Blogs mnartists.blog Lightsey Darst

Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance critic, and English instructor. Her book Find the Girl is coming out in April 2010 from Coffee House Press. Photo courtesy Lightsey Darst.

The Columnest: Whistling in the Dark

I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today). Truly, […]

Flight 714, also known as Flight 714 to Sydney, is the twenty-second tale of The Adventures of Tintin released in 1968.

“Flight 714,” also known as “Flight 714 to Sydney,” was released in 1968 and is the 22nd tale of The Adventures of Tintin.

I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today).

Truly, my drive to work is not bad at all. The highway is busy and 70-miles-an-hour jolts me at 7 am, but dawn comes through the bare trees on the ridges with pink, purplish, apricot, or lemon veils of light, every day a slightly different spectrum glowing and shifting as I round the side of the big city I never see. Then I take my exit and turn off on a country road that winds down through the university’s agricultural extension, past an old mill with its lake and millwheel and geese, past the cows on the hillside with the blasted stump and the old split rail fence, past the church and the cemetery, past old farm houses and ’50s ranch homes and a mobile home park and a couple of posh new subdivisions, past the little family cemetery and the strawberry farm. It’s dreamy and misty and I hear myself say “oh!” whenever I see something I didn’t notice before—“oh!” to the first burst of daffodils, or, if the cows are close by the fence, “hello cows!” Would I rather be asleep? Of course. But I have to make a living. And I’ve learned to like my little dawn pilgrimage.

It’s the way back from work that gets me. I can’t separate from my job in time to enjoy the country road—and then I’m sucked into and stuck on the highway, which is simultaneously hectic and boring. Trying to keep myself to 70 and stay awake, to anticipate semis, entering traffic, and assorted assholes, I’m miserable.

Then I am dependent on the radio for relief. Like everyone else in my neighborhood/voting bloc/yoga class, I listen to National Public Radio. Now, while I like NPR, approve of it in general, and am immensely grateful that the service exists, etc, that does not accurately describe my actual feeling as I am driving that 25-minute highway stretch. No, my actual feeling is more capricious and mad—more Stockholm syndrome, with a little road rage thrown in. My inane crush on Kai Ryssdal (whom I never saw before I googled him a moment ago)—“Kai, you stud!” I coo or catcall him when he comes on—is matched by nothing but my riotous and unreasonable hatred of some other hosts I won’t mention. When the reporters cover something I’m interested in, I’m delighted with them and think they are good people; when they cover something that bores me, I hiss at them and make fun of their voices.

Here’s the only story I really want to hear at the moment: the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Why? Not because I’m morbid; I barely remember the Air France crash of 2009, and while the story of flight MH370 is probably a tragedy, we don’t know that for sure yet. For now it’s a mystery—and an exceptionally puzzling one, with clues cropping up here and there, experts and amateurs spouting opinions. Even Courtney Love is weighing in. Besides, the story of MH370 brings up Big Issues: it pits man against machine, country against country, and modern technology against the great beyond. Scads of volunteers scroll through satellite photos of the sea’s winking surface while we wonder: can anything be really lost these days? We’re incredulous—and a little excited, because for most Americans this story is without personal consequence, happening on the opposite side of the globe to a small crew of unlucky people.

For me, the story of flight MH370 echoes something long sunk in the mud of my mind: Flight 714, a Tintin comic in which a supersonic jet is hijacked and landed on a tiny Indonesian island. Amid ancient artifacts, devious millionaires, truth serums, telepathy, flying saucers, and a volcano, everything turns out fine, as usual in Tintin books. Perhaps that also affects my interest in MH370: the hope of a happy ending against the odds, a story that doesn’t end the way you know it probably will.

Yeats_Tombstone_(3585068950)

All this is awful, I know, this daydream induced by someone’s actual trouble. But that’s the state of the commuter, zooming over the blank land between one place and another, unattached, whistling idly and waiting for reality to begin again. As Yeats says,

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest: Life Seen Through Others’ Lenses

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. […]

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad, Minneapolis, MN, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad: Minneapolis, MN, 2014. All photos courtesy of the artist.

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. My fantasies foundered rapidly, but not before I took a few photos (something I rarely do) and uploaded one to Instagram. (What is Instagram, anyway? What’s with these streams of images? What do they tell us?)

I suppose the appeal of photos taken by ordinary people is that we can look through each other’s eyes. You live on the Isle of Skye, I live in North Carolina; you’re a professional ballerina or a hobby farmer or a stunt pilot, while I am a yoga teacher or a mother of three or a chocolatier; you’re black and I’m white, or you’re seventeen and I’m seventy. In short, you’re not ordinary, and neither am I.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

But this inherent diversity is undercut by the uniformity of our cameras and by their built-in filters (edge blur, vintage — and what’s this 1977 one do?), and by another filter: our shared sense of what makes for a good photo now. Conditions of weather and light, food in erotic soft focus, animals, babies; people seen from a lover’s angle; scenery framed so it seems already inside.

Like the rest of the wired world, photographer and poet Jeffrey Skemp is posting photos. His, though, go up on his blog in a brief series, remain available for ten days or so, and then disappear. Think of it as a show in an alley, the photos leaning casually against unfinished brick; his presentation has the same casual and fleeting quality.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter's Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter’s Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

I can’t pretend to objectivity here. I know Jeffrey; in fact, he took the author photo for my last book. And even if I could, what can I say about photographs? I’m no expert on their technique. All I can tell you is that these images look real and deliberate. Skemp photographs, in his first series, in a few locales (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Addis Ababa), and, though he sometimes gets “lucky” (a perfect reflection, a graceful shadow), more often, he tracks his subject with the patience and sincerity of a portraitist. He looks directly at whatever he’s interested in, and usually it looks back. When Skemp can’t get at what he wants to photograph—when he spies a moose head stuck to the wall in a museum basement, with vitrines and cabinets blocking his path to it—that frustrated communication becomes part of the image. Lovely, many of these images are, but the women he photographs are people before they are beautiful. The animals are beings. The “scenes” are alive too; the inanimate material objects and the immaterial artifacts of vision—an elegantly tall light pole or the reflection of a trash can in glass, the plastic bag creasing, pleating, puckering—have souls.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Skemp puts me in mind of a puzzle I’ve been reading about lately, the puzzle of Leibniz’s monad, which is an atom or a person or a thing, whatever can be singular, and which is the only reality, yet which only reflects the passing unrealities (whatever they are). Never mind — it’s complex and I don’t understand it. What I do understand is that this idea upturns our sense of what is real and what is autonomous, and Skemp’s photos do that, too. They redistribute life.

Now I’m thinking again about that 1977 filter. Oh, the old days of photographs! Remember the slide projector? Two or three weeks after a family vacation, we’d set up the screen, turn out the lights, and revisit our trip in pictures that were surprising because we had never seen them before—and by that piece of obviousness, I mean that we lived our trip in the usual four dimensions, through human eyes, and these were flat, still images. Moreover, these images seemed to come from the vantage of an additional traveler, from an eye that had seen the mountain as smaller than we all remembered, or had gazed on the waterfall until it blurred to a white fuzz, or had caught my mother looking absolutely beautiful and completely unlike herself (and she was beautiful—but none of us had ever seen that particular expression cross her face). That other traveler’s trace is as eerie, now that I think back on it, as any “angel” outlined in a cloud or a spray of light.

