25 Nov

Context Notes: Neil Greenberg

The Meaning of “Meaning”: Neil Greenberg
by Paul David Young

When I met Neil Greenberg in the auditorium of New York Live Arts, he was munching on a salad. Barefoot and in track pants, he was from the start quite affable and welcomed my presence at his first time to try out This in the space in which it would be performed. He had unexpectedly been given an early opportunity to explore the piece in the theater at Live Arts for one day and generously invited me to join them.

I was immediately impressed by the openness and warmth of the rehearsal. In conversation with his lighting designer, Joe Levasseur, who was proposing to install a slew of lights across a wall, Greenberg embraced the experiment on the spot. “Try it. Let’s see,” he said. Later, when choreographer Juliette Mapp arrived to observe, it was hugs all around and murmurs of appreciation.

For this day, the lighting was left to the imagination. Two pairs of chairs represented the locations of clusters of lights that would occupy the stage and illuminate it. For the rehearsal, plain white lights shone uniformly over the entire space. Theatrical lighting gives form and color to the shapes and movements of dancers’ bodies; without it, I could not know what would eventually be seen and how we would see it. The dancers wore their own clothes, depriving me of an understanding of how the costumes would affect my understanding of This. It was like looking inside a machine as it is being built, in order to guess how it will function.

As I watched the run-through, my mind kept wandering back to Greenberg’s Artist Statement, in which he talked about “potencies, the ‘meanings’ (quotation marks original) of the dancing itself.” At times the dancers seemed to be operating in separate worlds, performing their own sequences, and yet my eye and my mind wanted to put them together. Perhaps that’s what he meant by “meaning.” I found myself becoming so involved in watching the particulars of the individual dancers and the uniqueness of their movements, that I often missed the entrances and exits. Likewise, I somehow neglected to mark the presence and absence of music or sound. What I saw at first appeared to me more strange than facilely beautiful, and then it seemed to become more beautiful the longer I looked. I distrusted myself and questioned whether I was seeing the inner harmonies of the choreography, or my mind was imposing a structure on a set of phenomena that were occurring simultaneously. Which was the “meaning”?

I talked with Greenberg on the phone the next morning. He explained that in This, he was “allowing things to grow. I have a tendency to build continuities in certain ways. Things reappearing, connective tissue. In this dance I’ve been daring to not do that as much, to accept the materials as they are, in and of themselves. This is not to say I don’t experience continuity in this dance – I do. I don’t experience it as haphazard. Part of the challenge is how that’s going to play out for viewers.”

I couldn’t resist wading into deep waters. What did he mean by “meaning”? “I’m really talking about experience,” he said, and added, “The meaning of it is the sensuous surfaces, to quote Susan Sontag.” He was referring to Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” in which she argues against the assumption that art needs to be interpreted or decoded for the public to have an experience of it. Like Sontag, Greenberg was steering away from interpretation and instead saying to himself, “let’s really get into ‘this.’ Hence the title.”

Some of the “this” in This is the process that Greenberg used to arrive at the choreography. He and the other dancers improvised on camera according to rules and ideas that he established, including for the first time duet improvisations. After a meticulous editing and ordering process, selected parts of the filmed improvisations were learned for performance. In a later studio rehearsal I attended, though they already knew the movements and sequences, the dancers returned to reviewing the video under Greenberg’s direction and sought to mine it for as yet undiscovered details, a practice Greenberg somewhat jokingly referred to as “forensic movement science.” He is after the “facts.” He wants to show “this, this person, this constructed performance moment.” The individual parts of This “resist interpretation, but also interpretation plays through them.” Greenberg said he had come to acknowledge recently that “part of any ‘this’ includes its referents, and the associations each viewer will bring to it. I think I previously was trying to be too ‘black and white’ about it, looking for things without referents, which is nearly impossible, maybe completely impossible.”

As I watched the rehearsal, I was reminded of how Merce Cunningham had constructed his dances, the independence of movements, dancers, sound, light, and stage design. Indeed, Greenberg spent his formative years dancing with Cunningham. “In this piece I’m daring to get a little closer to Cunningham-like for me.” He made plain, though, that his methods differ significantly. “Chance mechanisms are not a device I’m using here. There’s a different kind of choosing and placing going on.”

Having already waded into the deep waters of the meaning of “meaning,” I recklessly forged ahead and asked him what made his work special. His answer was consistent with what we had talked about with respect to This. It was specific, peculiar to him and his history. “I’m very interested in looking at the thing itself. Why? From growing up gay in the ’60s in Minnesota and not at first having a strong awareness of how wrong that was in the world, and then coming to see that painfully clearly. Somehow I think this part of my personal history figures in my investment in how to experience myself and other people in a way that doesn’t fit with the label that’s been given the thing. I want the experience to be of the thing in its specificity and its label-resistant complexity. What is this thing? Not just how it’s being translated or interpreted by the world.”

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03 Nov

Context Notes: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

By Chance
by Jedediah Wheeler

By chance, I was working for an artists’ management collective at Westbeth (NYC) in the seventies. Merce Cunningham’s studio was located down the hall. The building had been part of Bell Labs and its president used our offices. My job was to find performance opportunities for avant-garde artists such as Richard Foreman, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Mabou Mines. One artist in the collective already had a formidable performance career and I was told that he did not need my attention. His name was John Cage. John Cage was mushrooming worldwide on his own!

