Blogs The Green Room Re:View-Overnight Observations

Breathing Machine Music: Holly Herndon’s Sound Gallery

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance by Holly Herndon. Agree or […]

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance by Holly Herndon. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Holly Herndon breathes into a very loud microphone. Her inhale and exhale pan across the room. Scott Nedrelow’s Movie (Black Swan), a series of six video projections shot inside a cinema screening Darren Aronofsky’s film of the same name, plays on a loop in the background. Herndon’s voice is joined by disjointed, deconstructed beats. Her sharp inhales come so suddenly that we realize we are at her mercy: anything louder than breath would surely send a jolt through the audience.

The music grows dense, and a 4/4 rhythm emerges. Suddenly, we’re awash in drum machines. I briefly wish we were dancing in a warehouse instead of sitting quietly in a gallery. Black Swan continues to loop: an audience arrives in the cinema, watches a scene of the film, the credits roll, the audience leaves.  The amplifiers shake. I wonder if the art on the other side of the wall is shaking too. She gasps. The rhythm dissipates. The focus remains on her voice, constantly manipulated, keeping us in suspense.

Holly Herndon’s work is somewhere between the academy and the club; the performance is at once confrontational and intimate.  Her second LP, Platform, is due out May 2015 on the venerable 4AD label. She is a 21st century electronic artist who sits behind an array of computers – but it is the sound of her breath that fills the room, forms sonic sculptures, and keeps us on edge.

Deceptive Magic: Noah Keesecker on The Music of Bryce Dessner, Program B

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, composer and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on Saturday night’s program of The […]

So Percussion performing Bryce Dessner's "Music for Wood and Strings". Photo: Jayme Halbritter

So Percussion performing Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

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, composer and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on Saturday night’s program of The Music of Bryce Dessner, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

Let’s dispense with the obvious. Bryce Dessner is a sorcerer, Buke and Gase is a griffin, Ben Lanz is a cyborg, Caroline Shaw is a unicorn, and Sō Percussion is a machine.

Great. Glad we cleared that up. So if you had bumped into me before last Saturday night and asked what I was doing that evening I could have said, in metaphorical truthiness, “I’m going to go see a sorcerer play music with a griffin and a machine. Oh, and there will also be a cyborg and a unicorn. Wanna join me?” To which you would have said “I’ll grab my wand while you pull the brooms around.”

Seriously though. There was a lot of energy in McGuire Theater on Saturday night and I am not going to say it was all good. It was certainly well crafted, well educated, and well executed but there were some elements of the evening that I just couldn’t get over. Liquid Music is one of my favorite concert series anywhere but the more I pay attention the more I wonder if this trend of the Indie/Classical interloper isn’t simply a new version of orchestra pops concerts; Indie Chamber Music for Millenials. There. I said it. We’ve got  Sufjans and Newsoms and a good line of bands working with top tier chamber ensembles and symphonies. Of course this isn’t a revelation, good old Pitchfork has tossed the Indie Classical label around for quite some time. And so what? The label is just the words we make up so we can talk about something that doesn’t have a name. And so what.

This overnight review has turned into three, four, five overnights for me. Like that old college friend that’s “just passing through” and crashes on your couch for a few too many days, I’ve been wrestling with identifying what it was about this concert that left me so, well, not impressed.

So I broke this down into my main observations (read: complaints) and a silver lining.

Your Credentials Don’t Matter

Nothing feels more like the eye-rolling snake oil call of a traveling salesman than waving credentials like a white flag of peace before you enter the hallowed white walls of contemporary art institutions. You know that scene from Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Do I really need to state for the millionth time that college degrees are not a magic recipe for making good art? They mean something but they do not guarantee quality. Correlation does not imply causation. I got hung up on the fact that everybody wanted me to know Dessner went to Yale for music. Yes, I just kicked that dead horse so let’s move on.

Silver Lining: The more I think about it the more I feel that my own bias is the problem here. The institution waves the academic flag because the institution needs it, not the audience, not the artist. The artist is going to make their work regardless of announcing their pedigree and the audience is going to like or dislike their music regardless of the artist’s pedigree. Dear Audience and Artist, you are free to go.

A Minimal Amount About Minimalism

Can we just admit that Minimalism is the Pop Art of the classical music world? That hocket is the audio equivalent of halftone and being functionally monophonic is an harmonic palette of just primary colors?

Silver Lining: There is some great Pop Art in the world and talented artists continue to test its boundaries.

Punch-In, Punch-Out

It’s a structural thing. It’s about the construction of the work, specifically Dessner’s work. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he writes straight into a DAW. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I would be the last person to tell another artist that he must suffer the misery of a quill and inkwell or that you should write your canon out by hand rather than click a couple buttons, trim the fat and call it a day. But I’m not talking about canons, I’m talking about being able to hear the tool. “And how, all knowing and curmudgeonly wizard, can you hear the tool of composition? Please, enlighten us!” Well, there was an overwhelming amount of blocks. A layer begins, another layer is slapped on top, then you pull something out for a bit, then you layer it all back in. It was as if you could just see someone punching tracks in and out on a sequencer. Lines did not blend, they were jutted up against each other like a mixture of hard geometric shapes. Melody was down played in favor of textures and process, nudge a loop, get a new permutation. Nudge it again, get another permutation.

Silver Lining: Electronic dance music and a majority of popular music idioms have ingrained a very satisfying appreciation for blocky layers and abrupt change. The reason is because time is difficult to parse when things move slowly so the more you repeat with a frequent change the more you demarcate time for the listener. It’s pleasing to hear, it’s jarring, it’s well crafted, which all makes it exciting.

Dynamics

Did anyone else notice that there were very few dynamics during this concert? Ben Ganz had dynamics (but some suspiciously flat sounding audio quality at times), and Caroline Shaw wins the nuance award for the evening with her clever, delicate, and expertly balanced work for solo violin and voice.  The rest of the concert was mostly just… loud. Not uncomfortably loud but just consistently lacking in the use of softer amplitudes. This to me is something that really sets classical music apart from pop genres. It’s super hard to listen to Mahler, or Brahms, even Stravinsky in your car because the works are constructed out of a amplitude range that goes from bombast to susurration. The Saturday night show had very little whispering and felt more like any other rock show. One could argue that loud is a choice, and it can be, but when you deny yourself the expressive power of using a full dynamic range, I consider that to be a poor choice. Not to mention tiring.

