Summer months yield great possibilities for outdoor performance but it takes a skilled choreographer with an eye for theatricality to frame a panoramic outdoor work as if it were housed in a proscenium setting.
Aviva Geismar, the director of Drastic Action, and her six dancers, were able to do just that in the site-specific piece, Dis/Location (Fort Tryon). This is one of many aspects of the work that keeps it resonating in my memory. The free performance ran for three evenings (June 16-18, 2016). Finding the site of the performance in the sprawling Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, NYC was not a problem, as signage was easy to follow. Taped music integrating well with the out-of-doors greeted audience members as they descended a slight decline towards the seating areas. Entering this way allowed us to take in the lush environment – the grassy lawn later to become the stage, surrounded by huge, leafy trees, and a striking view of the George Washington Bridge looming above the placid Hudson River. As dancers were warming up, children played happily. Families were among the varied mix of audience attendees.
Ms. Geismar explained briefly the elements defining the event. The work would look at different aspects of immigrant experience, for example, the traumatic nature of losing a homeland, experiencing groundlessness and unmooring, the awkwardness of fitting in, and makeshift rituals devised to feel a new sense of belonging.
The evening consisted of two pieces. The first, entitled Travels, was performed by 7th-graders from the neighborhood City College Academy of the Arts. It was a culmination of a 12-week creative dance class taught by two of the Drastic Action performers. In keeping with the theme of immigration, choreography for Travels was generated from individual oral histories conducted between each student and a family member. The students were dressed in colorful activewear and performed to selections of World music. The all-female cast knew their paces- assembling and dispersing, playing, lifting (horseback straddles), and gesturing – yet they all seemed oddly nonplussed, which registered as a shy innocence for their age group. I would posit this had to do with a lack of time in the project cycle. How great would it be if these very young women could have been given enough time to explore, with some depth, how to inhabit and how to own their personal performance presence? The lessons of dance travel deep into emotional and physical development. School-aged kids need more dance training in their formative years. More funding, please!
When the student work was over, the young performers were used cleverly to mask from view the stage setting being crafted for the opening of the company piece, Dis/Location (Fort Tryon). They then cleared the space to reveal what momentarily appeared to be earth green rock-like craggy sculptures situated at the top of the incline, upstage left. As the formations began to twitch, shudder, fall over and expose body parts sneaking out hesitantly at first, we were free to suspend our disbelief, knowing of course all along that the dancers were inside. What they were each inside of were heavy canvas duffle bags, of the sort you could associate with army troops. Thus began the creative 100 uses of a duffle bag, which turned out to be a powerful metaphor for Geismar to use as a means to explore the immigrant experience.
With intensity and clarity, the choreography had the dancers fight their way out of their sacks, drag them, haul them, twist them with frustration, wear them as new clothes, push and pull them between one another trying to communicate, or as a way to test their power. When they whipped and beat them to the ground, dry earth from the lawn flew up like stage dust. There were playful moments of unison, especially in a duet between Sameena Mitta and Nickemil Concepcion, and also passages of group unison that read as mass struggle.
A segment meant to inter-cut the dancing occurred when Kaoru Ikeda entered to give a hyperbolic history lesson in Japanese. A dancer displayed placards in English to fill us in. Initially perceived as comic relief, Ms. Ikeda had the audience readily engaged and laughing at her over- the -top energy and inflections while gesturing like a somewhat mad professor. But unless you were fluent in Japanese, you were clueless to the speech’s meaning. Sensing the disconnect, knowing we couldn’t derive her meaning and she couldn’t make us understand, made the interlude bittersweet.
The piece comes to a close with a strong solo danced by Darla Stanley. Her insular body shakes, ripples, drops and rolls back up. Her joints jangle. She’s distant, as if in a vacuum. Corporal detachment signals other detachments, perhaps emotional or cultural. Her feet are stuck but manage to run her backwards into a tree. Using it to hold herself up, she pushes against it and insistently tries to climb it. She fails.
What made Dis/Location (Fort Tryon) work so well was the articulate and performative nature of the choreography. The dancers, strong, individual, and equally able to hold the stage, all embodied a complete understanding of the material and how to use its movement language to put forth Geismar’s rich choreographic ideas.
Parking is available in a TU parking lot (hourly, reasonable) at Berks and 11th. Gladfelter Hall is the first high-rise building when entering TU’s main campus from Berks and 11th, two blocks from the Septa Regional Rail TU station.
The 2014/15 Dance Studies Colloquium continues Tuesday, March 17, 2015 with Anna Pakes on Philosophy and the Work of Conceptual Dance About Philosophy and the Work of Conceptual Dance
“Conceptual dance” is a generic term used to designate a type of contemporary dance practice, emerging in the 1990s, that critiques theatrical representation, eschews conventional virtuosity and offers a reflexive, sometimes ironic, commentary on the conventions of dance practice. The term is contested, but continues in circulation despite the objections of some choreographers and theorists associated with the practices it names. Perhaps those objections stem partly from the conviction that challenging boundaries and categorisation is itself part of the work done by the choreography of artists such as Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Tino Sehgal and Boris Charmatz.
In this talk, I also explore the implications of these choreographers’ practices for the dance work or choreography conceived as product, in the light of a wider project exploring the ontology of dance works. Conceptual choreography is often said to be ontologically challenging. But can the precise nature of that challenge be more clearly articulated and does it pertain specifically to the choreographic work object? How and to what effect do these artists cast doubt on the work’s status as a performable entity with a stable identity that could function as the focus of artistic appreciation?
In the effort to answer these questions, I also reflect on the relationship between choreography and philosophy, and particularly on what work an analytic philosophical treatment of conceptual dance might be able to do.
About Anna Pakes
Anna Pakes is Reader in Dance Studies at the University of Roehampton. Her teaching and research is focused on philosophy of dance, and she has published on the epistemology of artistic research, the mind-body problem and phenomenology of dance. Her forthcoming monograph explores, historically and from an analytic philosophical perspective, the nature of dances and choreographic works: what kinds of things they are, and what can be and what has been done with (and to) them.