That I “met” him is my way of saying I did not know him, but acknowledging that I had had the privilege of being associated with him; however tangentially.

After meeting John Cage, I began to follow his work. And in the following I came to think more fully about “possibility” – the act of believing in the unexpected. For possibility to take root, opportunity had to exist. John Cage epitomized a fusion of opportunity and possibility in which accidents become creative stepping stones in making new work.

Contemporary performance in America is often held back by the lack of time, space and money to really create. In my career as a producer and artist manager, I had realized numerous works under less than optimum conditions. With that experience very present in my mind, I set out to fashion a new performing arts program at MSU. Not only would time, space and resources be available to all sorts of artists but they could work in an environment that championed creation without compromise.

I had my opportunity.

The first artist to make new work in The Alexander Kasser Theater was Bill T. Jones and the Bill T Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company who came to Montclair State University in 2005 to make Blind Date.

Bill T. Jones and his collaborators entered The Kasser with ideas on high alert.

Possibility filled the space!

The ideas that Bill explored at the beginning of the extended residencies
evolved considerably until Blind Date opened and, crucially, continued to evolve
from first public performance to the last which was uniquely two years later in
the place it began: The Kasser.

Since that first residency/workshop/premier, Peak Performances has served as a
home where artists do create without compromise. Our commitment to BTJ/AZ
blossomed even further with A Quarrelling Pair (2007), Story/Time (2012) and in
due time Analogy (June, 2015).

Inspired by John Cage’s Indeterminacy which consists of ninety stories to be
read aloud with or without musical accompaniment paced so that each story
takes one minute, Story/Time is wholly unique without being one of kind. Bill
reads sixty plus stories culled from his life experience set to musical and dance
accompaniment.

And what a work it is!

The complexity of Bill’s transformation of Indeterminacy into Story/Time is
astonishing. Seventy plus dances created and then selected by a pre configured
computer program set to inspired personal stories no more than 60 seconds in
length, with a bold set, light design and sound score is jaw dropping. Most dance
shows are dependent on specificity not random selection.

Story/Time underscores what I believe to be Bill T Jones’ vision of what a
satisfying performance should be for the artist and the audience: a journey of
surprising moments that expand the personal experiences. Chance encounters
of the mind and body that reveal the unique human capacity to imagine.

The pleasure of seeing a show that sets the bar so high and works so well is one
reward. But to consider Story/Time as an extension of John Cage’s notion of
performance through chance is all the more fulfilling.

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23 Oct

Context Notes: Gisèle Vienne

Gisèle Vienne: Disturbance in Representation

By Bernard Vouilloux

The French-Austrian artist Gisèle Vienne (b. 1976) has made the stage her primary artistic material. Deceptively theatrical, her pieces function as tableaux or cinematic shots, hybrid representations of what is inexpressible in human relations. An analysis by Bernard Vouilloux, professor of literature and the visual arts at the Sorbonne.

For over a decade, beginning in 2000 with Jean Genet’s Splendid’s, Gisèle Viennehas been building up a fascinating body of work, piece by piece, that is both spellbinding and disturbing. It captivates us for the very reason that it forces us to examine the unclear connection that we maintain with both our fantasies and with the dark part made up of manipulation, domination, and violence that forms interpersonal relationships. To advance along this perilous course, Gisèle Vienne – who sees herself as choreographer, puppeteer, director and visual artist all at once – uses these means of representation as her medium. Whileshe has recently appropriated the more or less defined working methods of the art installation (“Last Spring: A Prequel”, at the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York), exhibition (“Teenage Hallucination”, as part of the Nouveau Festival at the PompidouCentre in 2012), and even the book (40 Portraits, 2003-2008, published in 2012 by Éditions P.O.L), the venue and format to which she has usually devoted herself since her debut are those of the performing arts.

Althoughvery little is verbalized, works such as Kindertotenlieder (2007) and This Is How You Will Disappear (2010) are built on the intricate librettos created by Dennis Cooper, the American writer whom Gisèle Vienne has collaborated with since I Apologize (2004). The “action” of these underlying stories, far from yielding an unequivocal version, makes available all potentialities. What we are shown seems to conform to rules or laws whose sense eludes us. The subject matter on which each of Gisèle Vienne’s productions has been constructed is not unlike what anthropology designates as “myth”, that unrecoverable narrative whose inscrutable – and even contradictory – variationssustain rituals.

With few exceptions, notably Une belle enfant blonde (2005) and Jerk (2008), the “theatre” of Gisèle Vienne is a laconic one: the spoken word does not really exist there; to the extent that it does occur, it does so in the minimal form of monologue, often murmured, addressed to oneself or to someone who cannot hear, one who is absent or deceased. Jerk suggests what would be spoken in Vienne’s other shows if it were to be uttered; and at the same time, because it is a narrative, performed by a psychopathic narrator, and containing dialogues (entirely carried off by the impressive Jonathan Capdevielle), the spoken word of Jerk provides access to the underlying framework of the productions conceived by Gisèle Vienne based on the written texts of Dennis Cooper. One should imagine all of Dennis Cooper’s sources of inspiration, from another continent and another culture, when he tells stories of beautiful, ambiguous teens brutally tortured, young women manipulated, lovers gone missing, as though commissioned by Sade and Sacher-Masoch (invoked in Showroomdummies, 2001-2009), revised by Genet and Bataille, and then reworked by the Robbe-Grillets with, on the horizon, “Freudian psychology in the light of postmodernism” as specifies narrator of Jerk.

