Blogs The Green Room Sam Johnson

Sam Johnson is a performance-based artist living in Minneapolis. He holds a BS in dance performance from Skidmore College and an MFA in performing arts: dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is a member of the performance collective SuperGroup, with whom he has created many works and performed with across the US. As an independent performer in NYC and Minneapolis he has worked with a range of performance makers, including: David Gordon, Daniel Linehan, Mariah Maloney, Natalie Green, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Angharad Davies, Morgan Thorson, Chris Yon, Body Cartography Project, Chris Schlichting, Nick LeMere, Judith Howard, and Justin Jones.

Feel Like This: Sam Johnson on Luis Garay’s Maneries

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, performance-based artist Sam Johnson shares his perspective on Maneries by Luis Garay in the […]

Photo: Dudu Quintanilha

Photo: Dudu Quintanilha

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, performance-based artist Sam Johnson shares his perspective on Maneries by Luis Garay in the McGuire Theater last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I enter the theater I am admittedly tired from a very long day. I woke up at six am to teach high school students modern dance, whatever that is. I agreed to write this overnight observation relatively last minute, just a couple of hours before the show, and sitting down I can already feel my nerves, can already feel the way thinking about writing about my experience is altering my own perceptions, is making me more analytical, is heightening my perceptions.

But what is happening on stage? There is nothing on most of the stage. It is dramatically, if blankly lit. Far on stage right there are two figures, one standing and shifting occasionally, the other sitting at a macbook, cords extending on the floor offstage.

I understand these conventions, the performers on stage performing casual, the exposing of the wires and lights of the theater. In my notes I scribble: “the theatricality of no theatricality.” That isn’t quite right, what I really mean is that these feel like signals of what the show will be, the lineage that it will draw from: “it will be about the body, it will be about the present moment, it will be in conversation with contemporary (read: western?) performance.” After the lights go out and the performance proper begins I realize I could read this as an overture, as both a small encapsulation of the entire performance and as a signal of how to view, and where to place, this work.

But before that Philip Bither comes on stage and tells the audience that because of Prince’s death there will be no artist meet and greet after the show. I jot down: “shadowed by the communal experience of loss.”

The show is a solo dance. One performer moving through various forms, starting in almost darkness and almost stillness (I think there are some spinal undulations going on? But this could just be my eyes adjusting to the low light?), and working through symmetrical gestures, athletic walking and running patterns, sculptural poses, and repeating gestural patterns that accelerate. The dancing is precise, rigorous, and controlled. It is impressive and full. I can get down with the amount of work it must have taken to so specifically embody this material. I can exult in how amazing bodies are, how amazing dancers are.

But as much as the control and precision of the dancing rings my embodied performer bells it also butts up against questions I have about the piece. As I mentioned earlier there is a person sitting towards the perimeter of the stage, which is also often the perimeter of the lit space, on a computer, playing the music. I read this performer as male, and the primary dancer as female. I read the choreographer as male. Throughout the piece the music and the lights frame my viewing experience. The music is either insistently atmospheric or relentlessly rhythmic. It is loud enough that I don’t feel like I can escape it (even when I try to plug my ears, its presence is still there). The lights are crisp and specific. They begin with a low spotlight on the dancer that gradually builds, and then when the dancer shifts to an upstage/downstage walking pattern there is the rectangle of light to frame her (contain her?), and then the movement shifts to take in the whole stage, and before we can register that change there are the lights flashing on and exposing the landscape for the dancer. I can’t help but tie both the music and the lights to maleness. To a male framing of a female body. There was literally a man sitting on stage watching a woman dance the entire time. And this is where the monumental control of the dancing failed me in the dramaturgy of the entire piece. I kept feeling like I was seeing a man seeing a woman. The athletic jogger; the naked, reclining, sculptural nude; the dancing muse. This incessant theatrical framing mediated my response to the performer, to the body on stage. I kept waiting for the moment when I would feel my spine moving in my seat, to feel my neurons firing in response to this beautiful dancing body, but that moment didn’t arrive for me. I kept waiting, too, for the performer to break out of the framing devices. To feel defiant, or messy, or obstinate, or cynical, or broken, or flippant. In retrospect it felt like I was watching the warm up and start of a marathon, but only through mile ten or so. That time when the runners are starting to get tired but are still going strong. I think I craved seeing the end, when the nipples start to bleed and shit is running down legs and the body breaks down in the middle of the road out of exhaustion and joy and pride. I want to know what is after this beautifully constructed dance for this beautifully proficient dancer with these technically immaculate lights and sounds.

As I left the theater I had and overheard casual conversations with several people. I heard at least three people say some variation of: “don’t you want to go the gym after that?” I did want to go to the gym, but I’m not sure if it was because I wanted to feel that way or be seen that way.

Maneries continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, April 22) and tomorrow night (Saturday, April 23) at 8 pm.

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