Silver Lining: Loud is easy. Loud is fun. Loud keeps your attention.

Highlights

You may be wondering if I have any compassionate or happy bones in my inner ear and the answer is yes, yes I have a few. Buke and Gase proved to be a fantastically quirky duo that write some really fine songs and Arone Dyer’s voice and melodic sense cannot be overstated. For two people and a pile of invented instruments, they produce a facile capriciousness of style and an amazingly varied color palette.

As mentioned previously, Caroline Shaw performed a felicitous little piece for violin and voice. It was a simple little piece and like great simple things it was deceptively complex. I call this easy complexity and it is a mark of artistry.

Finally, we come to Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, a percussion piece written for a mutated sort of dulcimer created by Aron Sanchez. I’m going to be totally honest and say that the dulcimer is probably one of my least favorite musical instruments ever created and a 21st century dulcimer is still a dulcimer. The one magical moment from the work was near the climax there was a sheet of resonance hanging in the air and then like some kind of magical creature, there emerged some of the most sparkling overtones that I have heard in person for some time. And it occurred to me that no sorcerer’s apprentice is going to make this kind of ethereal sonic event happen, only a full fledged sorcerer can pull that off.

Overall, I thought I hated this concert but as I wrestled with the lingering sounds and mulled over all these pesky details I came to really enjoy how persistent the music had been. I am not an advocate for liking everything that is made. I like to dislike things because it is in taking issue with work that we are faced not just with those challenges in front of us but the challenges inside of us as well.

A Quiet Evening: Chris Campbell on The Music of Bryce Dessner, Program A

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, composer Chris Campbell shares his perspective on Friday night’s program of The Music […]

Left to right: Stefan Schneider, Bryce Dessner, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Laurel Sprengelmeyer. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

Left to right: Stefan Schneider, Bryce Dessner, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Laurel Sprengelmeyer. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

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, composer Chris Campbell shares his perspective on Friday night’s program of The Music of Bryce Dessner, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

The Liquid Music series, presented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is navigating some challenging and exciting terrain.  It’s dealing with no-genre aspirations, or what Duke Ellington once called “the music of the future..when it will be boiled down and left without a category.”  The series is concerned with the cross-pollination of ideas, scenes and personalities, and the physical draw of getting people excited to come out to concerts. The mixing of contemporary and experimental musical genres has, of course, been central to the Walker’s performing arts programming for decades.

Ultimately, last night succeeded on all these fronts. The show itself presented an obvious entry point for the audience to experience the music they came for.   It also provided, whether intentionally or unintentionally, an invitation to explore the larger world of classical music that can often be intimidating or esoteric. Audiences need more cordial entry points to that world, not less.  Which leads us to the actual concert.  The penultimate show for Liquid Music 2014-2015, copresented by the Walker Art Center, was billed as “The Music of Bryce Dessner – Program A” (Program B is tonight) but the evening felt more like a collaborative effort between equal-share friends. Composer, guitarist and curator Dessner, who is also a member of The National, had two pieces performed which bookended the main program.  Joining him were multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw, who each had several of their own works programmed, in addition to performing on each others’ works.

The show began with the piece Lachrimae.  Composer Dessner, who acted as an engine and a rudder throughout the night, explained and gave context to the piece afterwards.  The piece is heavily influenced by Renaissance composer John Dowland, whose works Dessner often played while studying classical guitar.  Parry’s Interruptions followed. A suite of vignettes, Interruptions is part of a larger theme Parry is exploring, connecting performers’ heartbeats and breathing to their music making.  Stethoscopes are used by the performers to link their biorhythms to the external rhythms being created.  The piece is a series of lovely miniatures, like aural 2” x 2” paintings executed with a few well-placed and fully mindful brushstrokes.  It was delicate, simple and balanced.   Parry’s Quartet followed without much of a lull and was stutter-y, organically asymmetrical, and inherently inward-looking.  Simple ideas executed well can be powerful, and Parry and crew executed well.

Dessner and Parry are both clearly interested in teasing out certain threads and tendrils that they might not be able to explore in a standard issue pop/rock song.  A particular sonic image or texture that might only last a few seconds in a certain context was zoomed-in on, explored, and repurposed in the context of the evening.

Halfway through the main program, Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer) offered a sonic palette cleanser and built up the energy in the room with a quick two song set.  Caroline Shaw’s two pieces were programmed next.  Her work was the highlight of the concert in an evening chock full of good moments.  By and By, her re-framed, stripped-of-all-varnish arrangement of gospel and bluegrass songs, took the energy of the room and transformed it upward and inward into an ethereal bloom.  Shaw’s Entr’acte spun its web using small, motivic ideas.  The piece churned along earnestly, with whispered asides and technical, snaky flourishes for punctuation.  It developed with chorale progressions that were chopped, bounced and rotated through variation.  The piece was smart and understated, with a clear and nuanced form.  I saw the audience lean in toward the stage at certain points, which points to the piece’s impact.

Dessner ended the main program with a piece called Tenebre.  It began quietly, fluttering while squeezebox clusters and chords lined up with lyric lines and gestures dancing atop. Tenebre’s language is pretty, with some sprinkles of dissonance thrown in like a well-placed swear word in a conversation.  The piece reached its climax with a pre-recorded, disembodied Sufjan Stevens singing from the rafters.  The strongest aspect of this piece was its kinetic qualities. The players gave the sound a corporeal property that moved.

After a 20 minute intermission, Parry’s new group Quiet River of Dust, which includes Laurel Sprengelmeyer, played a closing set.  It was filled with Nick Drake-ish moments, but with a different color palette.  In a song about rain and death knocking on one’s door, one of the amps started to break up and it created a weird radiating rain texture toward the end of the piece, creating a magic moment.  The amp continued to break up for the next few minutes, which wasn’t so magical, but Parry handled it like a pro and the problem resolved itself without notice.