About Dance Studies Colloquium
Dance Studies Colloquium is a dynamic interactive speaker series designed to facilitate a dialogue about emerging topics and issues related to dance. It brings together artists and scholars to explore how we assimilate ideas and events and our resulting actions within the field of dance. This free monthly event is held on Tuesdays from 5:30-7:00pm at the CHAT Lounge, Gladfelter Hall, 10th floor, Temple University (main campus).
All are welcome. Coffee, tea, and cookies will be served.
If you would like more information about the Dance Studies Colloquium, please contact Dr. Mark Franko at firstname.lastname@example.org or Molly Shanahan at email@example.com.
Two Events Remaining inDance Studies Colloquium 2015!
University of Bristol, UK
Dancing Across History’s Borders: Thoughts on Exile and Otherness By Way of Kurt Jooss
Le Marbre Tremble was at its inception collaboration between Mark Franko and photographer Ernestine Ruben. The dance used Ruben’s large-scale photographic projections of the caryatids sculpted in the seventeenth-century by Pierre Puget. These two figures (Puget used galley slaves in the port of Marseille as models), one old and one young, were the pretext for the piece, which premiered at the Toulon Art Museum (France) in 1988 as part of a photography exhibit — Le corps/la galère: noir et blanc (The body and suffering: black and white). This dance was also performed in Berlin and New York.
Le Marbre Tremble will be danced again, this time as the product of the collaboration between Mark Franko and Fabian Barba. Fabian started learning this solo, originally performed by Mark, as a way to conjointly investigate the process of transmission of a dance, the relation of that dance to the context in which it was created and in which it is performed and the personal stories mobilized in this operation. The memories, reflections and sensations that constitute the dance will be called onto the stage as an accompaniment to it.
What does it mean to be subversive in the dance world today? For the past few weeks, the New York City dance scene has been embroiled in an impassioned debate on this very question, triggered by this year’s American Realness Festival that took place at the Abrons Art Center from January 9-19. The controversies surrounding this fringe and obscure gathering stirred a discussion with unexpectedly wide participation that challenged the extent to which experiments with form are subverting power structures within performances and in the dance community at-large.
American Realness is a renegade festival of sorts:, a “stronghold of forward-thinking, category-defying performance” is how the website describes it, and to be sure, it aspires to be a counter-platform to APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters)– a global performing arts conference that takes place in New York City at the same time. The festival’s curator, Ben Pryor, has stated that he created American Realness to exhibit some of his favorite performance artists whose work he thought was relevant, but would not normally be shown to (or accepted by) mainstream presenters and audiences.
Now in its fifth year the festival is much more well-known among the downtown crowds who are loyal followers of the experimental scene, and perhaps in part as an explicit statement against the politics of APAP that tend to exclude fringe artists and take advantage of dancers’ schedules. For example, choreographers have to pay for the opportunity to show work, most don’t end up getting work from this conference, and companies that get the most attention from presenters are those who get attention already. Moreover, dancers have grueling schedules and get paid very little. Essentially, this makes a supposed platform for visibility a system of reification of those already visible.
Proof of the significance of American Realness in the New York City dance scene, it was reviewed by New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay: notoriously dismissive of the more radically experimental works of the new generation. Macaulay described the performances he attended as “silly and inconsequential.” He went on to comment that despite the festival’s claim to feature cutting-edge and interdisciplinary works,
[M]uch of it is twee, stale, labored and amateurish, with various kinds of anodyne music as accompaniment. Those hoping to find the subversive and the challenging are instead confronted with the slack, the coy, the mimsy. To greet this stuff as interestingly experimental is to clap your hands because you believe in fairies. (Read the review in its entirety here.)
Rather than challenging the closed circuit of acceptable (accessible?) aesthetics, American Realness showcases self-referential work for its own small community, thereby reiterating the frustrating politics of the mainstream dance world. As a result, Macaulay argues, “rather than enlarging the world of New York performance, it shrinks it.”
Unsurprisingly, a wave of backlash from furious dancers, choreographers and performance enthusiasts was unleashed against Macaulay through various social media outlets. What happened next is most fascinating. Andy Horowitz, a writer for the performance blog culturebot.org, wrote a lengthy post entitled “Defending Alastair, Questioning Realness” whereby he redirected the anger against Macaulay and validated his critique of the “clique-ishness and self-satisfaction of ‘downtown’ dance/performance, particularly as embodied by American Realness.” (read the full text here.)
Horowitz argued that there was legitimacy to the argument that American Realness lacked the self-criticality that it perhaps considered absent from APAP in terms of the intended audience of these works. He argued that the festival promotes a performance culture “aggressively insular and proudly uninterested in the public at large, or really anyone other than themselves.” He pointed to the irony of the delight in small audiences, obscure style, and self-indulgent subject matter. In other words, American Realness merely reasserts the same values that it claims to counteract.
Although I did not attend American Realness this year, I have seen the works of several of the artists presented and have been to similar counter-culture festivals. I have seen how festivals that advertise themselves as subversive and challenging can end up being self-referential, exclusionary, self-referential, and trite. While promoting the “real” they can manage to make many feel alienated from the subject matter of the work. After all, how much more responsible can American Realness claim to be when it doesn’t pay artists properly or advertise outside the community for the sake of maintaining its marginal(ized) status?
The controversy, which clogged my Facebook feed for days, was a fascinating microcosm of the politics of presentation and participation that plague the dance world today. Bloggers, journalists, dancers, and choreographers all contributed to this virtual dialogue about the economics of presenting work and the reiteration of exclusionary systems in general. It emerged that American Realness does not give choreographers a performance fee but rather only pays them a small cut of the box office.
Another aspect of the dialogue was a slew of comments about a controversial incident involving performance artist Ann Liv Young. While watching American Realness newcomer, Rebecca Patek, present a work about rape and sexual assault, Young reportedly startled both audience and performers when she stood up in the middle of the performance and began screaming out her discontent about the work. She briefly left the room, only to return with a bullhorn and continued her tirade, leaving the young performers on stage in tears. The fact that the festival staff allowed this fiasco to unfold as it did, Horowitz argues, suggests that they have as little concern or respect for their performers as do the dreaded APAP presenters.
What is funny about this event is that the affective interaction with the audience that Ann Liv Young “performed” is just one of the ways in which these new “radical” forms of performance seeks to set themselves apart from the mainstream. The bullhorn controversy, and the American Realness Festival as a whole, calls into question whether challenging the norms and conventions of artistic form truly has no boundaries.