Last week, I wandered around the bend of a trail in a local park, and there, not a hundred feet from the parking lot, was a family cemetery. Two stones identified “Father and Mother” and “Sister,” the last buried in 1929; a half-dozen or so broken and blank stones stood for the broken and blank relations below. I stood a moment in my quandary: how to pay attention to these sudden long-dead. Then I snapped a picture—to share it with you, I suppose, once I figure out the right filter.

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest: Uncomfortable in the Best of All Possible Worlds

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004? It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put […]

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004?

It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put the one very far from the other, to say that “swept away” might mean one thing to the American intellectual and quite another to someone with first-hand experience of such a sweeping. However, I have to admit that is still a comparison, a metaphor, and it brings out the perennial question: Can we really understand anything beyond our own experience?

I have just looked up the casualties from the tsunami and, no, I have to think 230,000 dead is beyond most imagining, loss on a scale incomprehensible to any but god. But that’s not the point either, exactly. Any one victim or survivor perceived only a piece of that. I want to say yes—because that is what this whole project of language is about, after all. We speak to each other, knowing that heart and home and loss are all relative, and yet feeling that we can be together in those words.

And yet, this assumption that we do speak to each other—you know that’s not completely true. Across some divides people don’t talk, or talk only in a partial way, without expectation of understanding. This has been brought home to me recently by the kerfuffle around Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen’s use of black bodies, by comments from outspoken women of color on my Facebook feed, and by the conversation surrounding #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: There are moments when I should not try to envelope another person’s experience in my own, when I should not imagine I can understand. There are moments to be uncomfortable, and moments to be silent.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The other week, when I said I felt I was riding a raveling edge, I meant that I’m aware of my wonderful luck in comparison to most of the human animals who have ever lived—aware, and maybe afraid. I think of all the people who have been completely unaware of that edge until they fell off it. I think of Lisbon: on October 31, 1755, one of the largest and most splendid cities in Europe, and the next day almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, a tenth to a fifth of its population dead.

Perhaps I’m thinking of Lisbon because I often, writing these columns, feel like a twenty-first century feminist Pangloss, sending you off with a chirpy utterance about how everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds—and Lisbon is the scene for part of Voltaire’s wicked satire. Now, in tenth grade European history, we found Pangloss’s optimism as ridiculous as it was meant to be, set amid disaster and cruelty, rape, torture, disease, and summary execution. But we were not so aware of our own optimism, the optimism of our culture.

I have been thinking, lately, about closure, what we recognize as closure, and thinking about how a satisfactory ending is likely culturally bound. What is a well-educated white woman’s sense of closure? I skimmed a book of poetry the other day, noting how every poem ended with a solemn line, a Saxon word, a quiet image. And I felt sick of it all. If I know the ending already, how can the poem be anything new? A vase of flowers—or anything, really—in a cracked window, lit by twilight? Forget it! You know this small town like the back of your hand. Short fiction is as bad. If the story ends with Jamey leaving in her beat-up Subaru or pick-up, whether or not she waves on her way out (a difference the writer sweated over), just stop. You’ve been here before. And in the personal essay—this form, in short—you can expect all the disparate threads to turn out to be part of some grand design.

Where, then, can we go? Gentle reader, I don’t know.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: The Romance of Riding a Raveling Edge

At a party in Durham, I get into a conversation that goes nowhere. That is, it goes on, but it violates the cardinal rules of party conversation: it is not about sex, and it does not show any signs of becoming about sex, either. I slide over to another conversation, which is about something a […]

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At a party in Durham, I get into a conversation that goes nowhere. That is, it goes on, but it violates the cardinal rules of party conversation: it is not about sex, and it does not show any signs of becoming about sex, either. I slide over to another conversation, which is about something a little less stiff, and then it is about bike cops. “I find bike cops endearing,” I declare.

“Which do you prefer,” someone asks, “bike cops or horse cops?”

Difficult question! The women ponder their relative merits, and then someone—it’s probably me—notes that there is “something kinky” about horse cops. The next conversation over stops. “Thank goodness!” exclaims the hostess, emptying the last of what must be a jeroboam (“surprisingly good, considering it only cost twelve dollars!”) into her cup. “It was nothing but boys talking about bike accidents before.”

I’ve met most of these people just once, at another party in the same “set”; their names, jobs, provenance are a soup in my mind. “You’re from Florida,” I say to one woman, waving my Solo cup of prosecco at her, “maybe Tampa, Orlando?”

She gives me a fish-eyed stare. “I’m from Pennsylvania, actually,” she says, as if she is rebuffing the fortune-teller at the fair, “which is about as far away as you can get.” I would have thought that was Alaska, but maybe she means temperamentally far away, which could be true: she looks very sensible, and Florida is where crazy people come from. When that got to be true, I’m not sure; I don’t think it was the case when I was growing up there. But between the 2000 election and the sinkholes and Swamplandia! and Florida Man on Twitter, my home state has become firmly established as a crazy place. Sure, I have stories, but who didn’t go to an off-brand Montessori with a circus net in the backyard? An off-brand Montessori that is now, I might add, an abandoned motel.

The Pennsylvanian and I mutually split, turning away from each other like double doors opening, and I shortly find myself in a line-up of three rather tipsy redheads, all leaning in to hear a fourth redhead, deadly sober, describe the circumstances of her long-distance relationship. They are allowed to see and sleep with other people, as long as they don’t fall in love. “Excuse me,” someone bursts in (is it me?), “but that’s—” Whoever it is puts her hand over her mouth.

“No, say it,” says the sober girl. “It’s bullshit.”

“It’s bullshit,” we agree.

“I’m doing the same thing,” one of the tipsy redheads proclaims. I’m starting to wonder whether any of us really have red hair. Maybe the sober girl; her skin has that ginger tinge. It turns out this other girl’s relationship is almost opposite: she and her erstwhile boyfriend are not in love and not planning to be together in the future, but they still sleep together. What the relationships have in common is sex without attachment, which I for one could never do. Those silly things—a curl of hair, the dimple of a back-muscle—how do you immunize yourself against them? How can you be a lover without loving?

Besides, everyone wants to be swept away, I think, even sensible Pennsylvanians. Everyone wants to fall in love, everyone wants to believe.

