring of the space accomplished through lighting (lighting design by James Clotfelter), inscribing blurry delineations of brightness and shadow; and perhaps most overtly of all, sprawling linear compositions in fluorescent tape traversing the walls and floor (visual design by Tony Orrico). Each of these materials suggests a mode in which the space has been organized or territorialized, a system through which structures have framed (and in doing so, produced) “space.” These various territories do not describe the same space; rather, they function as divergent structures superimposed on one another offering multiple accounts of space, each organization a route for disorganization when considered through a different logic. The lights do not territorialize spaces that reside within the bounds of the lines of tape; the lines of tape do not align with the rectangular Marley floor nor the rectangular architecture of the space; the line of flags cuts through these various other territories; and so on. In this sense, the superimposition of territories effects a series of deterritorializations, each structure producing a rupture in the others, each exceeding the logic of the others. This dense layering of territories/organizations/structures produces the opportunities for their own undoing. Grosz goes on to write, “… art is not only the movement of territorialization … it is also the converse movement, that of deterritorialization, of cutting through territories, breaking up systems of enclosure and performance, traversing territory in order to retouch chaos, enabling something mad, asystematic, something of the chaotic outside to reassert and restore itself in and through the body, through works and events that impact the body” (Grosz 18). At these sites of rupture, where these various territories cut through one another, I am brought close to something, what Grosz calls “chaos”: it is that full potential that provides the very conditions for extracting experiences and concepts such as “space.” It is at the collision between these territories where I glimpse their undoing, where I brush up against chaos and “the beyond.”

And the performance has not even started yet.

As the sound score begins, dancers come running through the audience into the space. The dancing feels familiar. It is exquisitely precise; it springs lightly and circles and swings, almost entirely vertical, and always with a particularity that feels both powerful and measured. At first I think that the familiarity of these vocabularies feels generic, then something happens: I notice the spatial pathways of these dancers, juxtaposed over and against the lines drawn on the floor and walls. They move with precision, yet it is precisely not the paths traced out along these lines. Between the “territory” of these highly organized bodies—organized both in the clarity of the choreography, but also in the evident regulation of their training—and the tape, the lights, the demarcation of the Marley floor space, the architecture, I falter. These frameworks or systems of organization (or, again, territories) each provide a way to see and structure the space, and they do not align. They do not operate through the same logic, and thus they continually cleave through one another. Bodies fall into temporary lines with one another, but they are lines that intersect and extend through other lines (light, tape, Marley, cement, flags) in the space.  In this sense, what seems familiar or even generic takes on new, unexpected properties. The movement—however familiar it might feel—enacts an unfamiliar operation in the disruption/deterritorialization of other versions of the space, and in doing so, makes the movement itself no longer what it might have seemed to be.

Space is not the only element that is produced through these various forms of organization: these bodies, as bodies do, are moving in/through time. Their movements repeat, and the rhythms of their repetitions segment time, as does the music, and the time produced through the movement of bodies and the repetition of those movements is not always the same as the time that is produced through the complex rhythmic structures of the sound score (composed by Hahn Rowe). These temporal territories deterritorialize one another (or, at the very least, suggest routes—”lines of flight”—along which deterritorialization might be accomplished), and in doing so, I brush up once again with that from which time becomes.

Somewhere between time and space, I encounter the alignments of bodies: dancers coming into synch with one another, sometimes in brief or extended unison, sometime in shared timing of different gestures, sometimes in shared or similar vocabulary that is not in synch with one another. [William Forsythe and Norah Zuniga Shaw define “alignments” usefully in their introduction to the Synchronous Objects project: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes. Manifested as analogous shapes, related timings, or corresponding directional flows, alignments occur in every moment of the dance and are constantly shifting throughout the group.”] In these moments of alignment between bodies, fleeting territories emerge, briefly establishing logics capable of holding these dancing bodies together, traversing other configurations of time and space, while also interrupting the clear/stable individuation of bodies on stage.