In a recent article in the Dance Research Journal, Alexandra Kolb argues that immersive theater has in fact a long seated history and may not be as radical a force as some contemporary performers would wish. In its modern reincarnation, however, this trend is clearly forcing our understanding of what it means to be subversive and rebellious. After all, it is hard to imagine anything more disrespectful than sabotaging a fellow artist’s work. But in a work designed to challenge the limits of participation and produce an affective community, what defines what is acceptable? If a performance is a call for action, is there a wrong way to respond to this call? And more broadly, is there a ‘right way’ to have a subversive dance festival?
Presenting a piece with actors who have “learning difficulties and disabilities” at New York Live Arts (November 12-17, 2013), a dance institution, is without precedent for not only Jérôme Bel, but also the professional dance community at large. It is informative to compare Disabled Theater to Bel’s first great hit, The Show Must Go On, because the latter work uses a lineup of non-dancers to explore the hyper-lyrical and effusive performativity of the Broadway show. We listen to the first number — “Tonight, tonight” from West Side Story – in total darkness, and I at least found myself (at a recent viewing in Zürich) projecting phantasms into the darkness, imprinting a spectacle onto a non-spectacle, seeing where there is nothing to see. What Bel makes us realize is that the investment of the audience in “the show” is immense, inestimable, and irremediable to such a degree that it must raise the question of whether the show itself actually exists, let alone “goes on.” That is, he makes us see that spectacle is imaginary to such a degree that even when it is not present we, the audience, conjure it up. Bel’s work unfolds how spectacle “tonight” actually exists. The “must” of “the show must go on” finds a new psychosocial framework in the work of this conceptual artist whose ability to reduce the performative apparatus to its absolute minimum for the requirements of the maximal is wildly successful across the globe.
Disabled Theater, developed with and performed by Theater Hora, “Switzerland’s best-known professional theater company comprised of actors with learning and mental disabilities,” raises the stakes on Bel’s capacity to make theater out of non-theater by using non-dancers who, although professional actors, are also considered to be cognitively “disabled.” Bel is particularly adept at exposing the performer on stage and transmuting their inability to match up to expectations into an unexpected brand of theatricality. But, here, the issue of what disabled means, and what sort of power relations are at play when we are asked to look upon theater as “disabled” – performers whose very abilities are founded upon or limited by a presumed dis-ability – comes into immediate focus. How will they play their roles? In what sense are they being exposed or abused? How are we as audience to play our role? There is, from the start, an “us” and a “them.”
Not to be able is the sine qua non of Bel’s form of conceptual non-dance become entertainment. He has redefined technique as the inability to perform; he has redefined theatricality as voyeurism; he has deployed people on stage whose particular skill is to disenchant us about predefined skills, to show failed desire rather than achievement as expressive, to desire to be what they are not and thus to reveal desire to us as spectacle, to fall short of our expectations in order to unveil those expectations as a projection of the audience onto the theater skill itself: in a word, to kill virtuosity and dissect spectacle conceptually. Yet, with Disabled Theater, he may have crossed the line.
Disabled Theater begins when the translator takes her seat behind a small light-board on stage left. She is necessary because the actors only speak Swiss German, and she will translate what they say to us: but, she also transmits Bel’s ideas to us in the form of tasks the actors will accomplish, one by one. This is suggestive of A Chorus Line where all the performers are trying out for the show they are actually performing and the voice of the invisible director rules. In Disabled Theater, however, the try-out is one of structure: Bel trying out with the actors what they can do to make a piece. Each idea, each try, is a structural unit of the piece. This gives the piece its conceptual edge.
Ten empty seats arranged in a shallow semi-circle adorn the stage. “The first thing Jérôme asked the actors,” the translator informs us, “was to enter the stage one by one and to stay in front of the audience for one minute.” Each actor follows suit, emerging from the wings to stand in front of the chairs and confront the audience for his/her own interpretation of a minute before exiting. Some actors deliberately planted their feet on the stage and stood still for several minutes while others barely paused before nervously taking off. Some endured the examination in utter silence. Others stared amidst the coughs and throat clearings that often pervade quiet moments in the theater. Since Bel is only present through his translator one imagines he sits among us and hence we — the audience — come to identify with his authorial position: we sit in judgment. Added to the shamelessness of the spectatorial attitude – one of unabashed consumption – is by turns the resistance and acquiescence of the performer to our gaze conflated as it is with that of Bel. The mood is uneasy as we sense self-display, defiance, professional tolerance, shame, even perhaps victimization.
Next, “Jérôme asked the actors to state their name, age, and profession.” In the “Stay Late Discussion” following the Saturday (11/16) evening performance, Bel commented on the purposeful absurdity of this question – all ten actors replied “actor.” But, it was less about absurdity than about what kind of actors these people can be as Bel limits them to the structure of question-answer. What kinds of profession do those who are cognitively disabled exercise? Next, the actors were asked to state their handicaps. Actor Damian Bright replied he has Down’s syndrome, but elaborated, “that means I have one more chromosome than you in the audience,” drawing a genetic line between “us” and “them.” Others stated they are “slow,” have a “learning weakness,” or “did not speak until age four.” After each statement, the actor would sit on one of the chairs lining the back of the stage and look out at the audience as well as the other actors approaching the microphone in center stage. How iscognitive disability seen in relation to these words, and what is the appropriate reaction? Is the impetus to embrace, sympathize, accommodate, compensate, or ignore? These are the questions and concerns that surround much of the study on disability, in both performance and national legislation. The issue of “appropriate” reaction was most evident when actor Julia Hosserman stated, “I have Down’s syndrome and I am sorry.” Julia did not participate in the “Stay Late Discussion,” so for what or to whom exactly she was apologizing remains unclear, but in that moment, and when she slowly walked back to her seat, the question of how to watch and react to the rest of the piece hung in the air.