I FLY TO MINNEAPOLIS FOR THANKSGIVING. Outside it’s bitter: the air is white, the wind is mean, the landscape is pared down to its winter palette of browns, and the lakes, freshly skinned with ice, look like still photos of themselves. But inside, Minneapolis glows. In La Belle Vie, all chandeliers, banked candles, and cocktails like precious jewels—a red wine like a ruby, a gold-tinted martini—my love and Linda and I carry on a happy chatter. It’s the sort of conversation you remember almost nothing of later: stories, compliments, effusions of enthusiasm. We talk about—this I do remember—the postmodern leap, the moment when you accept that art does not need to make sense, does not need to be beautiful in any familiar way. Making this leap is like losing your religion, or like falling in love, in that there’s no guarantee it will happen to you, and you can’t really make it happen, but when it does, nothing is the same again.

We are all laughing as we talk, marveling at our good luck. But from the outside, from the other country, postmodern work looks dour and unfriendly; I remember that. The disconcerting freefall—art can be, I can be, the world can be entirely other, deeply unsettled—I remember touching the edge of that, like a child tasting wine, or a swimmer putting a toe in an undercurrent.

There are, of course, other stories haunting this romanticism of mine. In Sri Lanka, my friend asked our driver how he happened to become a vegetarian. He told us the story. He and his brother and his brother’s wife were all at home; his wife was up the hill, at the temple. Then the tsunami came. In a moment the home vanished in the wave. He and his brother clung to a storm wall and somehow survived; the brother’s wife was swept out to sea and never seen again. His own wife, up the hill at the temple, was fine. So he converted, became a vegetarian, became a driver. Everything they had was gone, and he had to start over.

Now, whose story am I telling, and how does it relate to the undertow? Two stories are simple enough. My friend and I, strangers in this beautiful island, dazed and foolish, but protected by our American passports and credit cards (and by Sri Lankan friends), could afford to let this new world wash over us. And the sister-in-law: I imagine her relation to that wave was simple enough. But I wonder about the driver—Ranil is his name: chastened but alive, eyes opened to his survival, how did he think of it all? I remember that he drank the strong highland tea so fast his mouth steamed when he spoke.

Back to Durham. One of the two tall buildings downtown, the SunTrust building, is in the midst of renovation; it’s becoming some kind of high-class art hotel. They’ve been taking the letters off the top, and they’ve stopped, the last couple of weeks, at RUST. It’s probably intentional: Durham is an odd place, and Durhamites can afford to laugh at their city’s dirty, rusty image now that Durham is in the midst of a boom.

Drinking my coffee, looking out at the sign from a renovated garage that is now a very hip little coffee shop, I have a sense of riding a raveling edge. A thousand miles away, my love’s getting on a plane to come back to me; I am diving into revisions of poems, peeling away my lines to feel the dark matter between.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: The Politics of Hair

Lately I’ve been cutting my own hair. It’s a way to spend some quality time with myself in the bathroom without staring at my own face constantly. I imagine I can’t be alone in having spent, probably, several months of my life looking at my face in the mirror, wondering what people see and what […]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lillith, oil on canvas, 1866–68, 1872–73. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lillith, oil on canvas, 1866–68, 1872–73. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.

Lately I’ve been cutting my own hair. It’s a way to spend some quality time with myself in the bathroom without staring at my own face constantly. I imagine I can’t be alone in having spent, probably, several months of my life looking at my face in the mirror, wondering what people see and what is that spot and where’s that dark hair on my chin. Compared to this, cutting my hair is meditative—plus, it’s free. I pluck up a bit of hair and skate down it with the embroidery scissors (what else am I going to use them for?). I’m curly, so it doesn’t matter what I do; everything blends back into the mane the moment after I cut it.

At least, I tell myself it doesn’t matter. Hair is political, and curly hair is worse. I remember getting my hair cut sometime in my early twenties, when it was a similarly unruly mess, and the hairdresser telling me that sometime I would want a “more professional” hair cut. I had no idea what she was talking about. Slowly the meaning has dawned on me—she meant hair no one could reproach me for—but I never have gotten that professional cut. Nor have I ever learned to handle the tools I would need for such a cut: blow-dryer, curling iron, god knows what else.

Why does any of this matter? A few years ago, I’m sitting in a job interview, wearing a suit. There’s cat hair on my suit, though I have lint-rolled myself. I’m not wearing hose or tights because it’s warm and frankly I don’t have a pair without a ladder in them. (I regard the ladders as fetching, if you want to know the truth.) That’s mistake number 2. Mistake number 1 is my hair, which in the humidity of July is more pubic bush than shellacked professional wig. I get that its drift makes me look “artsy,” unserious somehow, but—if you’re shaking your head at me now, I understand—I never thought it mattered before.

Surely, among all the cat gifs, cities you must see in your twenties (I’m thirty-five, so thanks for that!), and posture dos & don’ts for women, someone has composed a peppy timeline of such realizations. You know what I mean: Around three, you realize you are a finite self; around 19, you realize your parents are just people; around 27 (or 47, if you’re a late bloomer), you realize you’re not a rock star. I have one to add: Somewhere in your thirties, you realize that really successful people are crazy. What I mean is that high-achieving types in any field live their field. They are that thing all the time. It is their fun, their work, their dream, their first love. To “relax,” they read the blogs of their field. “Work-life balance” means nothing to them, because work is life and life is work.

Dear reader, are you one of them? I know I am not. Now let me say, briefly, I am immensely grateful for what I have. People I admire talk to me, and I am able to do many things I want to do. I get to, for example, write this column. But I also gaze out of the window, and I do things that have nothing to do with my career(s). Normally, this would not matter, because as far as I know, you and I, reader, do not want to be Lady Gaga. However, in this merciless state of our economy, Gaga’s commitment to never ever wearing pants is (metaphorically) trickling downward. A case in point: I made mistake number 3 when I asked my interviewers about their research interests—the professional equivalent of asking about their hobbies. One after another, they told me they had none. They all worked constantly. If they had some time, they would like to cook, maybe even eat. I must have looked shell-shocked as I tried to keep a listening smile plastered on my face. But I doubt it mattered, because they already knew I wasn’t their woman: my hair told them so.

Now, in case I have given you the impression of a flaneur with fabulous hair, let me disabuse you of that. It was Mandy who first told me about the hair championships—Mandy, who later had her mahogany crop shorn and dyed into a blue-black asymmetrical faux-hawk at Vidal Sassoon. Mandy waxed poetic about the hair performance, in which Adam and Eve, dressed only in their flowing tresses, emerged from the earth and kicked off a creation story replete with literally angel-headed hipsters. I don’t know what hair competition Mandy modeled for, but search for “hair championships” and you come across a gallery of “day styles” Cyndi Lauper never dreamed of, with hyped-up 80s bangs and vibrant orange sprays. “Hair art” brings up even more outré images—women transformed into birds of paradise, a man with a hair gecko on his head, women with octopi, trees, donkeys on their heads, along with slightly more wearable looks like hair balloons and heaps of multicolored braids.

bernice_art bernice_cov

No, I’m a little more like Fitzgerald’s Bernice. Remember Bernice? She’s an oddity among Fitzgerald’s heartless beauties, a shifting girl caught midstream in her story. When she finally bobs her hair, as she’s been threatening in order to gain everyone’s interest, she loses her beaux but gains—who knows what: I don’t think Fitzgerald did. He packs her off to Eau Claire at the end of the story, swinging her wicked cousin’s scissored braids. But surely she went to New York instead and became—not a star—but a person.

