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.”