At a pivotal moment in the piece, the performers distribute themselves across the stage, pulling up the fluorescent orange tape that has traversed the white Marley throughout the performance. This is the first time that these bodies have moved along these lines, taking on the organization of these marks, but they do so only within the very moment that they become unmarked. This is breathtaking, the mundane task of pulling up tape demonstrating something of becoming unmarked/disorganized/smooth in the very moment of reiterating/retracing the given marks. I think of Judith Butler’s suggestion that the opportunity for the subversion of performative regimes is in the repetition of those very performatives. The repetition is the site of agency, the point at which the doing can become undone. The strips of tape peel and snap off the floor, into the air, and are rolled into great balls. So much happens in these moments: following these lines, the lines become undone; the two-dimensional moves suddenly through the air, three-dimensionally, and coheres as haphazard clumps. The linear formations are made to break with their own logic, rapidly transitioning into new states, themselves becoming the tools for their own deterritorialization. Something similar happens with the standing flags throughout the piece: at various points, dancers reconfigure these flags, and in doing so, simultaneously produce new [organizations of] spaces while undoing the spaces that had been described by the flags only moments earlier.

These are the mechanisms of the piece, these various structures intersecting and undoing one another and themselves. But throughout it all, there is the suggestion of something more, something beyond, what Grosz calls “chaos”: “Chaos is not the absence of order but rather the fullness or plethora that, depending on its uneven speed, force, and intensity, is the condition both for any model or activity and for the undoing and transformation of such models or activities. This concept of chaos is also known or invoked through the concepts of: the outside, the real, the virtual, the world, materiality, nature, totality, the cosmos, each of which is a narrowing and specification of chaos from a particular point of view. Chaos cannot be identified with any one of these terms, but is the very condition under which such terms are capable of being confused, the point of their overlap and intensification” (Grosz 26-27). In Canyon, this chaos is most articulate to me in that which is beyond, that which is out of bounds, out of reach, out of sight, off balance, just beyond what is accounted for within the available logics of time and space and bodies, just beyond what is demarcated by the choreography, the lights, the floor, the visual designs, etc. The beyond/chaos operates constantly at the edges of the territories, and I catch glimpses of it in their mutual disruption, but it is perhaps physicalized most overtly in the ridge on the floor at the edge of the performance space: the Marley floor takes on a kind of topographical elevation, inclining upward into a short roll near the far “upstage” edge (see photos). Throughout the performance, dancers and objects move over this ridge to disappear behind it. Quite literally, we were shown where visibility ends and unseeable/unforeseeable possibilities exceed both the visible as well as the floor space. Similarly, dancers frequently enter and exit the space through the audience seating, simultaneously extending the “performance space” and—depending on where one was sitting—crossing out of sight. In these moments, I became keenly aware of what was beyond this organization—“the performance”—and the liminal space at the margins of what is included within the time/space of the performance. This was for me the ongoing brush with chaos between and beyond the intense proliferation of organization(s) within the work.

Photo by Tony Orrico

Finally, this sense of “the beyond” is articulated throughout the dancing bodies of the work. Time and again, dancers (Lindsay Clark, Kennis Hawkins, John Jasperse, Burr Johnson, and John Sorenson Jolink) perform at the edges of their balance (there is a lot of stumbling in this piece), at the edges of unison, at the edges of alignment, at the edges of clear geometric spatial formations, at the edges of stability; frequently, they fall or spill or are thrown or slide into this “beyond,” into excess, off balance, no longer fully in control, not quite in unison, no longer in a straight line. I love the moments of the dance in which the dancers seem to to drift and wander, with drifting foci and limp bodies, somewhere between intoxication and a dream stake, a kind of a wandering about wonder that does not clearly define its trajectory, that does not rigidly contain these bodies. The limits of clear organizations/structures/territories—again, of balance, of unison, of alignment, of spatial formations, of stability, etc.—are explicated through these excesses. This is what lingers with me as the night wears on: the sense of what exists just beyond how this moment is structured, the specter of chaos as the rich, full ground from which territories—those various ways in which my body, this space, this time, my sense of self, my geographical situation, etc. etc. etc.—take on precarious constitution. This is not to disparage organization or structure or territory; these are the strategies through which we navigate our experience and our worlds; these are the strategies with which dances—all art, in fact—are made. Rather, there is a quiet hopefulness in the lingering effect of Canyon, an awareness of the conditionality, contingency, and precarity of such structures, a persistent sense of what exceeds these frames, of hovering at the edge of what else (and how else) might be possible, between and beyond.