One more hair story? In New York, sitting at Hummus Kitchen, I watched a waitress come in. She put on her apron and took down her hair—a russet river that tumbled down to her hips, or it would have if it ever hung still. Instead, the tail of it, brushed to a burnished sheen, told stories of every step she took.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: I’m Google, Polyamory, Trisha Brown and Learning to Let Go

I’ve been taking release technique. Release is a type of modern dance born of the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. A Cliffs Notes history: sixties troublemakers, bored with “technique” and finding its history of elitism incompatible with their political beliefs and with the practices of their comrades in visual and other arts, began focusing […]

Screenshot from I am Google, a Tumblr of imagesby  Dina Kelberman

Screenshot from I’m Google by Dina Kelberman

I’ve been taking release technique. Release is a type of modern dance born of the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. A Cliffs Notes history: sixties troublemakers, bored with “technique” and finding its history of elitism incompatible with their political beliefs and with the practices of their comrades in visual and other arts, began focusing on dance as task, on uninflected, un-virtuoso, pedestrian dance. A dancer responding to a task is necessarily improvising; dancers pursuing improvisation for its own sake found that improvisation worked best with an open and capable body, one that could go in any direction at any moment. Throw in a pinch of Alexander Technique and other body-alignment systems, and you get release: a form of dance that prizes an open body, whether improvising with another or executing a combination.

What does release look like? The Trisha Brown Dance Company. Spinning into and through the floor. A traveling balance that disintegrates yet remains a balance. Constant flow. With her head thrown back, she spins with one leg up, then flips so the leg that was in front of her is now behind her body but still up, her head perilously low. She crumples into the floor but keeps going; a sweep sets her upright again, but tottering backward. Her arms reach for light.

I ask a friend in her twenties what’s trending in young sex. “Polyamory,” she says—not so much the practice but the public identity. People are polies now the way people are vegetarians, or redheads. We discuss the polies. Are they for real? The irony (or is it an irony at all?) is that the most sincere and solid polies my friend has run across seek not multiple lovers, but multiple loving relationships: more caresses, less sex. (I propose an axiom: whatever’s trending in sex is never about sex.) My friend and I, both happily coupled, come down on the side of monogamy. But the conclusion we reach, I can’t help noticing, makes a neat mirror image to our last conversational topic, freelancing versus having a “real job”—in which we voted for freelancing, because who wants to depend on one and only one?

Trisha Brown, Untitled (Set One), soft ground etching with relief roll on paper, 2006. Photo: Walker Art Center

Trisha Brown, Untitled (Set One), soft ground etching with relief roll on paper, 2006. Photo: Walker Art Center

Here’s something entrancing: I’m Google, the artist Dina Kelberman’s sprawling Tumblr. Once I decided to write about this site, I visited it every so often, intending to “assess” the scroll of images somehow and formulate some sentences. But I always get lost in plastic doll shoes, for example, remembering how once I had seven or eight pairs of these — all different colors, plus some spares — and how some clearly went with one doll or another, but other shoes mysteriously did not fit anybody’s feet. Why should dolls have shoes? Little high-heeled sandals, for example, or clumpy white Mary Janes. And then I scroll a little further and the worst, most gnawed-on shoes give way to melty bits of plastic and then to a negative-space blob that might be a hearing aid, and then splotches of Play-Doh, dough, then dirt buggies in blooming clouds of sand. I thought, when I first saw this site, that Kelberman had created some image-searching algorithm that served up the rolling carpet of color and pattern that is somehow also our world, but no: she trawls through Google for this stuff herself, matching a kid in a sand castle to a lunar crater to Crater Lake.

A few years back a student of mine, Brendan Dawson, created some “poems” out of Google image searches. He printed pages and pages, exhausting searches on phrases like “How to draw a fox.” The fun in these poems was seeing where images of hot women—the detritus of the internet—took over from cartoon red foxes. But when I try this myself now, my searches don’t work the same way. They don’t get exhausted, for one thing; they go on and on in a vast web of images, all connected one to another by ever more tenuous threads. For another, porn is no longer the baseline. Instead, my search unravels in pictures of people, homely pictures, office pictures, women smiling over diplomas, dogs, flowers, smiles of various types, network profile images, LinkedIn, Twitter — hello, here I am, pick me — from here to the horizon.

Screenshot from I am Google, a Tumblr by Dina Kelberman

Screenshot from I’m Google, a Tumblr by Dina Kelberman

I don’t find release technique easy. I’m ballet-trained, and ballet works in form and shape. I suspect this is not a helpful understanding of ballet, which might be why I’m here trying to learn to let my head move as I move. In ballet, the head remains erect on the stem of the neck; it inclines this way and that way, but its weight remains suspended. In some way the head is not of the body, not merely another limb or appendage, which is what it becomes in release. To put this another way: dances express ideals. The erect head of the ballet dancer expresses an ideal of vision and choice, of rational selfhood. The tumbling body of the release dancer expresses instinct in a storm—an ideal of openness, adaptation, abandonment, selflessness. As I attempt to spin about with my head in my armpit, I imagine a woman in 1973 telling herself I should be able to accept any arrangement of lovers.

What I love about I’m Google is how it flips between the abstract and the mundane without passing through grandeur or critique. What does that mean? I’m not at all sure. The images are all photographs, all factual; they represent elements of a world that remains mostly unknown to me. I imagine I will never see a jet dropping bright red retardant on a forest fire in real life. At the same time, the jet’s red streak becomes merely color and design as it blurs with a scarlet kayak and then a red clay track.

It’s as if you didn’t have to choose.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: To Be Rather Than To Seem

The barista has a tattoo: esse quam videri around a careful monochrome rendering of a longleaf pinecone. Esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem—is the motto of North Carolina, the state to which I’ve just moved after thirteen years in Minnesota; the longleaf pine is the state tree. The pinecone reminds me of my […]

William Henry Fox Talbot, photographer (English, 1800 - 1877) Leaves of Orchidea, April 1839, Photogenic drawing negative Image: 17.1 x 20.8 cm (6 3/4 x 8 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

William Henry Fox Talbot, photographer (English, 1800 – 1877). Leaves of Orchidea, April 1839, Photogenic drawing negative. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The barista has a tattoo: esse quam videri around a careful monochrome rendering of a longleaf pinecone. Esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem—is the motto of North Carolina, the state to which I’ve just moved after thirteen years in Minnesota; the longleaf pine is the state tree. The pinecone reminds me of my mother’s botanical illustrations, the hours she spent getting down the details of nuts, seeds, cross-sections viewed in her microscope. Art was far less important than accuracy; years after she quit doing the illustrations (a spate of spider lilies wore her out), she was still wondering what her botanical style might be, if she had one. Did she think of plants as playful and twining, their flower-heads nodding, Beatrix Potter style? On the evidence, she did not. Her plants are not people: they are complex biological mechanisms that transfer mineral flow from root and leaf to flower, then seed, then succeeding stem, root, leaf, flower. Once she had drawn the pinecone—reduced it to a schematic essence of black lines—she would carefully press a stick-on letter next to it so that it could be identified in the key: a: cone (female).