Next, the translator informed the audience, “Jérôme asked the actors to prepare a dance solo. Each actor chose his/her own music and made his/her own choreography. Jérôme chose seven of them.” The craft and construction of the solos choreographed by the actors reflected on dance history: Sara Hess manipulated fabric as she moved under the theatrical lights; Matthias Brucker cited breakdance elements; Remo Beuggert manipulated a chair, working the seat, the back, the four legs, and each corner in center stage as techno music pumped into the theater. When Julia was called to perform she presented a choreographed conversation with Pop music icon Michael Jackson. She played with and manipulated his ubiquitous choreography – the moonwalk, the pelvic thrust, the crotch grab – to the 1996 song “Don’t Care About Us.” After moonwalking across the stage, she threw her body around the space as she rocked her hips and whipped her hair wildly. Yet, she remained completely in control, returning to a still stance to once again cite and manipulate Jackson. She looked out into the audience and stiltedly undulated her hips as her feet slid away from her center. She simultaneously popped her right heel and then froze, as if a pulse of energy moved through her body to achieve momentary stillness. This subtle way of moving is arguably the most difficult of Jackson’s repertoire and Julia executes it succinctly.
At each performance it was unclear if the audience recognized her skill. The praise and cheers drew a fine line between appreciation and patronization. The audience howled, laughed, and almost cat-called for every “pelvic thrust,” applauding not for her artful effort, but in an attempt to make up for or erase Julia’s lingering apology. The uneasy mood evoked at the piece’s onset, with the discomforting gaze of the actors, was met with disingenuous over-compensation from the audience. In this sense, Disabled Theater became entertainment, and it is doubtless Bel’s profound grasp of the structure of entertainment that allows him to cross into this territory littered with uneasy questions. The negative stigma attached to disability is promulgated, not by the populations that would be classified as disabled, but by the social structures that see certain ways of being as dis-abled. The critical work of Disabled Theater happens in the seats, in the almost-condescending reactions of the audience. This is where the line, which Bel so elegantly established in his previous works, is crossed. The audience is always failing, un-able to react appropriately and meet the expectation to perceive Disabled Theater as more than an opportunity to express collective altruism. In the effort not to make a spectacle of cognitive disability, but to create perhaps a commentary on ability itself, an alternative spectacle is made.
After the seven solos were presented, “Jérôme asked the actors what they think about this piece.” Actor Gianni Blumer, reading from his notes, stated he was unhappy with the solos, and expressed how he wished he could be considered “one of the seven best.” Then the translator announced Bel decided to show all the solos and the final three were presented. In the “Stay Late Discussion” Bel said this decision was influenced by Gianni’s comments, but came to fruition through a longer process. The decision to choose only seven in the first place, Bel stated, was an attempt to perform his role as a choreographer – to decide what was “good” and “bad.” However, following the first few performances of the piece in Europe, he was met with a barrage of questions about the rejected solos and decided they needed to be seen.
Bel also explained the solos were the only way for him to “make contact” with the performers because “[He did] not know what they think.” Bel’s admission was intriguing. The instruction following the seven solos, as mentioned above, was for the actors to do just that – state what they think of the piece. Acquiescing to his request, they, of course, did: Sara Hess said it was “special,” Miranda Hossle said: “My job in this piece is to be myself and not someone else.” This, it seems to me, demonstrates a grasp of exactly what Bel is after and what makes his deconstruction of spectacle work as spectacle. In my recent viewing of The Show Must Go On in Zürich one of the performers was Damian Bright who also appears in Disabled Theater. He occupied a central position on stage and was by far the most expressive and compelling presence in the cast; in fact, his clarity and intensity made several other of the performers seem frankly inadequate. How is it that in the context of The Show Must Go On Bright stood out, yet in Disabled Theater he remained part of the lineup? I take from this a certain interchangeability in the demands of theatrical reality between the two works. As Miranda Hossle implied, to be oneself is a job. Yet, Damian Bright stated that his mother thought Disabled Theater was “kind of a freak show, but she liked it a lot.” The frame of the work is all-important. The mark “disabled” often leads to judgments of impaired intellect or an inability to think on one’s own, but, to hold, that mark must be made manifest in the structure of the work. The actors troubled this stereotype in both their words and movement but it was imposed nonetheless: structure is all. What makes us uneasy is the manner in which the analysis of spectacle at the conceptual level becomes entertaining in and of itself. The piece cannot and should not escape its title.
Kun-Yang Lin’s dance career spans decades and has been recognized by awards and grants both in his homeland, Taiwan, and in the U.S. His choreography has been seen around the world. After joining the dance faculty at Temple University, Kun-Yang Lin made the decision to transfer his company’s base of operations to Philadelphia, facing the challenge of creating a new dance company from the ground up. As it turns out, Mr. Lin has managed to extend his local artistic outreach even beyond the university and his dance company. His CHI Movement Arts Center built from an abandoned warehouse in South Philadelphia is now a thriving multi-purpose studio offering an array of movement classes, studio rental, and performance opportunities, as well as being the training and rehearsal space for his company. Five years is a very short time to develop a strong, cohesive dance company with a significant following. And yet, this is what director Lin has most certainly achieved.
Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (KYL/D) celebrated its first five years with a retrospective concert presented at the renowned Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia. (November 7-9, 2013) In this concert, the company presented six of Mr. Lin’s works dating from 1993- 2001. Four of these were Philadelphia premieres. The one new piece on the program was choreographed by company member Olive Prince.
Each of his achievements — full-time university post in dance, active dance company, and community arts center — is a feat in itself in these times of high rents and scant funding for the arts. In fact, the whole notion of the single choreographer dance company, the model that basically served to build the entire genre of American modern dance, has all but disappeared in recent years. It had been the norm for dancers who wanted to start their own companies to teach dance classes in which they honed and then chose their company members while at the same time building up an audience. Having one’s own studio or loft in which to teach, rehearse and perform, made possible the long hours of training and rehearsal process needed to develop and transmit a personal choreographic style. Recently, as choreographers have found themselves less able to afford their own studios, they turn to renting space by the hour. With rental rates soaring and a dearth of adequate spaces, choreographic process has been undermined. A home for a dance company has become rare, and therefore, so has the institution of the small dance company. At one point, the idea of the “pick-up company” made famous by choreographer David Gordon, was a novelty. But now fewer and fewer choreographers even try to maintain their own company, and must pick their lot of dancers on a per performance basis. Contemporary dance has adapted and good work is still made, rehearsed and performed. Dance alliances and shared performing spaces are beginning to pop up and establish themselves. And as is normal and natural, dance and performance styles are always evolving. However, what does seem like one of the liabilities of making dance today is the challenge for a choreographer to transfer fully his/her own personal style or nuance to all of the performing dancers. Now dancers come to the work as “ready-mades”, or — as Susan Foster once said — paralegals, as opposed to those who historically had the luxury of experiencing ongoing training and molding by the choreographer-director.