Cited: Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: deleuze and the framing of the earth. New York: Columbia U P, 2008.



L’A./Rachid Ouramdane “World Fair” and Staging Surveillance

How is one to demonstrate surveillance? How might the body be put on display in such a way as to bring attention to the attention in/for which it is situated? What are the conditions for and effects of bodies being examined, and how might such conditions and effects become inscribed in/as “the body” itself? L’A./Rachid Ouramdane’s World Fair offered an ardently focused and meticulously measured multi-media rumination on the theatrical situation as a space of surveillance, while positioning this function of performance in the larger anxious landscape of the surveillance, recording, exploiting, and conditioning of the body at the levels of the state and national(ist) identities/histories.

from World Fair, photo by Patrick Imbert

Being surveilled produces the subject/body in a specific sense: a sense of suspension, a sense of anxiety, a sense of anticipation that inscribes the constant observing other as not only a persistent condition of sociality, but—on a phenomenological level—possibly even a constituting condition for our existence. The perhaps uncomfortable reality is that we appear far more for others than we do for ourselves; those who see us see more of us—more of our bodies—than we can ever see of/for ourselves, making our appearance in the world inherently social, and our experience of sociality inherently about seeing and being seen. I found these facets of social existence to be central to World Fair. From “before” the performance began (I say “before” because in this vein of thought it seems important to acknowledge that “the performance” is more of a constant/persistent state of being than it is something that can be demarcated by theatrical spaces, tickets, audience seating, and a specified 8:00pm start time), as the audience was ushered into the performance space, we were directed (itself possibly worthy of comment) to only enter from one side of the audience seating, an entry that necessitated walking past Ouramdane, already displayed on stage. He stood stationary on a large turntable that rotated slowly, displaying the three-dimensionality of his body. His eyes were closed, and it seems to me that this in itself might have functioned as an initiation into the recurrent themes of the piece: we as viewers began in a more-or-less compulsory encounter with the performer, whose closed eyes reminded me that this performance situation (all stage performance situations?) was organized around the axis of our viewing, and his being viewed by us.

Yet Ouramdane’s performance did not situate himself/his body as a passive receptor of our gaze. Throughout the performance, he demonstrated his own complicity in this surveillance of his body: removing his shirt at the start of the performance, a gesture that seemed somehow both medical (“Go ahead and take your shirt off”) and criminal (think strip search), while also more subtly addressing gender itself as a form of surveillance (the removal of the shirt as a kind of confession or confirmation: “Yes, see here, I am indeed a man. Rest assured that there is no ambiguity about my gender/sex, and that, yes, this is an identification that can be made/affirmed by way of my own visibility”); pushing the large counter-weighted light/camera rig hanging center stage as if it were a millstone, contributing his own kinetic energy and strength to the circulation of illumination and recording, both of which at various points mediated his own visibility; the raising on the flat screen television high into the air as if hoisting the national flag, a “national symbol” that was ostentatiously alternatively recorded and live-feed images of the performer himself. In each instance, he revealed his own complicity in the formation of the ways in which he would/could be seen.