Writing that feeds from images of all sorts is itself a powerful trigger of images, whether it be those that develop on the stage or those that the spectator imagines or recombines from what s/he sees and hears, or even from what s/he reads (e.g. the fanzines distributed to the audience at the beginning of Jerk, 2008, or at the end of The Pyre, 2013). In the work of Gisèle Vienne, however, the image on stage is unique in that it is mobile, its plastic qualities have been highly elaborated, and it is coupled to an almost uninterrupted flow of music (by the duo of KTL). Neither opera nor filmed theatre, but rather dream images, images from silent film, and accompanied by music and spoken word as if from off-stage, from “another scene” (Freud), as it were … The “theatre” of Gisèle Vienne primarily deals with all that is neither looked at nor listened to, the silent images that haunt us, flooding back onto the stage.

Gisèle Vienneas well as subsequent critical comment on her workhave often cited the genre of tableau vivant: onlookers (you, me) assume the poses, the postures, and sometimes the costumes of the painted figures of a familiar scene. Except that there is no original tableau that this can be traced back to, one whose recognition would reassure us. The actors themselves play along, their displacements having the effect of saturating the performance space, of mobilizing all of its dimensions, by a rigorously constructed total environment. All of the body’s speeds are utilized: quick staccato dance (in The Pyre), quasi-gymnastics (in This Is How You Will Disappear), displacements that are fast, slow, or broken down.

But “actor” and “performer” are words that in this case are ill-suited – and not only because most of the figures activate the resources of choreography. In Jerk, the mechanism of representation is reduced to its most minimal state: it is enough that the body of the narrator-puppeteer is doubled, that the mute voice that is designated “subject” is bifurcated and reflected off itself. The puppets are the projections of this process of fission. Gisèle Vienne herself has touched on this in her account of how in sixth grade she began to create marionettes and perform with them. The puppets and mannequins point to a more advanced stage of this process: on the set of Kindertotenlieder, the ten motionless silhouettes, with hoods pulled up over their hair, hair falling down over the face, and heads bowed down (a recurring motif, seen again in the series of 40 Portraits), seem to be those of the young audience at a black metal concert. The final stage is that of living persons who also wear masks. Don’t their gestures and movements sometimes seem to be mechanized, whereas, conversely, the animation of the puppets, and even of the mannequins, make them seem alive? The same disturbing thought troubles us when faced with the figures of a tableau vivant, or of wax: the most familiar becomes the most strange. Indeed, under the direction of Gisèle Vienne, there are neither actors or performers nor even people, but figures which are at the same time apparitions, geometrical forms, and rhetorical operations tuned in to the Unconscious. The generalized uncertainty plays on this stage set of simulacra.

The fantasy material set into motion by Gisèle Vienne as by Dennis Cooper takes this uncertainty to a state of additional complexity: the ambiguity of age, between infancy, childhood, adolescence, and post-adolescence. It is also that of gender – for example the young androgynous boys of Jerk, in contrast to the powerfully sexual bodies of the female dancer and the trainer in This Is How You Will Disappear. But still more disturbing is the uncertainty of the subject itself, above all when it speaks as in Jerk or Last Spring: A Prequel. On this subject, reduced as we are to conjecture, we can only resort to projections.

“The question of the status of Gisèle Vienne’s pieces – theatre, or spectacle – remains open.”

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21 Oct

2014 New York Dance and Performance Bessie Awards

Big congratulations to all of the 2014 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award recipients! Special congratulations to John Jasperse for winning Outstanding Production for his piece Within between, Stuart Singer for winning Outstanding Performance in John Jasperse’s Within between and Rebecca Serrell-Cyr for winning Outstanding Performance in Donna Uchizono’s Fire Underground. Read the New York Times Review of the Bessies.

Rebecca Serrell-Cyr in Donna Uchizono's "Fire Underground" - Photo by Ian Douglas

Rebecca Serrell-Cyr in Donna Uchizono’s Fire Underground. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Stuart Singer in John Jasperse's "Within between" - Photo by Ian Douglas

Stuart Singer in John Jasperse’s Within between. Photo by Ian Douglas.

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10 Oct

Context Notes: Cynthia Oliver

Language As Step, or Language Stepping to the Step: The Body as Storymaker in the Work of Cynthia Oliver
By Jess Barbagallo

“Words set to rhythm are like gravy on meat: The sum is greater than the parts.”
-Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance

Cynthia Oliver is a self-described storyteller, her need to “new narrativize” energizing and tangible. Born in the Bronx, raised in St. Croix, and currently a professor of dance at the University of Illinois, Oliver holds multiple subject positions with a grace and clarity that has sustained her career as a performer, choreographer, educator and scholar for over twenty years.