As Lin has been able to build (rather than dismantle) a company with a home base, what connected all of the pieces in his retrospective, were dancers who were highly fluent in his particular movement style. Nine dancers performed in this concert, many of who were quite young, and yet they all presented Lin’s work with a full understanding of his vision. This was very satisfying. Despite differences in age and prior experience, each dancer found a strong personal relationship to the work. And although the work required strong, grounded technique, their technical proficiency alone was not what made this company stand out. It was rather that each dancer in each piece was able to create an invitational entryway into Lin’s poetic dance vision.
Except for the sprawling group piece, “Shall We…?” (2001), the other choreographies by Lin were solos or duets. Each encapsulated an intriguing snapshot or perhaps, brief poem. While the works were rich and engaging for their abstract movement design, each also hinted at something particular within the realm of human existence. For example, the notion of challenge or fortitude in “Butterfly” (2000), or secret tenderness in “The Song that Can’t be Sung” (1999). The works are portrayed through an interesting use of movement timing. There are brief bolts of fast sequences that lead to quieter swells. It is almost as though the quiet movement directs us to follow a trail or trace of the fast segment as it threads into the slower passage. And yet, despite the speed, the dancers were able to articulate the fast movement with a visible precision that normally is not so clearly present at such a fast pace. I soon discovered that like finding the little gift inside a box of Cracker Jack, each piece contained at least one arresting visual feat in the way of a thoroughly unique balance or lift. When least expected, the “Ah” moment would crystalize and then immediately go away. Aside from only a mere allusion to a story in each piece, another reason for their poetic quality is that they take place without a traditional beginning, middle, or end. Each seems to begin already in progress and then simply fade out. Mr. Lin’s choice to use strong music, i.e. music that we are always aware of, tends to create a soundscape that envelops the dance. Music is not danced to but lived in. The musical background is an integral part of the vision, as is the lighting by Stephen Petrilli — both elements enhance this mysterious choreographic world.
I found Ms. Olive’s piece “to dust” (World Premiere), a strong complement to the program. She possesses a marvelous ability to create unusual patterning of the seven dancers as she placed them across the stage. The stage remained alive throughout as asymmetrical patterns kept refiguring. The aesthetically pleasing brown and grey costumes lent a feeling of autumn leaves infused with conversational attitudes expressed through the body language of the dancers.
The audience at Painted Bride clearly connects deeply with this work. I would be interested in seeing the direction of Mr. Lin’s new work. Since these dancers, new to his older work were so well versed in interpreting it, I can only imagine the synchrony they could have with work made specifically on and for them.
The second two programs of the Boris Charmatz’s Three Collective Gestures series on offer at the Museum of Modern Art were more easily accessible to contemplation and hence to enjoyment than the first (see my previous review in this column). Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended (October 25-27, 2013) was performed in the Atrium with its natural light and with spectators gathered on all four sides. Twenty-four dancers worked within the closely circumscribed movement material of 25 choreographic items. Charmatz’s inspiration can be seen to derive from what dance critic and historian Sally Banes identified as “analytic postmodern dance” of the 1970s, which she characterized as “reductive, factual, objective … emphasizing choreographic structure and movement per se” (Terpsichore in Sneakers p. xx-xi). It began as solos but soon led to groups of diverse individuals working their way ultimately into a tight circle yet remaining independent and autonomous as the soundscape became increasingly violent and apocalyptic. The diversity of movement patterns, body types, and approaches to performance was engrossing to observe. From the initial calm there was a buildup not only of numbers but of tension yet this occurred without acceleration. The shifting soundscape by Olivier Renouf, along with a patterning shift in space, was largely responsible for the dramatic change. Charmatz is a wonderful curator in his selection of dancers and his ability to communicate his vision to them.
The program note presents Suspension of Conflicts Extended as a durational piece: “a hybrid form of choreographic exhibition and installation”. While it is true that one can observe it from many angles and, due to repetition, see the same elements in multi-faceted ways as if the dancers were sculptural objects, and while it is also true that almost all the performers appeared to be exhibiting the movement rather than to “performing” it (although exhibition is itself a performance), I was not convinced this work engaged in any particular way with the relation of dance to the museum as much as it was a choreographic work felicitously placed in a museum site.
It was the final work of the series, however, Flip Book (October 1-3, 2013) that reengaged with the theme of dance and the museum and added another layer to the relation of contemporary dance to its own history using the museum as a backdrop. For this work MoMA constructed a stage platform and provided very appropriate lighting and seats on risers, which agreeably transformed the Atrium into a space for performance without it being in any way an explicitly proscenium situation. It was interesting and refreshing to experience the Atrium in this different way so complementary to the performance.
Taking as a point of departure David Vaughan’s book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (1997), which covers the choreographer’s career by decade with many beautiful photographs as well as text, Charmatz has explained the genesis of his idea: “It occurred to me that this collection of pictures was not only about his projects, but that it formed a choreography in itself that had little to do with the work of Cunningham except inasmuch as it replicated certain images. I started to wonder if we could invent a single piece from this ‘score’ of pictures – if the book could in fact be performed from beginning to end.” The photograph becomes a quote or citation from which to generate a new work, much in the spirit of the recreation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun – d’un faune . . . eclats — by the Knust Quartet in France (2000). That Charmatz, formerly a member of this group, took this approach makes sense because the Quartet was similarly engaged in finding what dance, removed from us today, could mean now. This implies transformation. The assumption is that a gulf separates the then from the now. As Isabelle Launay has written in an illuminating article about the Knust Quartet, contemporary French dance was involved during the 1990s in a critique of the oral transmission of dance. “The challenge of citation to the prestige of oral person-to-person transmission of a dance has introduced a new way for contemporary artists to relate to and re-embody past works” (Isabelle Launay, “Citational Poetics in Dance: … of a faun (fragments) by the Albrecht Knust Quartet, before-after 2000,” Dance Research Journal 44/2 (Winter 2012)). In Flip Book, the citation is the photograph, the fragment of evidence from which to fashion a new work. While Flip Book appears to be a hommage to Cunningham it bears in actuality very little resemblance to his work.