State mottos are a higgledy-piggledy mess, I learn from the interwebz, by which I mean Wikipedia. Most are in Latin, but some are in other languages, like Minnesota’s L’étoile du Nord, French for “Star of the North,” which seems less like a motto than a label. The punsters in Michigan went with Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice, a twisted version of Christopher Wren’s London memorial, meaning “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Because I studied Latin in high school I learned many of these mottos years ago and can greet Maine’s Dirigo (“I lead”) as an old friend, but others are new to me, like Montana’s up-front Oro y plata (“Gold and silver”), and then others are just new, like Kentucky’s Deo gratiam habeamus (“Let us be grateful to God”), adopted in 2002. When I go looking to see what caused Kentuckians to feel the need for gratitude in 2002, all I can find is their even more recent desire for a zingier line: in 2012, Kentucky saw a push for “Kentucky Kicks Ass” as a new state slogan.

So why North Carolina adopted Esse quam videri in 1893 remains a mystery.

Prada fall campaign. Photos by Steven Meisel (c) Prada

Prada fall campaign. Photos by Steven Meisel (c) Prada

Speaking of seeming, I’ve loved fashion as long as I can remember; “Style with Elsa Klensch,” anyone? The shimmering chrysalises of transformation spoke to me from the first. These days, my interest continues undimmed, but I have less and less tolerance for models. Consider the current Prada campaign. The clothes are lovely: a just-unbuttoned knit with an open portrait neck worn under a close-fitting jumper of leather or heavy wool, a flared tweed skirt, a belted coat with bell sleeves, all in soaked shades of scarlet, peacock, or wet asphalt. To me these garments suggest a woman in her prime, a romantic, who is in the midst of the moment of her life—call it a sensual awakening if you want—and yet is, in spite of everything, an innocent. For the first time in her life, she knows she doesn’t know her limits. She’s an optimist and a fool and she’s fascinating, and I want to see what she does next.

But for these passionate clothes the models have nothing but the same old faces, or rather the same young faces, absurdly projecting an experience and longing thin as the paper it’s printed on. What do they know about how that skin bared by one undone button feels on the first day of fall? Nothing, apparently: frozen in sexy face, they wait for the shoot to be over.

Models are an easy target, though. Maybe I should be picking on the photographers who prompt and frame their looks (here, Steven Meisel). Or maybe this whole theme strikes you as ridiculous. Benjamin Franklin would think so. He wrote this in his “The Way to Wealth” (1758): “And after all, of what use is this pride of appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It cannot promote health, or ease pain; it makes no increase of merit in the person, it creates envy, it hastens misfortune.”

esse

Esse quam videri: the source for the motto is the Roman orator Cicero, commenting on how most people would rather be thought virtuous than be so. Poor Cicero, things didn’t turn out well for him; in 43 BC, Marc Antony ordered his murder, and after he was killed, his severed hands and head were displayed in the Roman forum.

I’m a dance critic and a lifelong dancer. After thirty years in ballet class, ballet is my yoga, more or less; without it, I’m cranky and my body doesn’t work right. But since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had trouble finding a ballet home. All the classes I’ve tried have been expensive, far away, stuffed in a tiny room, or executed to canned music.

Restless and bereft of ballet, I head out for a kickboxing class. It’s my first, so I have no idea what to expect; will we be sparring or busting through blocks of wood? No: it turns out that we bounce around to music as we kick and jab at things. It’s a dance class, more or less. “Go for the chin! the chin!” the instructor screams, and all over the crowded room people pummel their imaginary assailants, who seem to have great reflexes, as they are constantly on the move. I find myself pulling my punches in as well as throwing them out; it feels nice on my shoulder to almost release and then reel back my momentum, but it is nothing like a real punch. The woman in front of me whales on air.

Esse quam videri tattoo” turns out to be Google’s fifth choice for the phrase. The barista is not alone. Image search takes you to head-spinningly contradictory photos of buff types displaying their new tattoo that asserts essence over appearance. One man flexes his philosophically inked pecs; he looks as if he’s eaten nothing but protein powder for the past week.

Still, I like the barista’s tat. She does real things with her biceps, like make coffee, and she lives in North Carolina, so why not? Appearance is not false simply because it is appearance. I still remember the shirt I wore to the revelation: a cornflower-blue button-down.

A friend of mine once told me she knew what I was going through. Turned out she was wrong.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

Reviewing the Reviewer: The Conclusion of our Conversation Between Artist Paula Mann and Critic Lightsey Darst

Editor’s note: In February 2012, mnartists.org’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis. A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response; […]

Steve Paul, Cyclotron from The Train Wreck is Proceeding Nicely. Pictured: Paula Mann. Photo by William Cameron, courtesy of Time Track Productions.

Editor’s note: In February 2012, mnartists.org’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis.

A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response; Lightsey wrote her back, and asked if she’d like to embark on an experiment, a conversation about the work, between the reviewer and reviewed, undertaken for publication here. And so began a fascinating, weeks-long exchange between the two — on art and dance and the balancing act of bringing critical judgment to bear on both; on audience perception and creative intentions, and the mettle-testing value of flopping in public. We’re publishing their back-and-forth in two installments.

You can read the first half of the conversation here.

Find the second half of their exchange below.

Related links and information: Lightsey Darst’s column on local dance last week reflected on a new collaborative, multimedia dance work by Time Track Productions, Here and After, featuring choreography by Paula Mann and media imagery by Steve Paul, with original music by Michelle Kinney (Jelloslave). The work was performed at TEK BOX  in Minneapolis September 27 through 30, 2012. You can read the review of this new work, Here and After, on mnartists.org now.

*****

From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Where’s a forum for artists to talk about what they’re attempting to create?

Hi Lightsey,

First of all, just want to say that I think this conversation is immensely valuable to me as an individual artist and hopefully to others in the community. In fact, it has taken me a while to respond because there is just so much I want to say. There really isn’t a forum for artists to state what they were attempting to create. After working with young artists for over 20 years, I’m going to venture the following generalization: Most dance artists are extreme perfectionists. And, of course, we are all trained that way, and there are real-world reasons for this; the same thing applies to creation of a work. Initially, I live in the world of ideas while creating; it’s an exciting place where anything is possible and perfect. Then, you actually have to make the work, with whatever limitations are present — be they money, time, or energy. I’ve never had a piece turn out exactly the same way as I imagined it (‘O, The Humanity’ was supposed to have 20 extra people in it, etc.), and because I value the imagination as a real source for my work, there is always an uncomfortable gap between what I wished to create and what was actually created. I would like to get better at this (big sigh).