A trademark theatricality oozes from her body, and those she makes works upon. Scrolling through still images of her work, I am struck by her smile, her eyes, that charismatic-indefinable-unteachable that every great performer possesses; there is as much dance happening above her shoulders as below them. And you know it from your comfortable seat when you feel this face in motion: the seductive force of a dynamic presence calling you to come hither.

The warmth of a genuine invitation is notable sometimes for its rarity, and its energy has the potential to unseat you. In because she was, a manic 2003 solo, Oliver channels a village of conspiratorial island women in alternating gestures of “sizing up” and spastic glee. Gossip and chatter are no idle matters here. Motions of fast talking, giggling and pacing seem to come from a place of deep engagement with her core, a physio-spiritual merger that almost makes my own spine tingle and undulate in fan-induced mimicry.

Closer Than Skin, a trio work made in 2006 with Leslie Cuyjet and Maria Earle, features another breathtaking solo by Oliver, but this is no repeat exercise in levity. A haunting soundtrack of manipulated voices drives her body as mysterious violence threatens to consume her, dramatic and urgent. Her unwavering focus remains on the audience as her feet patter paranoia quick across the floor – what does she see out there? Is the violence just beyond the room? Or inside the room, inside her…suddenly Oliver takes her face by the thumb and guides it to her shoulder, proceeds to shake the upset from her head and this gesture sets her reeling, as she becomes an avatar for recoil and release. And what of this torrent of language, echo-ey, metallic, haunting, the one element her quaking body cannot seem to shake?

Oliver has long been an advocate for the importance of the spoken word and its place in her oeuvre. Describing her work, in a 2009 interview with Gia Kourlas, Oliver, loquacious, laughs and says: “I can’t keep my mouth shut…I’ve always been interested in the way language can dance.” A key oil in her choreographer’s palette, the sounds of words seem to carry as much weight as their content. They start a fire, they kick something off, they grease the machine.

Consider 2009’s Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso. Six women give voice to breath and begin a movement phrase, imploring percussion with a simple dialogic exchange, illustrated across their bodies as though one arm was speaking to another. The call is “Eh!” and the response “Wha wha?” These kernels compose the first loop of a sound cycle that will amplify and evolve throughout the course of the dance. With the snap of their unison fingers and an invigorated slap of thighs, the rite has begun. Dressed in orange, yellow, pink, blue, and gold, against a backdrop of cerulean sky and clouds, they move in synchronized pattern across the bare floor. Expression begins in the hips and moves into the shoulders in contained gestures of throwing and lifting, opening the chest until each body becomes a fully expressive vessel. It’s so joyful, you want to know the steps, the uninhibited rocking of your own pelvis. And when they do finish their sequence, the dancers—residue of movement still present in hips that can’t quite let go of the beat—proclaim: “Rigidigidim de bamba de! Rigidigidim de bamba de! Rigidigidim!” It’s uplifting, exultant, and wonderfully infectious.

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09 Oct

Context Notes: Jennifer Monson

Inside the Archive with Jennifer Monson
by Paul David Young

“Dancing is my tool to generate research on the landscape,” Jennifer Monson told me.  It is an “embodied relationship with the world and how we understand it.”  We spoke as she was beginning to rehearse for her restaging of Live Dancing Archive at New York Live Arts and her thoughts about what she would present were evolving.

What Monson means by research involves investigation into hard science as well as spending time at swamps and beaches, filming, watching, and dancing.  Her BIRDBRAIN project, which provides part of the background for Live Dancing Archive, entailed this kind of multipronged approach, in this case specifically with respect to the migration of the osprey, a coastal raptor.  Hundreds of volunteers and a morphing assemblage of collaborators engaged in direct observation and documentation in the outdoors.  By reviewing the films and improvising, Monson transformed these observations into dance, which itself evolved in form as it moved from the wilderness to the stage.  Robin Vachal’s video installation, now on view at Live Arts, documents this process, as does the online archive by Youngjae Josephine Bae.  Monson stressed that whatever happens on the stage is only one component of the total piece.

Though she has danced outdoors, she has returned to presenting her work in conventional performance spaces.  “Dancing outside, the flow of energy is really vast.  The impact is in relation to other movement going on.  There is a way that the energy continues and disperses.  Dancing outside is always destabilizing you,” she said.  She was “very moved” by the way the dances that she staged outdoors disappeared into the landscape in which they were created, like “white on white.”  Inside the theater, she explained, there is “a tighter border, a concentration.  I am able to negotiate and communicate in a more focused way.  The dancing can be quite different.”

The AIDS crisis and queer activism motivated her early career.   Since 2000, her work has drawn from migratory behavior in the wilderness, even as her understanding of the wild has itself shifted.  She said she started out with a simple view of untouched nature, but her experience showed her that it was a more complex thing, sometimes disturbed by human intervention and sometimes restored.  She discovered the border spaces of compromised ecologies and saw that they could be productive environments where rebirth and reinvention are possible.  In our dialogue, though she occasionally uses such terms herself, she was dismissive of any specific terminology, such as “the wild” or “nature,” that might be used to approximate her nuanced understanding of the subject matter of her work, saying that she wants to “de-naturalize” such words.