I could not help but feel further implicated in this power play of seeing and being seeing by virtue of my position as a member of the audience. Although there were several stage devices that seemed invented for this particular production (namely the large light/camera rig that hung ominously in the center of the stage), by and large, the materials through which this performance was conducted were those of the theater: the relatively intimate proscenium stage, the organization of the audience in relation to the performer, and—most notably—the stage lights. While it is certainly possible to consider this piece for its relationship to—and even commentary on—the world beyond the theater, it is important to recognize that any such relationship or commentary was carried out through these rarefied theatrical tropes. In this sense, although the politics of seeing and being seen that were addressed by the performance extend far beyond the context of the event itself, such extensions never fully evacuate the theater; the political and cultural history and tropes of the theater itself functioned in this piece as both the means of articulation and, to some degree, that which was itself articulated. Large grids of white theatrical lighting hung high above the four corners of the stage, and throughout the performance, their illumination suggested the possibility of visibility from all sides. Although my visual perspective was limited to my particular seat, the activation of these lights on all sides of the performer gave me sense of being able to see even that which was not visible from my point of view.

Circularity was a theme throughout the performance: Ouramdane circled on a turntable at the start of the performance; a small siren-shape sound amplifier circled; the large rig suspended center stage circled; the performer himself circled the space over and again; finally, at various points, the light itself circled, moving from grid to grid in a way that for me evoked a prison yard. But what could possibly be the connection between this theatrical space and a prison yard?

Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish that, “Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere,” (195). He proceeds to discuss Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison designed to heighten the visibility of the prisoners in such a way that the experience of constant surveillance becomes internalized, a perceptual prison that forms from an internalized sense of being seen.

Foucault writes that the principles of the panopticon are opposite those of the dungeon. “In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap,” (200). He continues: “… Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,” (201). The last point I would like to borrow from Foucault follows: “The heaviness of the old ‘houses of security,’ with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a ‘house of certainty’. The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side – to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection,” (202-203). What Foucault suggests is that the effect of the panopticon, the prison in which the prisoner is fully visible at all times, and in which the prisoner can never fully verify whether or not he is being watched, becomes internalized by the prisoner. The constant awareness of the possibility of being seen restrains him; this sense of internalized anxiety becomes his prison.

This model of the panopticon is pervasive in our modern world. We live in an age of constant surveillance, of our bodies, of our borders, of our information, of others, and of ourselves. We police our own behaviors, our social selves, our gender, etc., always with the anxiety of being seen and the consequences of being seen. Because of its formal properties—the light, open space in which three-dimensional visibility was emphasized time and again, the repetition of the circular form through which such visibility was both evoked and achieved, the circulation of static and moving recorded and live-feed images—themselves demonstrating either their own histories as sites of inspecting/recording the body or the very instance of inspecting a re-presenting the body, the suggestion of the racialized history of minstrelsy and the expropriation/exploitation of bodies encompassed by that history through the brief and unexpected tap dance wearing white face, etc.—World Fair operated in logics similar to those of the panopticon. And it was not only the performer who was enacted through these logics: throughout the performance, Ouramdane’s musical collaborator Jean-Baptiste Julien entered the space and looked directly into the audience, a reminder of our own visibility, our own implication in these regimes of surveillance and regulation.

I have heard several of my colleagues and my students say that World Fair felt incomplete, unfinished, or unresolved. I would like to suggest that this is perhaps the nature of power as it operates through visibility and surveillance: its efficacy is not purely in its ability to follow through, to exact punishment for the transgressions that it observes. Rather, its true power is in the constant state of anticipating such consequences, the internalized apprehension of what might happen, what could happen. By never fully delivering a satiating climax or resolution, Ouramdane’s performance effected a sense of anticipation that I then carried with(in) myself, unfulfilled and unresolved. Like the performance itself, I can never fully predict the consequences of my own visibility, and thus I live with a constant uncertainty and anticipation of how I might be seen. As disorienting as this might seem, the anxiety of visibility, the constant state of uncertain anticipation, and one’s implication in vast systems of seeing and being seen, may in fact be formative of who and what we are. These effects of power are inherent in sociality, and—in ways I will not attempt to explicate here—being itself depends on sociality. Thus, it seems, Ouramdane’s performance of the situation of surveillance is not limited to a commentary on the theater or even the political sphere. To address surveillance seems to address the conditions of ontology itself.

[I had the opportunity to see World Fair on 22 October 2011, at the Wexner Center for the Arts]

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.