After listening to these three composers, I kept coming back to the breadth and depth of the classical ecosystem in terms of styles, designations, motivations, and vocabularies.  If your view of serious contemporary classical music is Tristan Murail, Georg Friedrich Haas, Henry Brant, or even Heinz Hollinger (the linked piece reminds me conceptually a little of Parry’s quartet) this ain’t it, and it never will be.  Good.  The truth is, this gracious and approachable (gasp!) modality of classical music must exist as much as the most rigorous experimental classical music does.  When in expert hands, both things are equally awesome.  There’s no conflict when viewing it all as interrelating and informing one body of music.  Having different schools, scenes and micro-genres help us evolve, converse, and adapt as listeners and creators alike.  What was done last night was neither risk-taking nor groundbreaking from a certain point of view, but the music I heard challenges and pushes in important ways.  Isn’t trying to be understood a risk in itself?

The playing and performances were tight, and it was a great night of music from three talented composer-musicians.  I’m curious to hear how they develop their own musical logic and language over the next few years. Walking out of the hall, I heard a stranger next to me say to their date that they “want to learn more about string orchestras”.  Appetite whetted.  Invitation to explore accepted.  It’s Saturday now, and in the light of morning I really hope that person engages and absorbs what the many branches of the classical tradition have to offer.  I hope they get to know this awe-inspiring ecosystem better, from the most anarchic sounds, to the most whip-smart and whisper quiet. I highly recommend you go to tonight’s show and see what new magic happens.

Conceptual People-Dance: Penelope Freeh on Tere O’Connor’s BLEED

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, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Tere O’Connor’s BLEED. Agree or […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

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, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Tere O’Connor’s BLEED. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

BLEED, Tere O’Connor’s newest work, an amalgamation of sorts of three other dances, sits well with me. About halfway through the work I remembered that this was the concept and then several mysteries were solved, for example, the austerity and import of many of the transitions. They seemed particularly loaded: introducing new dancers, breaking with the action and walking to a new location, building to a sentimental embrace, then journeying away into another choreographic land. Some of the costumes felt initially incongruous but then strangely cogent as the dance transpired. Remembering this notion of bleeding three dances into a fourth makes sense (not that I need it to make sense, but it’s satisfying to solve a mystery) and I dive deeper as a result.

BLEED begins with a woman in a green dress undulating, swirling almost, but not quite. Her balance is caught then abandoned, a constancy of the body catching up with itself. There is a quartet of onlookers who soon move into the frame. A quintet commences and I am reminded of court dancing, the roots of ballet, with handholds and tippy contortions that remain just upright enough to prioritize the vertical. Certainly the soundscape influences me here, composed and designed by James Baker, evoking the baroque.

More dancers enter and I am surprised. This is one of those previously alluded to mysteries that unto itself is jarring, but in the context of the concept makes perfect sense. There are eleven dancers total, a satisfying number. The stage feels very populated, and it is fascinating to see the many and varied stage pictures evolve with so many bodies.

There are many classical values amid the post modern: symmetry, awareness of front, a formal quality to much of the movement, all of which render outlier moments, like when all the dancers verbally shudder and stagger apart, more potent.

O’Connor is a dance-maker on the edge of discovery, investigating his own dances and previous choices to unearth something new. In the new are movements from those previous works but also subtle evocations, loaded embraces, powerful stillnesses (near the end, the dancers were in dynamic yet grounded poses holding hands in a giant s curve), and especially deliberate transitions. He is trying to reveal the negative and I see it in the mist, like Brigadoon.

The investment of these dancers is profound. They seem to reside simultaneously in the worlds of the previous dances and in this new terrain. Meaning is carried through, gathering mass like a snowball rolling downhill. This particular dance seems to be less about investigative movement than process. The vocabulary feels spare, complicating in terms of many bodies rather than in one individual. It is readable, then blurry, then discernible again.

The concept is a rich one and O’Connor’s touch is just right, just Midas enough. For me, it could have gone on longer. It takes awhile to get to know these wonderful people dancing, and just when I had my bearings, blackout.

BLEED continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, March 20, 8 pm) and tomorrow (Saturday, March 20, 8 pm). Tere O’Connor will also teach a Master Class at the Walker on March 21 at 11 am. 

A View from the Back Row: Bill Cottman on Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago

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, photographer, writer, and radio host Bill Cottman shares his perspective on […]

Left to right: Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Gray, and Henry Threadgill. Photo: Paul Natkin

Left to right: Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Gray, and Henry Threadgill. Photo: Paul Natkin

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, photographer, writer, and radio host Bill Cottman shares his perspective on the recent performance of Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago at the Walker. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Jack DeJohnette’s Made In Chicago with Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and Larry Gray appeared on the McGuire Theater stage this past Thursday night. If you were present, you heard IT. If you were absent, you will never hear IT. The creative natures of these musicians require physical presence to fully experience their work. Depending upon your exposure to them and their music, IT was terribly terrific. IT was the beginning, or IT was the continuation, or IT was the eve of another Friday the thirteenth.

From my seat in the back row, I could see the heads of the full house audience. After several minutes into the first selection, a listener stood and clapped his hands in no discernible relationship to the music. Roscoe Mitchell’s horn was sounding a rivetingly rhythmic pattern, relentless as the passage of time. IT reminded me of a preacher’s comment to his standing congregation, “sit as you are able!” Words are unable to make you hear IT if you were not present. This IT, declared dead too many times to cut flowers for. After several minutes Mitchell was satisfied with IT and stopped and we applauded and hooted as modern audiences are prone to do.

DeJohnette lead us into the next experience. We followed, listening for familiar hooks to hang our listening baggage upon. My foot was raised, waiting for the one. Whenever it came, I had forgotten I had been waiting. I think Threadgill’s horn was the sound introducing the next movement. My listening mate asked me something about the title of IT and I had nothing to say. Call IT what you will and wait to see if IT passes this way again. In the meantime the motion continued forward.

Writing about IT is somewhere on the continuum from intellectual analysis to emotional experience. When people look at my photographs and say, “I don’t know anything about photography”, I ask them to consider three questions:

What do you see?