So, the point is not at all to replicate Cunningham either in movement or as a still image and for this reason Flip Book qualifies more as a reenactment than a reconstruction. As Rebecca Schneider has remarked in her book Performing Remains: “The ‘still’ in theatrical reenactment – especially in the heritage of tableaux vivants – offers an invitation to constitute the historical tale differently” (London: Routledge, 144). While French dancers of the 1960s and 1970s who saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in France at its first appearances there in 1964, 1966, and 1970, made the obligatory pilgrimage to New York as part of their formation, French dance since the 1980s has been standing on its own two feet. It is more than anything else this distance to which Flip Book testifies, even in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner by pretending that movement can be extracted from still images.
And perhaps this is, after all, in the avant-garde spirit of Cunningham. Carrie Noland has recently written about the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Plan, asking: “Can a corpus of controversial works and ideas be preserved for posterity without betraying the fundamental impulse of an intentionally self-exceeding experimental art?” (Carrie Noland, “Inheriting the Avant-Garde: Merce Cunningham, Marcel Duchamp, and the ‘Legacy Plan,’” Dance Research Journal 45/2 (August 2013), p. 85). Noland also explains that Robert Swinston, Director of Choreography of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company since Cunningham’s death, “believes that accuracy in reconstruction is essential” (p. 88). From this perspective, Charmatz’s quotations of the photographs would be considered a slight. Indeed, Alastair MaCauley, in his review of Flip Book, has called it “an act of desecration” (“Using a Familiar Device to Dance out of the Past: Page by Page,” in The New York Times, November 5, 2013).
So, it is interesting to consider Flip Book in the context of two other events in France that also brought Cunningham to public attention in the last year. First, the restaging of a Cunningham work originally commissioned by the Paris Opera in 1973: Un jour ou deux. In an article entitled “L’affaire Cunningham” (Le Nouvel Observateur, October 29, 2012), Raphaël De Gubernatis recalls the daring move to invite Cunningham, John Cage and Jasper Johns to create an evening-length work for the Paris Opera Ballet. Musicians were outraged at Cage and the dancers threatened to strike; the public was turned off. Also in 2012, but unnoticed by the grand public, the world of French contemporary dance was convulsed by the appointment of Robert Swinston as director the Centre National de Danse d’Angers (CNDC), replacing Emmanuelle Huynh, another alumna of the Knust Quartet. A letter sent to the Mayor of Angers (April 26, 2012) protesting this appointment and signed by 667 dancers and choreographers, states: “It seems to us that this change, if it happens, would in fact be regressive, especially if its principle idea is to concentrate on the teaching of a single technique, one aesthetic, one name. Of course, we respect the work of the formalist structure developed by Merce Cunningham in contemporary dance history, but to make it the principal choreographic ‘motor’ of a school and a national choreographic center seems neither opportune nor appropriate. Our dance has never been constructed around the figure of the ‘master’, but instead by a way of thinking, making thought into action, not focused on a single heritage.”
I saw Flip Book twice, and given the variations in the sound score both performances were substantially different. In the second, the dance seemed to come to life among the performers, but also became further distanced from Cunningham’s style to a large degree. Although the sound was at no point Cagean, in the second iteration it was particularly unlike Cage. Premiered in 2009, the year of Cunningham’s death, Flip Book could be considered symptomatic of the situation of Cunningham’s legacy in France today. The passage of time has burnished admiration of his choreography at that bastion of conservatism that is the Paris Opera, but has engendered ambivalence toward the necessity for technique — for the “getting it right” under the watchful eye of the master — that one choreographer’s style inevitably imposes, and with which Cunningham has become associated as a modernist master. It is precisely this ambivalence that Flip Book exemplifies and that, like it or not, is actually its subject.
French choreographer Boris Charmatz is presenting three different programs this fall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City under the umbrella title: Three Collective Gestures (October 18-November 3). In many ways, he is taking on the whole contemporary issue of the relation of dance to the museum. In his first offering, 20 Dancers for the XX Century, Charmatz has curated twenty dancers, each one presenting a solo or solos by twentieth-century choreographers. Some of the works are well known and some are relatively unknown. The solos were announced for between noon and 5pm, during which time one could find them in numerous locations in the museum, popping up unexpectedly and serially throughout MoMA’s five floors and garden. This format has its charms: there are architectural cut-out effects in MoMA thanks to which one suddenly spies a space two floors down, particularly interesting to look at when the cut-out frames a dancing body. But, then, dance constitutes a sort of light diversion in the process of navigating the museum, which, in the case of MoMA, is a bustling public space. The format also proved to be chaotic and frustrating of any attempt to learn what one was seeing.
And, the conditions of performance in this setting have to be challenging for the dancers: the floors are hard and in many cases the public streams past the dancer to a nearby staircase. The Atrium, on the other hand, is sufficiently large to constitute an area the dancer can exploit to his or her advantage, but the problem of the unforgiving floor remains here as well. I was most moved, however, by seeing Gus Solomons performing his solo in homage to John Cage in the garden next to a Giacometti sculpture. It made me think that the dialogue between dance and visual art was an important aspect of twentieth-century dance. (A recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris pointed to this connection). The historical connection of dance to the visual was also brought home by MoMA’s recent show “The Invention of Abstraction” in which dance – albeit not live dance – was prominently featured.
What this production highlighted is what Ralph Lemon — in discussion with Simone Forti, and Boris Charmatz moderated by Associate Curator (Department of Media and Performance Art) Ana Janevski, (October 25, 2013) – referred to as the dancer in the museum as visitor: “The dancers were visitors,” Lemon said of his own experience of performing in the Atrium, “visitors with agency, but visitors”. “Dance,” continued Lemon, “will always be on the outside. It doesn’t really belong there.”