Now, on to the question of reviewing dance for public education and/or consumption: I hate to admit that I was around back then, but in the 1980s and 90s we all read reviews, and they seemed to have an impact on our careers. A good review could mean more audience, money at the box office, getting noticed by a presenter and, it could add to your artistic persona. At least, that was the game we all seemed to be playing. One person’s opinion (educated or not) had some power then.

Who reads reviews now? I can’t be sure. I know I do. It’s difficult to get my students at the university to read reviews, unless it’s required in the syllabus. Is there just too much information to consume and not enough file space left in our brains?  And getting back to your question about the real effects of technology, I’m going to step out on a proverbial limb here and say we (as humans) might have just reached a state of total brain-fry. Or maybe we will soon. Jump cut to me as a teacher, trying to help people create choreography, which requires some inward reflection. To heighten creativity, research has shown that we need to cultivate a more diffused consciousness at times, contrary to the minuscule focus necessary to watch and respond to and on our techno-devices. Simply put, we need to let our minds wander more, silence.

But the question of the purpose of reviewing and recording an event persists. How much weight does an opinion in print have? I know artists who never read reviews. More power to them, but I can’t seem to manage that, and…. I’m curious. Now, with the potential for many more voices to enter the conversation through online blogs or tweeting out short statements, I think it’s a good time to reevaluate the [critical] process.

So, a review could be a starting point for a discussion (among many diverse voices) — about the work itself and about making the work and the overall effect and place dance/movement/performance has in our society. If an audience knows more about the artist and the process used to create a work, how will it affect the audience’s experience?

A small anecdote: In 2005, Steve and I made a piece called The Train Wreck Is Proceeding Nicely — a mess of a piece to be sure, but it was so much fun to try. I think I was at my most creative, really taking risks by doing things I did not know how to do well — and I take full responsibility for that. I did try to edit the work when I realized how much information I was trying to impart, but I ran out of time and, quite frankly, perspective. Camille [LeFevre] (writing then for the Minneapolis Star-Tribuneabsolutely hated it, as it did not live up our last piece; I think your review of that show, Lightsey, was mixed (which is always OK). And after watching it, Philip Bither [performing arts curator for Walker Art Center] has not come to see any of my work since.

Ah, the harsh realities of our world. You might say, “So what, you kept working?” — and so I did, but am I working a little bit safer and thinking about audience reaction more [after that experience]? I learned a valuable personal lesson then, and I won’t go into detail, but I’ll say this: If you’ve never had a public flop, you really ought to try it — it tests your mettle.

1) About movement: I’ve looked at the role of movement vocabulary from a multitude of perspectives, and I’ve experimented a lot, too. I was trained in choreography at NYU by modernists and post–modernists. There, I saw these methodologies intertwine. Movement was developed to deliver the emotional content of the piece and sometimes the movement was just there, its reason for being not always apparent. I’ve always been able to create movement through how I move. In 2000, I stripped out all extraneous movement except what was driven and devised by character. But lately I’ve been revisiting the question of movement: What is it for? How does it function in a piece? Certainly, there’s a specific movement vocabulary — but it’s also about structure, ideas, and the movement all woven together into a whole. Your question remains: How can I, as choreographer, help the audience perceive, know, and understand what is important about that vocabulary?

2) Even though I love technology, or the images that it produces, there is always a non-technology impetus [for my work]. That said — yeah, I admit to sometimes being overwhelmed by the collaboration [between media and disciplines]; and in O, the Humanity, Robert and I were working a long time before media entered the picture. In fact, we didn’t add the media [to the work] until much later. And by saying that you weren’t sure “if I knew it or the piece knew it,” I think that might translate into: I could use more clarity; that is, to be very sure of what I was saying or say it better.

3) Yes and no. And I have no idea if the sci-fi wanderings of my imagination (or Hollywood screen writers) will really come to pass. I do wonder where we are headed as I walk down the street, and everyone I pass seems preoccupied with some device. I guess, I’d rather be occupied by the musings of my own mind, but there it is: What a difference a generation can make. Even if I’m smart enough to control the craziness of my own technology, I can’t separate myself from the rest of the world, or observations of how we, as a people, might be changing. And besides, I’m curious to see how it all turns out. About not buying the premise of the work: Well, that is the most difficult of all concerns, because the premise is my life, and the reason for that is probably my own choreographic blind spot. Now, if I could only figure out what that reason is…?

4) I probably reacted too strongly to the word “bourgeois,” which means, as I understand it, to be part of the elite. I’m a white, middle-aged, low-income artist who often wonders why she didn’t make smarter financial choices when she was younger. I consider myself a part of the 99%, and I’d like to see real change happen, socially and economically. But everything seems driven by commodity now, even art. How are we being controlled by what we think we should buy, or the art we think we should make? A student recently asked me to play ‘Words with Friends’ with him. I had to ask, “What kind of device do I need? An iPhone? Sorry, I have only a regular cell phone. iPhones are too expensive and seem like a waste of time.: Student looks at me and blinks, not knowing how to answer. For sure, I’m an alien creature (a.k.a. old).

I did kind of sense you were talking about the characters as being bourgeois, but since we use media as a way to deliver images, primarily, we are making a statement about technology simply by using it. And to use it, to be driven crazy by it, you have to be able to buy it.

Let’s keep talking,

Paula

*****

From: Lightsey Darst
To: Paula Mann
RE: A new paradigm for reviewing?

Hi, Paula!

I pulled this line out of your letter, because I find it really compelling: “There really isn’t a forum for artists to state what they were attempting to create.”

Someone’s bound to object that the program notes are exactly that forum, but we know it isn’t true. What you’re doing in this exchange, how you’re thinking about what you put into the work and how it turned out, we don’t get to see that at all. But why not? It’s fascinating and it’s instructive. Even being “on the inside” I’m not always sure how things work, what’s pivotal for an artist’s career and how that affects the artist’s development, etc. How could we know more about this?

Your email hints at a way: We can alter the reviewing paradigm to include just this sort of exchange we’re embarked on as a regular part of the discussion around dance… except, that it’s possible no one will read it. Because, as you point out, who reads reviews now? Well, I’m not sure. I can say that when I post my articles on Facebook (more technology, I know how you love that), the articles that get the most response are invariably the personal ones — articles that go in-depth with my or someone else’s experience, that pursue the intimate side of art.

Articles, in short, like this one …

And, to make a possibly over-neat bridge (I think I’ve revealed my weakness for the smooth transition) to the topic of technology, perhaps the saving grace of all this technology might be its capacity for intimacy. Here are all these new spaces, and, yes, they tend to drive us into shallow and commodified communications; but they also allow us (if we’re persistent and clever) a lot of freedom. Hmmm: How does that relate to what you’re saying about using the technology to critique it?

A deeper idea’s coming out for me as I reread your emails: Criticism can be helpful. You’re clearly constantly looking for ways to improve your work, and it sounds as if you’d like to use public and critical perception and feedback for that purpose. It sounds obvious, but I hardly hear anybody say anything like that. Choreographers and artists don’t seem to want to admit that they could use help, and reviewers (this one included) would rather not assume such a presumptuous role. And it seems to me that we usually treat a performance as a thing in itself — accomplished, complete — rather than as part of an artist’s ongoing development.