How does it make you feel?

What might you do as a result of what you’ve seen and felt?

On Thursday evening I felt the need for my own questions. I was in the midst of something that was demanding more than my intellect was equipped to analyze. I needed to yield to the part of my brain best equipped to deal with IT. An engineer could not say how IT worked. An artist needed to express why IT was working. So to the readers looking for words to hear IT with, you will not find them here. My words are a ramble rather than a review. Thursday’s music came from the upper room of a full house. Gaining entry required effort. Effort of the intellect, filled with knowledge of the players and their stories. Or, effort of the spirit, filled with open space available for unexpected outcomes.

From the back row of a full house you can see the silhouettes of listeners. You can see movements microseconds after hearing the sounds causing them. You can see the restless bolt at the first opportunity they perceived as freedom to get out. You can see those who stay; the great majority, moving in ways suggesting individualized acceptances and realizations. This was not music for the masses. IT was selective, but not exclusive… unless you made IT so.

Remember the failed verbal communication between Threadgill and Mitchell? Both were sitting out a solo when Threadgill looked to his right and captured Mitchell’s attention and moved his lips to send a message. Mitchell didn’t get it, so Threadgill repeated. Mitchell didn’t get it, so for a third time Threadgill repeated. He still didn’t get it. Threadgill stood and moved toward Mitchell and reached beneath his chair to lift an oversized sheet of white paper to the music stand in front of them. Both men winked, nodded, and smiled! Surely, from this point forward, IT sounded better/different/worse?!

Larry Gray never touched his cello; did he? With ears wide open, I nodded several times. Gray stood behind his double bass and raised his right foot numerous times. But it was a raising like live yeast does in correctly baked bread. IT never fell! IT contained the capacity to lift and transport one above and beyond the inequities of daily life. The ancestors said they could fly!

See how he leads from behind. How does all the credit get back there? Isn’t all the credit up front? Perhaps there is sufficient credit to cover everyone. What if credit is not the objective? What if everyone knows the destination and the journey becomes the objective?

Technology enabled bootleggers or permission granted powers that be may have recorded IT. At some point in the not too distant future, we may be cursed/blessed with an opportunity to re-view, re-visit and re-hear something called IT, but that will not be IT!

billcottmanbio

Bill Cottman is a photographer, writer, and host of Mostly Jazz on Saturday mornings at 9am on KFAI Community Radio, 90.3 FM Minneapolis and 106.7 FM St Paul. Live stream and archived programs at www.KFAI.org/mostlyjazz.

Sounds in Motion, Community in Action: Douglas R. Ewart’s Sound Horizon

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, Walker Intern Mark Mahoney shares his perspective on Douglas R. Ewart’s recent […]

Left to right: Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, and Douglas R. Ewart. Photo: Mark Mahoney

Left to right: Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, and Douglas R. Ewart. Photo: Mark Mahoney

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, Walker Intern Mark Mahoney shares his perspective on Douglas R. Ewart’s recent Sound Horizon performance. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Acclaimed local composer, improviser, and sculptor Douglas R. Ewart launched this year’s installment of the Walker’s Sound Horizon series with a far-reaching and engaging performance. Ewart’s variegated artistic practices and his propensity for finding interconnections between different media made him a natural choice for the series, which celebrates the intersection of sound, materiality, space, and community. He was joined by the similarly multifaceted Mankwe Ndosi (voice, poetry, and percussion) and Stephen Goldstein (laptops, various electronics and controllers), both longtime collaborators.

Ewart arrived at Walker Gallery Six with an impressive array of instruments both traditional and invented, among them an English horn, sopranino saxophone, and several crutches retrofitted with tiny bells. This assortment was not simply for show; Ewart’s remarkable command of these instruments opened up a vast spectrum of timbral possibilities. Goldstein proved a deft foil to these explorations, conjuring evocative textures that alternately complemented and challenged Ewart’s decisions.

The textural juxtaposition of Ewart’s acoustic instruments and Goldstein’s electronics could be read as a kind of trope, a transparent take on the motto of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.” (Ewart served as the AACM’s president from 1979 to 1986.) Ewart’s expansive approach, however, soon complicated any reductive assumptions as to which sounds were ‘ancient’ and which belonged to the ‘future.’ When Mankwe Ndosi added her potently expressionistic vocals to the mix in the second set, the expanded palette allowed all three improvisers to stretch even further into realms of abstraction.

Walker Director Olga Viso and former Director Martin Friedman watched the affairs silently from within artist Goshka Macuga’s monumental tapestry, It Broke from Within. Twentieth-century art provocateurs Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp sat elsewhere in the wall-sized image, and interposed were Tea Party protesters with signs such as, “We don’t want socialism, you arrogant Kenyan!” It would be difficult to imagine a more incongruous group of personages, yet all of them have affiliations with the Walker or the surrounding community. Macuga’s piece begged the question: what are the limits of “community”? It’s a question that seemed to animate much of what transpired Thursday night. The musicians sat at the center of this space, anchoring this improbable gathering as activity emanated outwards in all directions. The audience sat in an ad hoc semicircle around the artists. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish the audience from those who were merely passing by, further underscoring the question of community, of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out.’

Ewart concluded the second set with an unexpected flourish, releasing a number of hand-made spinning tops onto the gallery floor. As the crowd watched, enraptured, the tops circled each other in a kind of cosmic choreography, eventually tipping over until only a single top remained: a blue sphere, eerily suspended, seemingly perfectly balanced upon its axis. The significance was difficult to miss.

When asked about his tops in an interview with Time Out Chicago, Ewart explained that tops “are magical, cosmic, mystical and beautiful.” The same set of adjectives could be applied to Ewart’s performance. Tops are imbued with further significance for Ewart because they help “to inveigle and instigate substantive engagement with families, diverse people and communities.”

This performance took place within the larger context of the Walker’s celebration of the AACM’s 50-year anniversary. Next week, AACM luminaries Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell will join Larry Gray in Jack DeJohnette’s Made In Chicago. Ewart shared his thoughts on that organization and recounted its impact on his artistic trajectory here.