Here, it should be mentioned that Boris Charmatz’s base in Rennes, France, is called “Musée de la Danse” (Dance Museum). So, there is already with Charmatz a conception of museality that has been transmuted into the reality of dancing. In the discussion Charmatz characterized his appearances at the Museum of Modern Art as an opportunity to place one museum within the other. The idea with respect to 20 Dancers for the XX Century is that dancers enact fleeting interventions in which the collections of MoMA are rivaled by the idea of a museum of dance, one in which the dancer him or herself is not only the “work of art”, but also the explicatory label and/or catalogue: in short, in which the dancer is at once artwork, pop-up materialization of choreography, and a living archive able to inform about it. This all happens within a museum that is operating in an entirely different way. The museum within the museum is not an easy fit. The museum of dance that sits uneasily within the halls of the MoMA is multiple: each dancer him or herself, according to Charmatz, constitutes an autonomous museum. As the program puts it:
Each performer presents his or her own museum, where the body is the ultimate space for the dance museum. Hence there is neither a stage nor a demarcation of performance space.
This sounds better on paper than it looks in practice. But, the idea is that the dance museum is virtual. Charmatz states: “the force of a museum of dance lies especially in the fact that it does not yet exist.” If dance appears as a virtual museum within a non-virtual museum then the transitoriness of dance is being emphatically emphasized. In that same manifesto, Charmatz wrote: “We are at a time in history where a museum in no way excludes precarious movements or nomadic, ephemeral, instantaneous movements.” His is a museum within a museum in the sense of a body in a building, a living and breathing human being among artifacts, energy amidst what could be experienced as the inertia of a material culture of the object. What does it mean to say this moment in history does not exclude precarious movements in the museum? Installation and video have been part of museum exhibition and collection for some time now. The dancer’s body may have an archival dimension – but is this enough since a museum is so much more than an archive and in many senses not an archive – but how does the dancer generate on that basis a space of exhibition adequate to their expressive capacity? This is one of the questions that this event raised but did not answer. But, perhaps to raise it is enough.
I still wonder about how the idea of a museum of dance such as Charmatz conceives it can be manifested in the context of an institution such as MoMA where the artwork has been so carefully and expertly staged in galleries. How can dance as visitor compete with visual art in its home if dance does not occupy a space adequate for its own contemplation? The museum within the museum inevitably suggests a comparison – an agon – in the encounter of two forms of art, the visual and the performative.
At times I had the sensation the dancer was challenging the museum as a static space by the intrepid intervention of the moving body – daring, beautiful, theatrical, dynamic, funny — at the museum’s margins and in its very transitional public spaces between galleries or at the base of stairways and escalators. The dancers often took on their marginal status and played it to the hilt. But, this challenge is not of the essence of the desired encounter: the sensation of inferiority at being an artwork as visitor — a turning inside out of the relation between living beings and exhibited objects – leads to certain hubris whereby the living, breathing, animate dancer implicitly expresses a superiority to art that does not move but hangs in stasis while, nonetheless, that “static” art maintains its monetary value and cultural capital. Museums producing dance should take on the responsibility to produce dance visually with the same care they bestow upon visual art. The playing field might thereby be somewhat leveled.
Even though the Musée de la danse in Rennes is not a conventional museum — it has no gallery space — but a place for dancer training and choreographic experimentation it is related to the museum inasmuch as it is also a site for learning and invention. This speaks to a concept of the museum as a space of learning and invention. If Charmatz has chosen to place the word museum next to the word dance it is perhaps because the idea of the self-educating dancer is one that encompasses the dancer’s appropriation of dance history. That history in the twentieth century is one that is deeply engaged with visual art. Thus, for several possible reasons the museum for Charmatz is the appropriate figure of, or term for, such a project. As Yvonne Rainer remarked at the discussion a museum is a conservative institution. However, when the dancer appropriates his or her own history, reserving the right to express, formalize, and articulate it in/as a performance then I believe one may refer to a museum as a performative idea.
All in all, there is – and has been for some time — a tendency in contemporary French dance to put more power in the hands – and bodies – of dancers by wresting control of the pedagogical and historiographic project of institutionalized dance training. A sense of the contemporary dancer as autodidact emerges from recent debates in the French world of contemporary dance. Charmatz’s idea of the museum within the body and the body as a performative mini-museum derives to some degree from this autodidactic project, one that he has described and theorized in the context of an earlier initiative – Bocal (Jar) – in his book Je suis une école. Expérimentation, Art, Pédagogie [I am a school: Experimentation, Art, Pedagogy] (Paris: Les Prairies Ordinaires, 2009). French institutional power over the training of dancers is at issue in the very idea of the dance museum.
The transformative potential of the museum for dance in Charmatz’s view, as I understand it, resides paradoxically in its very educational and specifically autodidactic potential – hence the audience is also meant to learn — although that potential has been transferred from educational institutions such as conservatories or museums to the dancer him or herself.
Sitting in the orchestra of New World Stages on 50th Street in Manhattan on Labor Day eve – I am sinking into my seat which seems to sag backward before the small stage – on which are situated a couch and a chair covered in drop cloths spattered with paint. Behind this sketchy furniture looms a grey framework of a wall (scenic design by Alice Walkling). In the dim light everything, including my seat, seems to be sagging: for the moment, an incomplete stage set, a backstage that might have been placed (hastily) on stage. This is a play, as it will turn out, that will not, or that is not meant to take place. It, too, is sagging. Its characters do not descend into madness: they are mad from the first instant.
Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play, in its current New York City run, is what is known as a “difficult” play. But, please, go see it before it ends its run this fall. Although even by his standards a change of direction, it is quintessential Tennessee Williams thanks to the stunningly brilliant realization of the play’s characters by Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif. Ben Brantley of the New York Times gave it a rave review – right on! – but, he added, he wasn’t sure of the play’s integrity: “I certainly can’t defend it as a cohesive or entirely original work of art” wrote the critic (New York Times, June 21, 2013). I would like to take this as a point of discussion because I heartily disagree. I first came upon the text in 1988 and was sufficiently impressed and haunted by it to choreograph a dance theater work inspired by it. I felt its formal structure was powerful enough to be translated into another (relatively wordless) medium.