Live Dancing Archive has been presented several times in different venues and forms, including just last year in New York at The Kitchen.  The addition of two new dancers, Niall Jones and Tatyana Tenenbaum, is Monson’s focus for this new iteration at Live Arts.  For her, the vital question is how and/or whether she will be able to convey the embodied knowledge of the dances that evolved out of the BIRDBRAIN project to these new dancers who have not had the same years of experience, observing and improvising.  It has historically always been true for dance that someone teaches someone else how to do it.  In this re-presentation, it is uncertain what Monson can transmit to others, how much is lost in the transmission, and what has to change or might fruitfully or accidentally change as that body of knowledge is transferred to and re-performed by Jones and Tenenbaum.  The model of the “archive” might here be understood as a process that manifests itself in time-based work, through the always imperfect replicators of human bodies, dancing, moving and vocalizing.  Inevitably the archive reveals itself to be porous, faulty, and unstable, and therefore interesting to investigate, as both a dancer and a spectator.  The similarity of biological and ecological processes springs readily to mind.  In evolution, the variances in DNA transmission create biological diversity and change the species and the world around it.  Ecologies, the collective repositories of life forms and their systems of interactions, are constantly morphing, whether as a result of human intervention or otherwise.

Jeff Kolar contributes a score for Live Dancing Archive that is site-responsive: he controls a handmade chain of radio transmitters responding to electromagnetic frequencies as they are affected by wireless systems surrounding New York Live Arts.  Monson’s creative process involves an analogous sensorial response to the elements in the wilderness.  In her dance she seeks to reveal the agency and materiality of the phenomena that her research has discovered.

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02 Oct

Context Notes: RoseAnne Spradlin

The Raw Wilderness Inside: An Independent Study of RoseAnne Spradlin

By Jess Barbagallo

The first time I encounter RoseAnne Spradlin’s work is from the floor of the blond studio theater at Brooklyn Arts Exchange where we are artists-in-residence together. The room is full, the lights are up. My memory is murky, illuminated by these slippery flashes I am grateful for, two years later: the relentless pattern of women crossing space (my friend Tina likes how “tightly” they are costumed, then uncostumed); dancer Rebecca Warner’s gaze nodding along to some invisible internal dialogue she’s having with her body; bare legs on a diagonal coming toward me, I inhale. The dancers keep breathing and in turn I suspend my breath. All the subsequent activations are dominoes—you pull back your chin to straighten your neck, only to find you’ve lifted your chest, where you keep your lungs and your heart. The open, consumptive torso becomes a more porous expanse to receive all this…call it honest energy.

Later I ask about process and the stakes of being so present (and the body-altering gift of this presence). Warner tells me: “It’s kind of this thing you have to trust is important even if you don’t know why…I originally was drawn toward [RoseAnne’s] work because it felt like a departure…more raw, still demanding and intense, but in an abandoned way. I wanted an experience of power.” She trails off in half a question, “I don’t know if it was a feminine power…” 

Over and over, I watch an excerpt from 2012’s beginning of something. The piece bears a loose relation to the movement I witnessed in the studio showing, now dressed up with a live brass and strings ensemble. In some part of myself, I am compelled to formulate an essentializing thesis about women and dance, as I watch flesh shake over bones. Instead, so seduced and overwhelmed by the sharp physical turns overtaking the blue-black of the floor—raised up like a runway, but playfully nullifying commerce’s imprint with its parade of old mink, tartan skirt and tape bra—I phrase this an aesthetic ethos of independence.

***

In dim light, four dancer bodies dutifully spread garments in color-coded patterns over white marley. These figures, hypnotically fascia-conscious and driven in the first movements of Spradlin’s 2006 Survive Cycle, now perform a mundane chore. Are they drying clothes or recovering from a storm? They complete their task with the precision and intensity of a rescue team recording damage. On the back wall of the theater, performers’ faces are projected in confessional, describing the process of making the piece, searching for words to describe the unsayable dynamics of a collaboration. Each indicates the journey has been fraught, or like an atmosphere so thick it is difficult to tease the self from the stew. 

Paige Martin: I’m trying not to get caught up in that, this time around.

Walter Dundervill: From my perspective there’s a …there’s a sense of being…I don’t want to talk about it, but…I can talk about it, I just don’t know how…It’s hard to verbalize it, this…it’s like being pushed.

When people watch performance, sometimes they perceive the machinations of artists as “brave” because they appear to be the embodiment of devotion galvanized to indiscernible ends. Audaciously, the disciples of such performance practice ask: what is a dance that pushes past the tenable? How do I find it? And then, for those of us lucky enough to watch, reap: what does it mean to dance the ego-defying dance? And they do it while they’re in the dark!

***

I ask my friend, a dancer-for-life, to tell me in a sentence something about Spradlin’s choreography. She says, What I love about RoseAnne’s work is that for me it is about the ungoverned body, or seems to be trying to access the complexity of the raw wilderness inside. 

She goes on to recount a conversation we had about a life lived in dance, the complications.

I remember our conversation about verbal expression versus the other less socially normative modes of communication.