Former AACM President George Lewis, a frequent collaborator of Ewart’s, has written, “In improvised music, the development of the improvisor is regarded as encompassing not only the formation of individual musical personality, but the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments, both actual and possible.”

Ewart’s Sound Horizon performance served as a welcome occasion to come together in celebration of these radically inventive artists in our midst, and, in so doing, to reflect on our community, actual and possible.

A Love Supreme: Danny Sigelman on The Campbell Brothers

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, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on The Campbell […]

The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Courtesy the artists

The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Courtesy the artists

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, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on The Campbell Brothers’ performance of A Love Supreme last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

One of the more anticipated performances during the chilly Winter this year finally came to fruition as The Campbell Brothers performed a spiritually enlightened set in the William and Nadine McGuire Theater last night. The centerpiece of the evening was the American Sacred Steel family’s recently commissioned celebration of saxophonist John Coltrane’s hallmark work, A Love Supreme, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

Appropriately, the brothers were chosen by the Lincoln Center and Duke University to perform the classic piece, but utilizing a seemingly unlikely set of instruments, primarily the pedal steel guitar. Interestingly, the combination of the spiritually inclined instrument, commonly used in the church and the personal faith of brothers, Chuck, Darick, and Phillip Campbell, integrated beautifully with Coltrane’s original inspiration for the entire performance. While Phillip on guitar led most of the show in addressing the audience with his son Carl on drums and bassist Daric Bennett consistently holding down the rhythm, it was Chuck Campbell on pedal steel that musically shined throughout the night.

The group paced the evening by getting the audience warmed up with a series of gospel-inspired blues from their own songbook. Illustrating the origins and connection of Coltrane’s melding of the traditional forms of the blues and his own Christian beliefs, it was the perfect primer for the main course of the evening.

Taking the stage and rubbing their guitars with their fingers to warm up their strings, Phillip nodded toward the round of applause from the audience, “Thanks for the warm welcome in the cold weather.”

Showing their roots with ease, The Campbell Brothers gave the audience a slow building version of “Wade in the Water”. All the strings on stage in unison wonderfully played counterpoint to one another as melodies sprang against a chugging rhythm reflecting a true blues spirit. Finding their own groove, the audience  morphed into a sea of smiles and hand claps as Chuck took flight with a solo of rising notes that sounded like a soul singer.

Complementing the train whistle sounds from Chuck’s pedal steel, Philip provided narration on “Morning Train”. As a musical family their effortless transitions and trading of solos showed the real supportive nature of the group as the music carried the audience along for the countrified gospel number. Playing mostly rhythm, the song allowed for Philip to rise up from his chair as he charged through his own guitar solo, tearing through some serious soaring lead guitar work.

“When we go to church, we clap. We stand up. We shout along, run around the room. Whatever we need to do to show our love for the Lord. This is active music!” Philip preached, inspiring some call and response during “Hell no! Heaven yes!”

Chuck’s tone turned to a more rural blues sound, sounding like a harmonica with waning flourishes of movement across the strings of pedal steel he elicited screeching melodies atop the chugging rhythm as everyone sang along.

Calming things down, the Campbell Brothers gave grace to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. With Darick Campbell taking the lead melody with incredible lyricism, he made his instrument sing. Amid fluttering notes and a sustained, laid back energy that he pleasantly gave to the song, the Campbell Brothers showed the true gospel roots of Cooke.

Conjuring the true spirit of John Coltrane’s music, Chuck conceptually uplifted the feeling in the room with flurries of melodic clusters that echoed and gave a nod to Coltrane’s famous sheets of sound. After an elongated musical introduction the Campbell Brothers seemed to begin breathing life into the music. As the familiar mantra from Coltrane’s piece took musical shape on stage, the audience gleefully applauded and the rhythm section kicked in with a steady beat to support the flowing melodies between the instruments.

The bass held down an astute blues punch as the brothers led the meditative chant, “A Love Supreme” in unison, eventually inspiring the entire audience to sing along. It was a highly gratifying moment that was only a priming of the canvas the Campbell Brothers would eventually unravel as the song moved forward.

Much like Jimmy Garrison performed on record 50 years ago, bassist Daric Bennett took his turn for the “Resolution” section, holding onto the spiritual vibe of the song. For a rewarding solo that inspired shouts from the audience, even the band would shout their approval before Bennett returned to the main riff to a round of applause.

Blasting the primary melody of section, all three brothers incited an atmospheric but charging progression that coalesced in Philip’s slaying guitar solo to which Chuck brought out the gospel soul of his pedal steel.

Similarly Carl Campbell echoed Elvin Jones famous drum solo to introduce “Persuance”. Making his portion his own, he combined a steady hi-hat pattern that rapidly returned to his snare and back again. In odd time signature he attacked with sixteenth notes and aggressive bass drum that transitioned to again support the vamping his the rest of the band re-introduced with gospel coloring that lead back into the main melody. A woman in the front sang her praise with her arms lifted in the air; the rest of the audience passionately showed their own appreciation.

The frantic gallop urged the spirit of Coltrane and Philip again took another driving guitar solo that howled in devotion, as Chuck responded in standing virtually atop his lap steel, almost tipping it over entirely.

To wrap up the famous work the band brought back a steady blues. Chuck and Darick’s steel took to the sound of birds as the rhythm dissipated into cymbal washes and deep tones. The band began to sound like a gospel choir rounding out a hymn that left the exhausted audience with contentment and deep recognition. Taking in the audience’s standing ovation, the Campbell Brothers nodded humbly toward the crowd.

Acknowledging the audience, Philip sounded overwhelmed, “We’re really thankful to be here with you and we really appreciate your applause. Playing this music we really feel a connection to the music. We feel what Coltrane felt in being thankful to be in touch with the love supreme.”

Taking the room back to church, the Campbell Brothers rounded out the night with a soulful groove and encouraged everyone to clap and get up and move. Dancers bounced in the upper levels and soon the whole audience was clapping along as Darick sang, “Did you have a good time? Everyone lift your hands up in the air, wave them like you just don’t care!”