I’m wondering how this feels from your side: Is there a prohibition on commenting on your own work this way, in public, on revealing your side of it?

Yours in dance,

Lightsey

*****

From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Power to the people

Hi Lightsey,

Our final exchange and I still have so much to say (and not much time)!

Here goes: I think it’s interesting that most people don’t have the opportunity to understand the process of making art, an insider’s view, so to speak. What actually happens when creating something from nothing? I’ve been fascinated by this process, in myself and others, for some time. (I’m researching where ideas come from: intersections of brain science and creativity.)

In my mind, generally speaking, a piece has unending potential to evolve. One could work on a piece throughout a lifetime and never finish, the work being a constant reflection of your consciousness at that time. (I think there was a movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman that took on this topic.) This wouldn’t work, for practical reasons, but sometimes I like to fantasize about what kind of art would be created if the limitations of money and time were out of the picture. But limitations can sometimes produce a heightened awareness and great results: You know you’re working against time, and you absolutely have to make something happen. I’ve spent many years awake in the middle of the night, thinking through my rehearsal for the next day.

I’m glad you feel that making this (process-oriented) information available to the public would be helpful. I don’t think this kind of response can completely covered by a talk-back with the audience or in program notes, but maybe in another format…Likewise, I think it is important for artists to get a glimpse of their work through another’s eyes. And, yes, I would like my work to get better, but one has to ask: Better for whom? For what audience? I know the marketplace, and thinking about that doesn’t make me feel more creative. I think we all want people to like our work; if you truthfully don’t care, I would like to award you with some kind of Detached Creator award. So, I care, but as I get older, I do care less. I fully understand that all opinions (no matter how educated) are subjective; each person registers experiences differently, through their own unique perspective.

Finally, as to effect of technology in our personal lives… this is way too complicated for me to take up in the space I have left here. But I agree with you about the potential change in intimacy level allowed through social media. I’m truly excited that people (assuming they have access) around the world can voice their support and cumulative political power to change our world (to start a revolution, for instance).

Growing up near Detroit in the 1960s, I heard this phrase constantly: Power to the people. Sounds a bit outdated, but I think it’s happening now.  People are taking their power back. The awareness of the creative spark that exists in each of us is fundamental to understanding this innate power.

Thanks for a great exchange — I hope we can do something like this again in the future!

Paula

*****

Below are some scenes from the 2005 performance noted above, The Train Wreck is Proceeding Nicely:

Reviewing the Reviewer: A Conversation Between Choreographer Paula Mann and Dance Critic Lightsey Darst

Editor’s note: In February 2012, mnartists.org’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis. Here is an excerpt of Darst’s critique of the show for mnartists.org, about Mann’s dance […]

Production photo for Far Afield by Jack Dant, courtesy of Time Track Productions. Pictured: Penelope Freeh (front) and Paula Mann (back)

Editor’s note: In February 2012, mnartists.org’s dance critic, Lightsey Darst, reviewed Far Afield, a then-new dance performance by Penelope Freeh and Paula Mann with Steve Paul and Time Track Productions staged in late January at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis.

Here is an excerpt of Darst’s critique of the show for mnartists.org, about Mann’s dance work, in particular:

Paula Mann’s O The Humanity …[is] a very busy duet with a noisy collage score and an ensemble of highly reflective young women, moving screens for Steve Paul’s video collage, new order caryatids. It’s clever and allusive, and the central couple goes crazy in the comfort of what I take to be their suburban avant-bourgeois media cave, like everyone you know. . . Or, wait a minute: who are these people? They told us our devices would make us mad, but it hasn’t happened to anyone I know: everyone I know is going crazy the good old-fashioned way — work, love, grief… But even if I don’t buy the plot, I still believe the crazy because Mann dances it. Mann can be a slow burn; it takes a while to notice how wickedly fast she is. But with her eyes made up like she’s been crying all week, and the mania flaming out from her bones, she’s a bonfire now. The question is: what moves her?

A short time after the review was published, Paula Mann wrote to Lightsey in response to the piece; then, Lightsey wrote her back, and asked if she’d like to embark on an experiment, a conversation about the work, between the reviewer and reviewed, undertaken for publication here. And so began a fascinating, weeks-long exchange between the two — on art and dance and the balancing act of bringing critical judgment to bear on both; on audience perception and creative intentions, and the mettle-testing value of flopping in public. We’ll publish their back-and-forth in two installments. The first of these is below; look for the second early next week.

On a related note: Lightsey Darst has a piece just this week on the mnartists.org homepage, reflecting on a new collaborative, multimedia dance work by Time Track Productions, Here and After, featuring choreography by Paula Mann and media imagery by Steve Paul, with original music by Michelle Kinney (Jelloslave). The work was performed at TEK BOX  in Minneapolis September 27 through 30, 2012. You can read the review of this new work, Here and After, on mnartists.org now.

*****

From: Paula Mann
To: Lightsey Darst
Subject: Your mnartists.org review of ‘Far Afield’

Hello Lightsey,

First of all, I want to thank you for reviewing our concert ‘Far Afield’ on Saturday night! In the tradition of Doris Humphrey (she wrote back to the famous critic, John Martin responding to his reviews of her work), I thought I would send you my thoughts on your review. I realize this is not often done in our small little dance-world bubble, but it seemed a good idea to try it. I have respect for both your writing and thinking process about dance and performance. I have tried to keep my distance from reviewers, so as not to influence and confuse the issue of friendship/nepotism. Caroline [Palmer] and Linda [Shapiro] are friendly acquaintances of mine, but I knew them both before they began reviewing publicly. The most thoughtful review I ever received was from the Jack Anderson when we performed at Dance Theater Workshop in New York in 2009; I did not know him personally at all (his review is still online).

I want to thank you for your compliments [in the recent review, “Dancing it True”] about my own dancing. I’m 53, and I know I don’t have many more years left as a performer, so it is nice to hear. Dancing and performing (translating my own ideas into movement for my own body) is truly my love. Choreography is hard work, but dancing is filled with ease for me after all these years.

I think the problems you had with the work (speaking only for myself and not for Penny [Freeh]) are the problems many have had [with our dances] over the years. Strangely though, for this show I heard less of the “too busy, too noisy” comment from the audience, than I normally do. I am sorry you felt that way, as we were really striving to achieve a very difficult balance with movement, media and sound all playing together. The main thing, for me, is the creation of a work that looks like nothing else, something that that no one else could achieve, that is uniquely ours. Also, the addition of media allows us to develop a broader audience for our work; more men and non-dancers came up [after the show] and talked to me, and I appreciate this.

I was a little sad that you didn’t seem to notice the movement vocabulary in the duet, as I put special attention to making that particular vocabulary speak to the intention of the relationship we were portraying. I see many companies in our community that hire the same dancers (all wonderful, of course), and basically allow the dancers to create/inform the movement; but they don’t shine a light on specific movement, don’t use the tools of craft to change the qualities, and therefore affect the overall meaning, of the work. And so, the actual movement of these very fine companies all looks alike for me. I realize this kind of attention to the movement that is actually created and performed is not everyone’s interest. But it is mine. Perhaps the media [accompanying the dance] was just too overwhelming for this to come solidly through?