I was able to express to you my frustration that verbal strength dominated our construct.

It feels as though a translation process has to happen first before I can speak to people. Ideas occur first to me as sensations attached to a movement/sound/visual which is very clear. 

Then to translate it into proper English language is difficult. 

The challenge of assigning descriptors to work you admire. A recurrent motif of talking around dance, perhaps with the knowledge that nothing can be known until it is done. And some yearning to remain in those psychic moors; “a tract of land used for hunting.”

***

On making g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title), Spradlin writes:

“These dancers, performers, they are putting everything into their performance.  One dancer said doing one of the sections, which is 18 minutes long without a break was kind of ‘scary.’ But then we both laughed and agreed that performance should be scary! Not just scary, of course, but you really want what you’re involved with to take you out of the ordinary. Or that’s what I want anyway. When one performs something that’s so challenging that it’s scary, I think one feels like a different person when the run is over. And then there’s this feeling of not being able to go back, or not wanting to go back. And that’s what keeps artists going forward, even though it’s so hard in many ways to continue.  But the performance time is when the performer’s cells evolve and change and one never wants to go back to the way they were before, because—well frankly you don’t want to leave the heightened state that is so compelling, you just want to stay there.”  

***

Around 8pm on a Wednesday night, I visit a rehearsal for g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title). Spradlin apologizes that the technicians have gone home and I probably won’t see a run. Five dancers stretching, they are framed by a dazzlingly severe sculpture (created by Glen Fogel) that resembles a black leaf or spade of rings. Spradlin is unassuming in the third row of the house. 

We briefly chat about the influence of Balanchine’s first ballet Serenade on the work, its current relation spectral, but to be noted. Shocking audiences in its US premiere in 1934, Serenade is striking for a principal’s choreographed fall; The Waltzing Girl appears to die on stage, then she is resurrected in a lift. Six male dancers carry her away as she gracefully arches her back in an offering to the Beyond. Spradlin’s eyes become animate as she tells me the story and its intrigue. Then, politely, she returns to her blocking rehearsal. 

The dancers run a pattern several times, calling moments of traffic, congestion and success. One dancer, new to the work, struggles to execute a turn and the company troubleshoots. Spradlin observes, “If your arms are doing equilibrium response, it means it’s not flowing through.” Natalie Green follows, “People are detaching their knees and therefore it’s an erratic structure.” Spradlin steps onto the stage and gets down on her own knees to touch the dancer’s leg, explaining, “You just need to feel it.” Watching the adjustment I feel just the slightest envy as she sends the dancer off; they confirm that the move is so much easier to execute with this awareness, as Spradlin says, “It actually keeps you organized, but granted it is very hard.”

She says it like a couplet, or like a highly distilled frontier poem.

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25 Sep

Context Notes: Ivana Müller

Ivana Müller’s Irregular Embraces:
On touching the transparent, the banal, the common, the opaque
By Jess Barbagallo

“Of tedium, as if the irregular monotony of life weren’t enough, so that on top of that I needed the obligatory monotony of a definite feeling.”
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

i.

First, a ticking can be heard. Not unlike a sound effect one could associate with a photo booth camera timed to shoot, or more ominously, a bomb. Eleven ticks. She begins, a disembodied voice clearing its throat, winsome:

I will take this opportunity to stage myself. I will do it as an answer to a commission that a festival gave me some months ago. Robert, the festival’s artistic director, asked if I could make a sixty minute solo in English in which I would have to be physically present onstage. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that after thinking about it for some time, I decided to accept the commission.

She pauses. Her body enters.

And by this to put myself in a position that could have some serious consequences for my future life.

If there was ever a rhythm to transparency, Ivana Müller has discovered a way to keep it. And if it was ever a secret, poetic logic dictates that she would tell.

I transcribed these opening lines from 60 Minutes of Opportunism, a solo Ivana Müller made in 2010, because they touch me, and I don’t know why. An impish-looking woman (quick mental shorthand compares her to Björk, her presence triggers the phrase “elphin secrets”) walks to the center of a black box wearing a daypack – her word, daypack – and a plain plaid shirt. A body without a voice, her abjection appears cheerful – how odd – and her premise, predicated on the principle of unwavering compliance, clear: Ask and ye shall receive. Or, with a bit of leaking pride, I followed the shit out of these directions.

Her methodical honesty, evident across a broad range of performative gestures, is the kind of generative and structuring force that comes out from behind the piece to give itself up, and, of course, steals the show. In the instance of 60 Minutes … Inner Monologue plays the hijacker, a spectral voice that keeps spilling Müller’s guts. Telling us that she has not performed since 2002. That she, the choreographer, is more accustomed to sitting where we sit. As she smokes a cigarette, telling us she has quit smoking. Saying she will dance and making us imagine instead. But the proceedings are full of pleasure, for our imagination makes her smile. She takes the ghost of her own voice and runs with spectral suggestion. She puts a black sheet over her body and is joined by a chorus of anonymous bodies in black sheets. Goofy ghosts.

So this is not a solo.

So she does not “dance.”

iii.