Like a true gospel revival the band kept the song going, all trading leads and keeping the audience on their feet before finally bringing the music to full throttle boil. Further displaying his abilities to make his instrument sing, Chuck ran up and down the scales with an avalanche of notes that brought the whole band to a final burst to finish off the incredible evening.

It was a fantastic night with the Campbell Brothers and well worth the wait. Anyone who was fortunate to brave the cold to come out to witness the music left the room truly uplifted. The band, genuinely kind and thankful for the response, left the stage and went out into the audience to shake hands and have pleasant exchanges that only further warmed the room and spirit of the night.

Revealing the Space / Revealing the Dance: Penelope Freeh on Chris Schlichting’s Stripe Tease

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, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on the World Premiere […]

Photo: Gene Pittman.

Stripe Tease artists, left to right: JT Bates, Jennifer Davis, Max Wirsing, Dustin Maxwell, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Tristan Koepke, Laura Selle-Virtucio, Mary Ann Bradley, Krista Langberg, and Mike Lewis. Photo: Gene Pittman

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, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on the World Premiere of Chris Schlichting’s Stripe Tease. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

From the beginning of Stripe Tease I feel as though I am in good hands. Two men enter in silence and commence a dance, opening the main drape in the process. It is an elegant and surprising gesture, the curtain billowing apart then slowly opening part way.

Silence continues as the duet takes the space. I remember that Chris’ last epic dance, Matching Drapes, ended with these very men, Max Wirsing and Dustin Maxwell, engaged in an elegant arm wrestle that resembles what I see here. I love this notion: start your new epic dance where your other one left off…

During the course of this hour-long work various parts of the space are revealed: the upstage curtain opens to display a striped backdrop in day-glo colors, side wings disappear, side balcony curtains move aside revealing drawings of tigers in the same palette, and the musicians are exposed upstage left with a vertical tiger lurking behind. These scenic elements, designed by Jennifer Davis, deftly support the stripe theme and the notion of tease/reveal.

The six dancers, at various times, occupy the entire theater. They use the stairs, the side balconies, the exit doors. The masterful lighting by Joe Levasseur sometimes shines on the audience, involving us and possibly implicating us.

And now to the dance, ah the dance and the dancing. Chris’ movement is highly gestural, arms often swishing, swiping, initiating. There is virtually no partnering and yet relationships abound. His choreographic sweet spot seems to reside in quartet work, pitting two dancers in contrast to the other pair then seamlessly swapping unison partners. The dancers track one another’s movements, rather like tigers, racing with them down a diagonal and tearing back. Often one dancer frames another’s movement, a sort of tracing with abstract gesture and physical intention.

The soundscape, played live by Alpha Consumer (Jeremy Ylvisaker, JT Bates, and Michael Lewis) perfectly accompanies the complex choreography. The music does not dictate the steps. It hovers alongside them, inspiring but not enforcing rhythms. The movement contains its own rhythmic impulses, likely based upon what works well with contrasting steps and also perhaps driven by an abstract dramaturgy of sorts. To my eye, the dancers groove on having the music there to support them. Laura Selle Virtucio in particular let her passion shine through, leveraging her exhaustion to dig deep.

The steps unto themselves are not particularly hard. The virtuosity resides in the craft of how the dancers move in relation to one another and in the duration of certain passages. A rapid-fire yet simple gestural arm and hand choreography becomes sublime in duplicate. Unison and relationship reveal rigor and intelligence.

The three other wonderful dancers are Dolo McComb, Krista Langberg and Tristan Koepke. All the dancers serve the overall vision while remaining utterly themselves, unusual to see amidst so much unison and the need for keeping an eye on one another.

The work was by turns mesmerizing and edge-of-my-seat inducing. There were quiet moments that apertured in, like in the opening arm dance, and full-throttle moving acrobatics that laced and spun and careened. There were beautiful, very feminine feeling gestures, fascinating to see on male bodies. Then later a double knocking gesture became a signature, ever so slightly more hard-edged.

Get your tickets, folks. There is an added show, Saturday at 2pm as the others are virtually sold out.

For a World Premiere, this work is well cooked. It has legs beyond this moment and may well be one of those occasions about which we can say we saw it when.

Stripe Tease continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight, Friday, February 20 at 8pm, and tomorrow, Saturday, February 21 at 2pm and 8pm. 

Romantic Pathologies: Fire Drill on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Photo: Johanna Austin

Photo: Johanna Austin

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE is a story of stories. The piece is inspired by historical record, and also incorporates several pieces of writing—many of them stories—written by Edgar Allan Poe. The history sampled surrounds Edgar Allan Poe’s final days, letters, and train rides. The story synthesized from these elements however—the Capital-S Story—is conspicuously not Poe. It is a metanarrative, The Tortured Genius, and Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental / Wilhelm Bros. & Co.’s engagement with Poe’s life and work fit him inside this narrative. The Tortured Genius is a romantic trope—in that it dates literally from the Romantic era, when our social understanding of both art and mental illness were shaped quite differently. In considering RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, we are most curious about how the representational practice of quoting historical source material–both historical facts as well as Poe’s writing—is deployed to shape history into metanarrative.

RED-EYE is full of stunning images and considered design, and its creators clearly value virtuosity, creativity, and clarity. Relatively few set pieces are used to create a multitude of scenes—three long tables become doors, trains, a bar, a hotel room, as well as various imaginative spaces. A small number of lighting instruments create stark lines and shadows, heightening the drama and pathos of each image. Though we grew tired of the constant set transitions, the visual composition was resonant throughout the piece, demonstrating a type of formal attention. We believe these images are Lucidity Suitcase et al. at their finest, and we as an audience did not require a grounding of these images in history to appreciate their intrinsic aesthetic and choreographic value.

