This past Saturday, I was fortunate to attend the 7pm performance of the Walker Art Center’s 2015 Choreographers’ Evening. Seated in a full house, and only being familiar with a couple of the choreographers/performers presenting work that evening, I was excited to experience the show and its relationship to Justin Jones’ curatorial agenda to examine the breadth of the Twin Cities dance community, to create a space that was accessible, and to seek out “work that spoke plainly and directly.”
The evening opened with Jeffrey Wells, Monotone #3. This dance was comprised equally of Wells’ powerful exploration of the voice (featuring his ability to create different tones) and his physical movements. There was a definitive sound and movement narrative arc as we saw Wells’ body move from shape to shape while his voice emitted different tones. The fullness of his voice seemed to mimic how he positioned his body as it moved from a neutral stance to more powerful shapes–there were a couple of warrior one positions, creating very full and robust vocals. His body then moved to a more playful, almost cheeky, stance with his voice following, creating a tone that was bit thinner and higher pitched. The work resolved itself as Wells returned to his neutral position while his tone became softer and seemingly peaceful.
The second work was created and performed by Tom Lloyd and Craig VanTrees, entitled getting caught in a rainstorm of light. The work opened with a large square special, illuminating the majority of the stage. Throughout the piece, Lloyd and VanTrees deliberately move around and through the center of the square. Stripping down to nothing but jockstraps, Lloyd and VanTrees open the work by performing movements that are rigid, symmetrical, and—with the exception of a gesture of a fluttering hand—seemingly robotic. The feel of the work changes as the music shifts from a heavy and somber track to picks such as “The Finer Things” by Steve Winwood and “OK Pal” by M83. The movement accompanies this musical shift becoming lighter and moving close to a feeling of playful exuberance. A moment of stillness with Lloyd and VanTrees, spent, lying on top of one another signaled the beginning of another shift in overall feel. The work then closed by returning to the heavy and robotic movement.
A fun and complex piece, I found myself tempted to view these two male bodies in the same commodified lens that popular ideology often views the bodies of those that exist on the peripheries of mainstream consciousness: individuals of color, women, and those that simply do not share the same stories/histories that occupy standards/norms that dominate mainstream North American culture. Whether or not playing with this temptation was an intention of Lloyd and VanTrees seems secondary to the reality that this work—similar to their own observations on the role dancing plays amidst their relationship—“def[ies] description or labels.”
The next work was macarena.zip by Jes Nelson (jestural). This work examined a still and deconstructed version of the Macarena performed by a large group of movers. Each mover seemed to select a signature position from the dance, held that position for a few moments then exited the stage. This scene was followed by an abstracted version of the song, in which the rhythmic base was changed from a syncopated clave rhythm to a waltz rhythm, played over an empty stage. I was a bit confused by this work and wondered why Nelson chose to use a version of the song in a waltz rhythmic pattern. The Macarena’s clave rhythmic base is an important component of Afro-Cuban rhythmic traditions. This rhythmic pattern is rooted in Sub-Saharan African musical traditions and can be seen in Haitian vodou drumming, Afro-Brazilian music and Afro-Uruguayan music (“Part II: Understanding the Music.”) Stripping the song of the syncopated clave rhythm and thereby uprooting it from its diasporic beginnings by moving it to a European waltz felt a bit jarring for me. This, coupled with an empty stage, left me feeling excluded from the work and pondering why the song was stripped of this rich and essential heritage. In addition, it left me wanting additional clarity regarding the extremely pared down (dare I say minimalist) approach to a piece that was to examine groups “moving together in time.”
In the following piece, Tai Chi Bird, choreographer/performer Katherine Goodale began with the beautiful soundscape, “Piano Songs #2” by Meredith Monk. With Goodale sitting center stage, her back to the audience, the focus shifted to the meditative gestural movement of her arms and hands. This work also became a dance of the costume, as the light danced across the burgundy velvet of Goodale’s shirt which moved as much as the movement of her arms.
Ea Eckwall’s Something About Meow took place in silence with the exception of a single “meow” heard midway through the work. Max Wirsing performed primary movement while holding the self-assured cat, Buster Kitten, for the first third of the work. A box was placed center stage with a small piece of fabric covering it. Twice during the work, Wirsing tried to place the cat in the box and cover it over with the fabric, only to have the cat poke its head out, and, as only a cat can do, confidently attempt to exit upstage right, only to be picked up by Wirsing and returned to the box. In a successful second attempt, Buster Kitten exited diagonally upstage left, leaving Wirsing alone to continue dancing in a manner that seemingly mimics Buster’s smooth, deliberate, and graceful movements.