The plot (that was not bought by you) is this: What are the circuitous emotional journeys that occur in a long-term relationship over many years (at least over ten years)? Steve [Paul] and I have been together 20 years, and this is the first time I have ever tried to get enough distance from our relationship to inspire a piece. Perhaps this is an age thing; if you have never experienced the falling in and out of love that happens in long-term relationships, then [this storyline] might not translate to your own personal experience. Robert and I have been working together since 2003; I realize his skills don’t always come into focus if you are looking at the virtuosic, technical side of dance only, but many others commented on how connected we were as we danced together. The whole middle section (moving through the screens) was structured improvisation, and there are not many people who can partner and perform improv like that.

The comment that confused me most was [what you said] about going crazy over the onslaught of media or the old-fashioned way, grief, love etc. Again, perhaps this is a media problem with our work, but I see this happening constantly. Media coverage of everything in our world creates it’s own presence in our brain, and if we don’t take steps to counteract it on a personal level, our brains (evolutionarily speaking) will become mushy and filled with the only the highly superficial — no more deep thinking. I teach, so I see this happening in the classroom. Last semester, I had a class that was so distracted, I thought I should start tweeting them the class information they needed so they might pay more attention.

On a last and personal note, Steve and I are not dirt poor, but we certainly are not bourgeois. We have been working artists for 25 years.

Thank you, with regard and respect,

Paula Mann
Time Track Productions

*****

From: Lightsey Darst
To: Paula Mann
Subject: RE: Your mnartists.org review of ‘Far Afield’

Hi Paula,

Thanks for responding! You know, when I was first writing dance criticism, it bothered me how rarely anyone responded to anything. I thought of my writing as a communication, but it just fell in a black hole, for all I knew. I’ve gotten used to that now—so, it’s good to be reminded that people are out there.

Reading your email, I find myself thinking back over the experience of watching the piece and then winnowing down my reactions and thoughts to the (ouch) single paragraph I wrote about what must have taken you months, if not longer, to create. That must sound self-flagellating, but maybe I’m feeling less self-flagellating than genre-flagellating—I mean, this convention of the review, the thesis statement or general unity of the paragraph, the single point of view, etc.

To be more concrete: I did notice Robert’s dancing. I remember watching the two of you on stage and wondering whether you met each other the same time I met both of you, in your modern dance class at the U in whatever year that was—2001?—and thinking how your dance partnership had lasted and grown, how Robert was really moving with you, really accompanying you. But when I came to write the review, that note about Robert fell out because of the bridge I made between one paragraph and another, and because I felt I really wanted to write about your dancing. So, let’s see: I opted to leave him out rather than make the writing awkward and pay him what I felt would come off as a backhanded compliment.

The result is that, in what I suppose is an official record of the event, he doesn’t exist. What do we do with that? I’m really not interested in being a “critic of record” — though I suppose sometimes I am the only critic covering an event, and so we could discuss whether or not I can choose to give up that documentary responsibility…

What’s more interesting to me is changing what criticism means in the world, broadening its scope and practice. I like that your note is basically another review of the work. I mean, it includes things that don’t go in official reviews—intention, audience reaction, the pronoun “I”—but I find it worth reading, it tells me more about the event, I learn something, I have thoughts and questions afterwards—which isn’t true of a lot of official reviews. I’d like to see more writing like this. Wouldn’t it be great if a show generated a lot of different views—from audience members, critics, and participants alike?

Now, I’m just being naive (or self-undermining: I get paid to do this, after all). But maybe a shift in how reviews are viewed is possible. Question 1: If a review were more clearly seen as the compressed thought of one person, one time, would that alter the feeling of being mis-reviewed? Question 2: How can reviewers encourage that sort of reading?

I see I’m doing exactly the same thing I did in the review—skipping lots of stuff to focus in depth on one thing. So, to the other stuff:

1. Movement vocabulary. I perceived it—sort of. Maybe not. I can still see one move in my head, and you have characteristic movement, I know that. But unless these things come out strongly in images, they become very hard to render on the page. . .

2. Plot. A-ha: I knew there was something about long-term relationships in there! (That’s actually what I meant by “going crazy the good old-fashioned way.”) Or, I should clarify, I knew that there was a non-technological impetus behind the work. But (awkward) I wasn’t sure you knew it. Or, that the piece knew it.

3. Does technology make us crazy? I’m not convinced. But you are. Now what? I mean, if I don’t buy the premise for a work I’m reviewing, as occasionally happens, then—?

4. Oh nuts, I didn’t mean that you were bourgeois! That’s terrible (wince, wince). I meant the characters you were portraying must be, since they have enough technology to drive themselves crazy … but now that I put it that way, it occurs to me that all my students are soaking in technology—big TVs with a gazillion channels, cell phones, tanks with sound systems—even as they’re in school to escape minimum wage jobs…

Let’s keep talking.

Lightsey

*****

See below for a video of the work Lightsey and Paula are discussing, as recorded during the performance in late January 2012:

Check back soon: You can read the second installment in this two-part exchange here, next week.

Later thoughts on LVW’s retrospective

1. On the videotapes: So much of this work still looks so contemporary. For a relative newcomer to the scene (I started watching dance here in 2003), it’s surprising to see that work from the 1980s is not so very dated. People with longer perspectives have been telling me this for a while, but seeing […]

1. On the videotapes: So much of this work still looks so contemporary. For a relative newcomer to the scene (I started watching dance here in 2003), it’s surprising to see that work from the 1980s is not so very dated. People with longer perspectives have been telling me this for a while, but seeing the evidence makes it real. Because of the nature of dance, it’s possible for artists to go in circles, reinventing the wheel. It’s good to be reminded of what’s been done, in a concrete way. That doesn’t happen a lot.

2. On the live writing: I usually feel an obligation to the performance I am discussing, but in this case I felt it more strongly—probably because I couldn’t take time to ruminate, because I had to get it right, convey it, at that moment. It’s salutary for a writer to think like a dancer—now, this moment. (I am also a dancer, but I mean, to think like a dancer while writing.) It makes me wonder what dancers experience when, for example, making dance films, when suddenly they have the luxury of time and editing.

3. On the performance: I’m remembering now how good everything looked and sounded—the bright white lights, the retro sounds, the clean space, the colors. Laurie was backed up by great design and tech here. I’ve lost the program but I know a nod is due to Elliott Durko Lynch. Also to the space itself (Shawn McConneloug and Robert Rosen’s Studio 206). . . performing in non-theater spaces is nothing new, but it’s always somehow exciting when dance takes over new territory.

4. On dance as installation: Well, this thought demands more space. You’ll have to follow me over to mnartists.org, where a little think-piece on Eiko and Koma’s recent installation at the Walker will be going up before long.

Next