The stage pictures in RED-EYE were often inspired by and illustrative of the quoted text. This “physicalizing” of the text ranged from tricks like acrobatics, stilts, aerial arts, mime, and gestural choreography. The tricks were clearly physical metaphors for the text being excerpted—an ultimately self-defeating desire to be abstract with history while at the same time being very clear about how they abstracted it. The historical justification was built fully into the piece. Take, for example, the Ranger character, whose function at times was to directly address the audience, interpreting the abstractions. He explained a scene where a wearied Poe removes a sock and shoe to touch his bare foot on astroturf, and this appeared in the play because Poe was actually known to do this on grass. Not only were isolated poetic images explained by our Ranger guide, but the whole of the narrative. He telegraphed from the opening that many instances of a women characters in Poe’s work (and ostensibly therefore, the performance) were references to Poe’s dead wife Virginia. However this literal, one-to-one clarity undercut the poetry of the few, silent images. Could the images stand on their own, without justifying their existence with the text?

Ranger aside, the major tool the production used to ground the narrative in history were the supertitles, which announced every sourced poem, story, letter and essay. Why was this piece so invested in citing its sources? It wants to tell us it has done its research, shoring up historical capital. Without the supertitles, or even grounding the metanarrative specifically in an artist such as Poe, the story would read as an age-worn archetype. The historical research places it beyond reproach—perhaps instead of Colbert’s “truthiness”, here we have “historyness”. The production’s specificity about Poe’s life actually obscures its other ideological moves—and when history is used to justify a narrative that is damaging in other respects, it becomes problematic.

RED-EYE displayed classic vintage sexism, presented without comment. Virginia Poe (played by Alessandra L. Larson) haunts E.A. throughout the piece, darting in and out of scenes, under tables and past curtains. As narrative, she is Poe’s deceased wife and cousin, the young and sickly woman who appears in many of his works as Annabel Lee, Lenore, etc. As image and history, she is the classic sylph: the white female figures appearing in contemporaneous Romantic ballets, wispy, ethereal, alluring, cunning. They hover between life and death, often luring men to their downfall. Virginia traps Edgar under a table, grazes over his shoulders from behind, slides down a white fabric from a suspended bed, and plunges from a ledge into a reservoir. There’s an extended gesture phrase where her hands play as birds. In the third act of the play, she transitions into another sexist trope, the siren. Now she’s in stilts and a red dress, more overtly sexual and dangerous. Still she does not speak.

As good third wave feminists, we do not object to women being portrayed as sexual or dangerous, but the female tropes in RED-EYE are regressive and handled uncritically by the production. These tropes are the root of why women are still portrayed without agency or complexity in our cultural texts, important only insofar as they relate to men. Yes, they are taken from Poe’s work, but shouldn’t they be afforded some recontextualization in a contemporary work? Instead, they just become the most visible figment of Poe’s mental illness—which is similarly treated in a dehistoricized light. Perhaps there’s a subtext that the way we view mental illness has changed since the 1840s: Poe would likely have received diagnosis and treatment today, rather than been left to his destructive habits. But actually the production highlighted the ways in which our culture still does treat mental illness in an antiquated fashion: most crucially in the way that it links creativity and madness.

What we find most disturbing about this production is its romantic portrayal of the artist and the source of art. It promotes the image of the artist as a solitary genius, a tortured soul, a sensitive being driven to reveal their emotional truths in a hostile world. In the context of Poe’s implied mental illness, his artistic production also becomes pathologized, and his works become symptoms of his unconscious impulses. Poe’s obituary in the closing moments of the show pays homage to “genius and the frailties too often attending it”. RED-EYE caricatures insanity, gaining comedic or even poetic mileage to make behavior the right blend of tragic and zany, supporting the just-so narrative of the tormented genius.

This image is, of course, taken straight from Poe’s era–but just like the female archetypes, we must question the presentation of the Romantic model of the artist in 2015. Since then, our culture has cycled through a few other models of the artist in society, the credentialed professional and the creative entrepreneur among them. The Romantic solitary genius model, however, remains present in the popular imagination, and RED-EYE treats it more as an essential truth than a historic object. The production did not interrogate its relationship to history or to the present, and we were alarmed to experience this dehistoricized Romantic idea within the context of a contemporary art center. To perpetuate that model has dire consequences: it delimits the scope of art to the personal and the emotional, and narrows the interpretation of art to individual pathology. These ideas work against the field of art when artists want their labor to be valued as work instead of treated as personal indulgence (an issue that affected Poe as well). They work against artists who want their work to impact fields beyond art, like the social, political, or economic. This model also prevails in mainstream American culture (including among right-wing pundits who see artists as indulgent freeloaders) and contributes to the continued ghettoization of contemporary art in our country.

The slick visuals paired with the macabre narrative creates a tricky result. Poe’s alcoholism, (probably) schizophrenia, and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin are transformed into a beautiful, cathartic, digestible whole. The tension of this aesthetic treatment is present in Poe’s work as well, but in the context of the RED-EYE production in 2015, we take it as part of a different trend: the elision of art and entertainment. In week two of Out There, we discussed this issue in relation to the conceptual themes of aggression and the commodity, but in RED-EYE the entertainment issue arises from the style and aesthetics of the piece. The polished staging reminds us of commercial more than experimental theater, and the metanarrative is familiar and pleasing. The body of the tortured artist passes from this mortal coil, yet his work of genius lives on: no loose ends or productive questions remain. Frankly, we have higher hopes for art and its capacity to provoke and disturb. We also have higher hopes for the contemporary–that it will fundamentally alter preexisting ideas, rather than create slick packaging for old tropes.

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE continues at 8pm tonight, January 30, 2015 and tomorrow night, January 31, 2015, in the McGuire Theater.

 

Tender Aggression and Commodity: Fire Drill on Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on last night’s performance of Still Standing You by CAMPO/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The audience for Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You on Thursday night did not behave like a contemporary dance audience. On a visceral level, we behaved more like we were watching a circus or a wrestling match. We gasped, we winced, we recoiled, we craned our necks to see the action. We heard a few obliging gagging noises when a performer’s mouth was full of underwear. As a group, our timing was impeccable–we made rowdy laughs as if on cue, and we fell to a hush together. If typical contemporary dance audience behaviors include focused contemplation, parsing of references, and ironic chuckles, this behavior belonged more to an arena. They were the gladiators and we were the masses.