What seemed compelling about this work was the relationship between Buster and Wirsing as he attempted to both mimic and contain Buster. This relationship brought to light a truth that the audience’s chuckles confirmed—no matter how hard and creatively one tries, cats are their own beings with their own agendas, frequently leaving humans in service to them. Such a fun work to watch!
Fire Drill’s Novelty Shots: A Political Fantasy (Excerpt) is comprised of a group of artists competing for the audience’s attention by running, screaming, exposing themselves, flirting, cajoling, leaping, and engaging in any and every attention-getting behavior imaginable. These antics seemed to be a commentary on an increasing desire and need for constant stimulation. Making a very powerful statement, the fervor with which the artists on stage worked to get attention brought home the insanity of North America’s insatiable quest to always be either engaged in this stimulation or to be in the spotlight; both quests affecting how we process information, our critical analysis capabilities, as well as our ability to hold healthy self-perceptions not based on external validation.
Following Fire Drill, This Is Where I Stand by Cary Bittinger and Angelique Lele was a powerful duet that left me focusing on the expansive movement potential of both artists, in lieu of the limitations many may perceive accompany being in a wheelchair. The true joy of moving was very apparent in how the choreography was performed by both Bittinger and Lele. Their movement relationship seemed to be magnetic—many moments of being drawn into one another as well as moments of being repelled. The most provocative part of the work came midway, during a musical transition, accompanied by a moment of stillness and silence. Both Lele and Bittinger stopped and looked directly at the audience, fully present. This pause incited a sense of tension and anticipation.
Pedro Pablo Lander’s Marcón (Faggot) (Excerpt) took the audience on a journey of struggle, self-hate, and at times, despair. The struggle to reconcile faith and sexuality were powerfully displayed through Lander’s ability to wed emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma with physical performance in a sincere and focused manner. Reminiscent of spiritual traditions where practitioners become possessed, his narrative of lack of acceptance, affirmation, and condemnation was wholly embodied in a sincere, non-manufactured, performative, and inspiring manner.
Next in the lineup, Dolo McComb’s Tyrannysaurus Wench (part 1/3), was a trio rooted in a space of magical realism. It seemed to simultaneously take place in the past and the present. The phrasing, which consisted of deliberate pauses coupled with frenzied movement, created an air of anticipation and surrealism. The work featured exaggerated facial expressions and frenetic hair moments. The three artists were all costumed in velvet and moved to an eclectic mix of music ranging from jazz (Duke Ellington) to the sound bending musical styling of Frankie Lane (“3:10 to Yuma”). This work effectively created a feeling of other-worldliness.
Vie Boheme’s A Study of Performance Boundaries (and much more) began with a long narrow diagonal light emanating from upstage right and cascading downstage left. Singing “Good Morning Heartache” a capella, Boheme slowly began moving within this narrow corridor of light. Upon reaching center stage, the corridor of light morphed into a circular special. Bathed in this center stage special, Boheme reached the refrain “here we go again.” She sang this line repeatedly as she appeared stuck at this point of the stage and song, as the circular special grew smaller and began closing in on her.
This moment in light, sound, and movement was a timely reference to the repetition of recent race-based violence, religious-based threats and attacks worldwide, and a general sense of unrest accompanied by a lack of progress that currently characterizes many cultures and spaces the world over. This work left me wondering: when will we as a civilization begin to learn from our history so as not to repeat the errors of our past? The work resolves by the long narrow corridor of light returning and Boheme regressing into it. She again returns center stage on the line “good morning heartache, sit down,” at which point, resigned, she slowly sits down on stage, contained in the bounds of the center stage special.
Closing the evening was DaNCEBUMS’ One-Move-Dance. This work had a cast of 29 movers of all walks of life, age range, movement ability, and perspective. The movement and formations of the 29 artists completely filled the stage. Set to “Time Will Tell” by Blood Orange, this work had a lively and celebratory feel, it seemed to epitomize Justin Jones’ sentiments that “the infinite complexities of physical expression belong not just to the specially trained and professionally experienced… Every Body is welcome. [Whether it is] your first dance, or your 100th.”
The evening’s performances pushed the boundaries of popular conception, questioning who is a dancer and what exactly is dance—encouraging audiences to explore dance beyond bodies/entities moving in a space. I left reflecting: who and/or what else can dance?