But she does choreograph. Following the dictum of compliance, her pieces become assignments in the hands of the most earnest student, the one who has discovered that, when treated as serious games, rules and restrictions can elicit serious fun. That student is probably, also, a smartass. Precepts of play appear to me as a core element of Müller’s practice, and she employs them again and again across a diverse array of works. Finally Together On Time, a performative dialogue staged in 2011 with collaborator Bojana Kunst, explores the trials and travails of collaborating in virtual times; we receive a very funny comedy of errors as the women share a script-in-hand account that could be described as a litany of happy failures, culminating in one more as Müller gets beamed in, via video projection, to a performance that is, in itself, a rumination on missed opportunities. (And the aesthetics – so gratifying! Müller’s form framed by a white projection screen and Kunst live against a stage black, the symmetry evokes all manner of sliding doors possibilities. When they pause or err in this technologically mediated realm, the audience is made privy to still image associations and possibilities, as performance veneers are chipped away to reveal buoyant vulnerabilities reminiscent of a Rineke Djikstra album.)

iv.

Then there’s In Common (2012), a game for ten player-performers who endlessly divide themselves into various tribes according to self-proclaimed “statuses” of material ownership, skill and life experience. Competitions without reward structure the piece as participants “race” to a finish line demarcated by a long piece of tape stretched across the downstage of a black box floor, proclaiming titles of distinction to advance their positions in space. It’s a who’s who of inanities that could as easily be overheard at a dinner party’s pissing contest. But to be fair, the piece does more than critique the alleged “inherent” absurdities of capitalism and bourgeois classification. Müller directs our attention toward the complex joys of naming and following, the imperfection of political systems as the meat of culture rather than exclusively their ugly gristle.

v.

In these recent creations, Partituur and We Are Still Watching, co-commissioned by FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival, Müller amplifies the stakes of philosophical inquiry by offering frameworks that completely embed “audiences” in the completion of the work, casting pedestrian children and adults as cold-readers in interactive games, housed within the confines of the traditional theater space. Müller provides the text, but her reconfigured spectators bring the show; if responsibility were an object to be kept aloft, each participant bears the weight of her own experience.

These conceptual “diversions” are multi-faceted, open-ended. They simultaneously possess the ability to function as reusable energy basins, and to catalyze an increased awareness of the body’s delicious wonderment in states of waiting. And certainly, from this distance, they have the potential to generate metaphors – practical, pedagogical and independently lovely. In the generosity of the negative, quiet and unknown space holding a base text, we might discover other texts yet to be written, performances and connections to be made.

I was reminded of this simple phenomena – call it the incomplete – watching footage from Partituur (version francaise). Part voyeur, part anthropologist – it is inescapable, to become a part – I see a group of children and a few adults wearing headphones in a room with a red floor, a white tape circle and more white lines to demarcate mysteriously arbitrary zones. The participants are unsure, but attentive. A voice begins to prompt them and soon enough their toes are at the tape. They make shapes, they follow directions, they listen. The bulk of the action is interstitial. And what to make of this now … a minor catalogue of fidgets, adjustments, spasms, rests. Sometimes several children will run in laughter, then there are those who stand still. I guess it’s a complex of uneven engagements. Their minds are opaque to me. When I sink into a thinking deeply, I see these figures. They are actually wells.

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19 Sep

Context Notes: Kyle Abraham

Dancing Identity and Freedom: On Kyle Abraham’s Dances and The Upcoming Season at New York Live Arts

By Carl Paris

My Take: In Kyle Abraham’s world, shifting narratives of love, pain, anger, violence and politics emerge and dissolve almost seamlessly across hip-hop-inflected body ripples, queer club-culture, provocative theatrical representations and technically-stunning modern dance. The diverse dancing bodies luxuriate in the demanding variety of Abraham’s movement, yet are capable of reminding us of people we know, desire or avoid. Sometimes oblique in the telling, these narratives invite us to feel (and question) how we see others and ourselves across assumptions and understandings of life, culture and identity.

As much into Lil Wayne as J.S. Bach, this thirty-seven year old, New York-based choreographer is quick to tell you that his work is informed in no small way by the combination of his experiences growing up “a gay black male” within hip-hop and black culture in his native Pittsburgh and his education in classical music and the visual arts.* Thus, leaning toward the postmodern and experimental, Abraham strives for an interdisciplinary approach, which integrates visual and sonic elements with his choreographic language.

With such qualities in evidence, Abraham premieres two distinct programs in the New York Live Arts’ 2014 Season: The Watershed, an evening-length work and When the Wolves Came In, a suite of three dances. (I attended relatively early rehearsals; therefore, I did not see full costuming and scenery.) The new works explore themes around freedom and are inspired by Max Roach’s protest music of the Sixties, historical milestones in black American civil rights and the twentieth anniversary of the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. In exploring these themes, Abraham builds on some choreographic strategies that have worked well for him (as in The Radio Show and Pavement). One such strategy is a counterintuitive layering of dance sequences with pedestrian interactions, creating, in my mind, interesting overlapping scenarios of people on the street. Another strategy is Abraham’s gorgeous solo appearances and interactions with the dancers, which simultaneously illuminate the personal intricacies of his movement and drive the choreographic narrative.