In Still Standing You, two men build a vocabulary of competitive behaviors that push physical and social boundaries. After an opening bit that establishes a) a gently antagonistic relationship between the performers and b) casual banter between performers and audience, the two men merge into a state of deeply performative play. They grunt like bulls, they strut like lions, they hiss like lizards. Garrido puffs out his chest, playfully winks at the audience, and wipes his sweat onto Ampe’s face. They fake each other out, pretending to be hurt or pretending to say sorry. The scenario escalates as they rip off their clothing, whip each other with their belts, and toss their pants into the audience. Ampe puts his Superman underwear on his head and Garrido chews it like a goat until he has (impressively) stuffed it all into his cheeks.

Steve Paxton is famously quoted as saying, “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing contact [improvisation]. If you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else.” Ampe and Garrido are not dancing physics, nor chemistry–they’re dancing anthropology. While they’ve certainly upped the ante on partnering technique, they’re not doing it to explore weight shifts or body mechanics. They’re in the realm of the social. They hark back to the animal roots and the childhood memories of play, transposed into highly able adult bodies and keenly adjusted for pacing and format. This is what we would see if adults with post-pubescent strength continued to play, using the abandon that children exhibit.

Ampe and Garrido ape the behaviors of masculinity and expose the constraints of homosociality. Garrido tells us about his recent trip to Deja Vu–a moment that both places the performance here in Minneapolis in a casual, somewhat improvised statement, and announces that he’s into women. This prompted an ickier “no-homo” feeling initially, but it made the extensive penis play later in the piece a lot less sexual. And it is important representationally that we don’t see it as entirely sexualized. The penis play isn’t the sexual culmination of a playful meet-cute, and they don’t propose their aggressive play to lead to anywhere romantic. The one-upmanship logically extends their feats of physical endurance and line-toeing from subjecting each other to belt lashings and drop kicks, to foreskin-twisting and, well, more drop kicks. It wasn’t asexual in that it definitely recognized the naughtiness of nudity–much in how it relished the naughtiness of saliva and bravado–and they deliberately focus on the weirdness of penises as opposed to, say, the weirdness of earlobes. But based on their approach, it feels wrong to even delimit “penis play” with their other play. It is all the same research and relationship: how many ways can we relate to our bodies and each other?

In addition to avoiding an oversexualized lens, the playfulness also keeps the power dynamics and aggression readable as temporary competitiveness, rather than a character or even a performer in distress. They put on airs and knock each other down a peg, only to change the situation and dynamic immediately. The choreography often dictates that one of the men is horizontal while the other is vertical, in a shifting exchange of dominance and temporary power. This is a crafted give-and-take, and we as an audience understand that everything is consensual. These moments of combat are often peppered with a word or two of banter indicating the scripted nature of the tricks. (“Onion rings,” moans Garrido as Ampe breathes in his face, with the comedic timing of a Benihana chef.) There are also several moments of truce–a literal time-out is called at one point–and affection between the exhausted bodies as well, before launching into the next bit or provocation. We can laugh because we’re confident in the performers’ comfort and execution.

Of course, the tenderness and aggression that Ampe and Garrido display are conceptually, experientially, and aesthetically tied. Theorist Sianne Ngai links these affects to our relationship with commodities in late capitalism. Objects that call for our protection (think of babies, animals, stuffed animals) simultaneously inspire feelings of aggression or the desire to possess and to dominate. For Garrido to caress Ampe’s beard and then try to suffocate him with it does not display two conflicting desires, but rather they are integral components of the same impulse. Moreover, this twinned motivation “depends entirely on the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between himself and the object” (Our Aesthetic Categories, 54). The performers display shifting balances of power between themselves, but there is also constant interplay between them and the audience. Their tender/aggressive relationship and the framing of this work for the audience both have a close relationship to the commodity.

We consider this piece’s inclusion in a festival of performance alternatives–because Still Standing You is the most accessible contemporary dance work we’ve seen in a while. We find it accessible because it depends on comedy, physical feats, and culturally broad experiences of play, intimacy, and aggression. Appreciation of this piece doesn’t rest on one’s knowledge of form and the history of its innovation. The performers (particularly Garrido) often appeal to the audience for recognition, and we as viewers are not especially asked to shift our perception or mode of viewing.

Although some level charges of elitism or esotericism at contemporary art in general or the Out There festival in particular, Still Standing You does not support those claims. Instead, we’re reminded of Ben Davis’s assertion to the contrary:

One major contemporary trend in art is away from difficulty, toward really big objects, toward fashion: splashy gestures that go down easy. The old charge that museums are “elitist” doesn’t really feel totally right to me. MoMA’s doing a Björk show. The big institutions have found that buzz and long lines can replace intellectual cachet at a certain level, for the purpose of pleasing funders.

Still Standing You does not exemplify this form of celebrity pandering, and it may or may not be creating buzz. Discussions of accessibility, however, are always bound up in discussions of the bottom line.

Here’s another way to illustrate this tension, taken from a performance we saw last week at American Realness. Ivo Dimchev’s Fest (also presented by CAMPO) stages a conversation between the artist and a festival director who wants to present his work, an interaction that becomes increasingly warped and sexualized. The curator tells him that she thinks a lot of people in Copenhagen will want to see his work. “Are you saying my work is commercial?” he asks. “No, I’m saying a lot of people will want to see it,” she responds. Ivo concludes, “It’s the same thing.”

For Fire Drill, this piece’s accessibility creates a small crisis, because we actually liked the piece. Still Standing You bears many hallmarks of entertainment, and we get suspicious when they are mixed too liberally with art. If art must appeal to the widest possible audience, then how can it produce experiments that fail? If art can’t produce experiments that fail, then how can it produce new forms of thought and experience? But does that mean art has to be tedious and unappreciated within our culture? Still Standing You, in the context of the Out There festival, offers a kind of middle path to those questions. It appeals to a general audience without going for the lowest common denominator; it’s inventive and well-crafted without being obscure. When we view performance, we hope the work will revise our definitions of what art can be and do. As wary as we are of the proximity of art and entertainment, Still Standing You did challenge our definitions of both categories.

Still Standing You continues tonight (Friday, January 16) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 17)  at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

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