Granted one cannot parse the plot. The Two-Character Play shows it characters actively constructing and deconstructing the play they will perform, the boundaries of which are unstable. The status of “the play” is always in question yet the performance of it is riveting. Originally written in 1967, redone under the title Out Cry in 1971, and then reworked yet again under its original title in 1973, this is probably its first successful production. Williams was taking extreme risks in making this not only a play about actors, but a play for actors – one that wagers on the actor’s generating force to convey narrative. Here, the notion of acting – the pathos of performance — itself is put into question thanks to the formal integrity provided by semantic polarity. It is a play about people who go in and out of acting and revealing their life. Plummer and Dourif grasp effectively and profoundly the complexity of the principle conceit: this is and is not a play. The characters seem to create the play, and in this sense the title is quite precise: The Two-Character Play means a play existing only through and by means of its two characters. It is a play for which the characters are script, and the script characters. Of course, it suggests Beckett, Pinter, and Albee – all playwrights who were going beyond the genre in which Williams had excelled in the 1950s. But, does this make it unoriginal? As to cohesiveness: the traditional dramaturgical standards do not apply.
It is too often assumed that because Williams went into relative decline by the 1960s and, like the characters of this play, was subject to emotional breakdown, his work also declined. But, The Two-Character Play is a reflection of the world he was living in as well as an attempt to deal with it in dramaturgically different terms. He was pushing himself creatively. There is a purposeful uncertainty throughout concerning whether or not the brother and sister – Felice and Clare – are actually performing a play. To appreciate this, one has to accept a formal questioning of the conditions of theatrical representation – a stage representing a room, which may be the room in which the play is to take place, or may represent a room that can never be a stage but instead a house in which our characters are imprisoned, but might equally be an empty theatre where a play might be staged at any moment. The closeness of Felice and Clare is reminiscent of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, but also Suddenly, Last Summer (when the main character is threatened with a lobotomy to which the author’s own beloved sister Rose was subjected). Although Williams remains within the terms of his own poetic universe and personal obsessions, he likewise fashions something willfully beyond realist theater. This does not mean he had lost his mind, but rather that he was continuing to examine closely personal experience while also questioning at a formal level his ability to represent it on stage. There is a sharp contrast between the personal and the formal that could be put down to madness, but which is also structuring for the play. Is this in fact so new for Williams? Had he not also experimented radically in 1953 – in the midst of his greatest successes – with Camino Real, a play that also took many risks and did not win over the public.
Plummer and Dourif who stage an intimacy between themselves that cuts through the dividing line between theatricality and the real support Williams’s questioning. They exist in a very private world of brother and sister – imaginative, competitive, tender and somewhat erotic – so that the indeterminacies of the text as well as its abrupt shifts seem to be located in this private subjective experience. They make of privacy a performance and thus live out the failure to make the play take place as the very condition of its performance. At the same time, they are extremely theatrical – they seem actually, as characters, obsessed with their own theatricality – outbursts that lead to dead ends. The transitions and shifts of mood in the vocal timbre, rhythm, and physical expression are particularly subtle, and constitute, I dare say, the very fascination of these translucent and masterful performances. These characters are character shifters: old and young, nostalgic and terrified, creative and blocked, aggressive and tender. So, here we have a structure of contradiction that is lived through before us and that supports the uncertainties of the play itself as play. And, the actors impeccably embody this structure. The structure of the play that some claim is missing is articulated by the acting itself.
The characters do feel they are constructing a play – a scripted entity that they alter and reject as it comes into being. They discuss whether the play is a play; they produce the play as a psychological entity that cannot take place because it is a psychological trap. They discuss what should be cut, how one can “get lost” in the play, or “dry up” in the play. Scripting is a form of being and thinking. They motivate a text that performs failure in order to stage psychological paralysis and damaged subjectivity. In short Williams’ experiment with form is replete with a psychological dimension of paralysis, fear, and incipient collapse that impedes on the formal investigation. The question of whether a play is there is a question the characters talk through, and even seem to live. “A simple lie is one thing,” remarks Felice. “But, the opposite of the truth?!”
The Humanities Research Institute of the University of California at Irvine is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary; the commemorative poster shows the members of the research group Choreographic History, convened by Susan Leigh Foster. They are (left to right): Lena Hammergren, Mark Franko, Susan Foster, Linda Tomko, Marta Savigliano, Heidi Gilpin, Randy Martin, Nancy Reuter, Peggy Phelan, and Sally Ness. It occasioned this reminiscence:
It was 1993 and I had barely arrived in Santa Cruz from the east coast to take up my position as Assistant Professor of Dance at UCSC when I found myself at Irvine for half a year with my dance scholar colleagues in the Choreographing History research group. Susan Foster had arrived at UCR a few years earlier, but we had already met in New York during the 1980s where we shared a study group, informally called the New York Study Group. The Choreographing History group was sometimes referred to between us as a continuation of the earlier entity. (Richard Bull playfully accused us of trying to take our act to Broadway).
I felt something freeing about writing on dance in California even though the dance I was writing about was not from California. I had already been browbeaten for writing on dance in a literature department at Princeton University, and New York seemed too invested in its institutional histories, ones that could not make space for “free” thinking but was bound up in perpetuating its own myths: the myths of the great dance institutions that had made history since the 1930s and the myths of the great east coast universities that dance did not exist: a vise of anti-intellectualism and anti-experimentalism (read: anti-dance as an intellectual discipline). The spaces of California worked for me at this moment as an antidote to such unpleasant and arbitrary restrictions, and the residency at UCHRI was the very embodied situation of this newly won sense of freedom. These were heady days for dance studies as it emerged from the carapace of dance history and redefined dance theory in relation to many varieties of cultural and critical theory. The theoretical horizon seemed unlimited (and, actually was unlimited) and Southern California seemed the proper geographical locus for this emergence.
Our meetings and discussions were intense and I remember moments when we seemed to be touching on something particularly subversive and the door was shut as we all faced each other like conspirators. These were perhaps also slightly comical moments, and meant as such, but they engendered a frisson or at least a kind of acknowledgment of a revolutionary potential. I think one can make this out in the group mood of the photo. There was certain self-aware edginess to the whole enterprise as we did not quite know exactly where we were going, but felt we were co-conspirators. There were many dinners after these long seminars and we went on into the night; it was exciting and also exhausting. It was out of that seminar that we published the collective volume Corporealities. Dancing, knowledge, culture and power (London: Routledge, 1996). I think the Choreographing History residency was extremely generative of the work of all involved for years to come.