As I watch rehearsals, it becomes clear that the idea of freedom is in what the dancing says about it. Abraham has said that he chooses his dancers not for type, but for the compatibility of their personalities and talents. This season, although the male body continues to claim many of the meaty roles, a strong female presence allows for compelling interactions between men and women, which, combined with Abraham’s signature male-to-male situations, complicates questions of power and agency like: Who leads? Who follows? How far will you go to love me? Do I touch you, should I kiss you in front of everyone? In this context, notions of freedom are both slippery and metaphorical; most intelligible, I argue, in the oppositional situations Abraham creates through his eclectic sampling of music, the expressive dancing bodies (black, white, Asian, short, tall—ten including Abraham, all beautiful dancers) and the social and cultural values we associate with them.    

We might see this in The Watershed, for example, where Abraham juxtaposes intense changes of music, sounds, vocalizations and dancing bodies to probe connections between violence and freedom. A repeated phrase of a woman running and a man stopping her confirms that such connections are persistently there, yet mutable in their interpretation. Similarly, the first of the three dances of When The Wolves Came In, also titled “When The Wolves Came In,” features the classical choral music (by Nico Muhly) that helps set up a kind of sarcastic formalism in need of a challenge. Visual gestures, such as the six dancers taking off their big crazy beehive wigs and getting down to dancing business offer humorous and edgy ways to think about how symbols interact with human agency.

From there, “The Gettin’,” consisting of five sections, nudges us toward a more sensual groove, notably bolstered by the live collaboration of jazz artist Robert Glasper and his trio. And Abraham leaves it up to us to construct what freedom means when bodies compete against one another or when a woman’s singing/screaming voice provides the backdrop for a black male and a white male alternating between intimate interaction and defiantly standing their ground. “Hallowed” rounds out that groove with a trio, set to spirituals and gospel songs and an inventive interspersing of wacking, voguing, popping and locking with modern dance, designed, I imagine, to explore linkages between black modes of worship and affirming self through the dancing.

Together, these new works reflect Abraham’s concern with connecting visual and kinetic power and excavating critical humanistic stories. As such, they offer interesting new perspectives on ways in which dance, identity, gender and race intersect. Clearly, this season marks a pivotal moment in Kyle Abraham’s spectacular ascendance and he is aware of the pressures. No doubt, his talent and hard work will prove rewarding. 

* All biographical material is based on interviews with Kyle Abraham.

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16 Sep

THE INSIDER GUIDE TO CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE (abridged)

You’ve thoroughly read the cultural previews published by The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Time Out, and snapped up tickets for all of the downtown shows before they sell out. But is your vocab up to snuff? In preparation for the fall performance blitz, brush up on the necessary lingo with our handy cheat sheet to guarantee (even a neophyte) instant insider status:

1. Modern dance: developed in the early 1900s as a rebellion against ballet (Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham), and rebelled against in turn–fifty years later–by the post-modernists.

2. Post-modern: a panacea label for all work that is unconventional, regardless of its origin. Common traits: all of the terms below. For dance and performance generally, the hallmark of the evolution of post-modernism was the Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s-70s.

3. Pedestrian movement: every day, functional actions, such as walking, running, lying down, crawling, or sitting. Also known as “task-oriented movement”. [Litmus test: could a non-trained person do this in the living room?]

4. Performance art: combines aspects of theater, dance, music, poetry, political or social activism and visual art (think Fluxus or Marina Abramovic). Aims to be provocative and frequently structured as a performance installation (see below). Really came into being during the 1960s.

5. Performance installation: crossover into the visual arts world, usually takes place someplace other than a traditional theater, and lasts for many hours. Inexplicably involves nudity 95% of the time.

6. Experimental: challenging the status quo. Useful in describing any performance that revels in shock-value or lacks recognizable elements or artistic cohesion (note: no relation to the orderly scientific process learned in high school science).

7. Contemporary: typically a mash-up of classical and modern, with a few post-modern flourishes. Overused by ballet companies and European groups in an effort to distance themselves from “classical”.

8. Fourth wall: the invisible barrier between stage and audience that allows performers to pretend the audience doesn’t exist. “Breaking the fourth wall” is a trope in post-modern performance, used with varying degrees of success.

9. Non-narrative: no clear story, or at least not one you can follow.

10. Multi-disciplinary: a blanket term for performances that include video, visual art, or interactive technology along with dance or theater. Often misused or aspirational.

11. Performative: the act of performing. The genius of this term is that any action can be declared “performative,” simply by naming it as such, regardless of setting. A term beloved by the post-modern crowd.  [Yes, drinking coffee can be performative as long as you call it that.]

12. Movement score: a loose structure for improvisational movement, guided by specific images or ideas that are unlikely to be apparent to the audience.

13. Intention: the idea or motivation behind an action. Crucial in transforming a pedestrian action into a performative one (kind of like taking communion).

14. Kinesthetic: focused on the body and physical movement. Redundant when used to describe dance for obvious reasons, but it sounds fancy.

15. Innovative:  new ideas; original or creative. A positive sounding catch-all for anything you don’t understand. What was once “avant-garde” morphed into “cutting-edge,” and is now trumpeted as “innovative.”

Did we miss a vocab word? Tell us in the comments section.

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