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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.

The Limitations of Theater Are a Gift: Fire Drill on Richard Maxwell’s The Evening

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 […]

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

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 The Evening by Richard Maxwell/New York City Players. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Let’s place comic books on the proverbial opposite side of the coin from theater. Both media have intuitive mechanisms for engaging the reader and audience, respectively, with medium-specific holes or gaps in what is presented to the viewer. In both, the audience looks for cause-and-effect relationships to imaginatively fill in these gaps–which skilled artists and writers in either medium exploit and leave open to the imagination. In literature, for example, readers imagine the sights and sounds of books with only the printed words as suggestions. The holes in theater and comics are particularly interesting since they seem to be close inversions of each other.

The mechanism of comic books engages the reader by showing framed, still images of the world it presents–the environment, the characters, what they say and think–leaving the reader to fill in how the characters move between frames, how they speak and sound, and justify the larger-than-life actions that occur. An example:

Frame 1: Character A rears back from Character B, fist clenched.

Frame 2: A zoomed-in image of Character A’s hand making contact with Character B’s face. (“Pow!”)

Frame 3: A zoomed-out image of the entire planet Earth as seen from outer space. Character B flies into the frame, as indicated by a motion line originating somewhere in the center of the North American continent.

What a gift! We don’t say, “That’s impossible,” “Nobody could…”, “Nobody would…” It’s up to the reader to justify the physics of the situation. Conclusion: He was punched into space. Corollary: Superpowers. It’s why the ideal medium for space opera and mutant heroes is the comics: the most delicious action happens between the frames. There could be a series of frames between 2 and 3, showing “how” it happened–maybe breaking through the ceiling, or passing a flock of birds on the way up–but the closer to 24 frames per second, the closer to the comparison with real life (here, real physics). It says, “This is how it happened,” and it cannot be as grand as we’d ever imagine.

The mechanism of theater, on the other hand, shows how the characters speak and move, and suggests what they look like, but it is up to the viewer to build the world. The audience of The Evening fills in the details–not just the architectural details of the bar the characters inhabit (and mountain and ocean and outer space, but more on that later), but also their interior worlds, the emotional landscape that propels them to the behaviors they perform. Rather than actions in between frames, we fill in the emotional past and narrative future outside of the stage picture. An example:

Scene: Character A and B are dancing together. Character C joins them, instantly provoking a fight between B and C, which is just as quickly won. Cash is literally thrown around, they reconcile over jello shots, and then character A pulls a gun on them.

What a gift! Instead of saying, “That’s impossible,” “Why would she do that?”, “Where’s the motivation?”, we are invited to connect the dots on our own, through our own emotional and narrative understanding. This is what theater does best: the most delicious action happens in the interior worlds of the characters. How appropriate, then, this acting style that refuses to justify these (here it is again) larger-than-life emotions and behaviors. These are emotional superheroes, and they are capable of much more than justifiable in systems of realism, any more than we can justify punching someone into space. From Sarah Benson’s interview with Maxwell on the Walker blog: “Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people.” So this acting style is not merely a neo-Brechtian withholding of catharsis, this is giving us (like the comics) the imaginative license to fill in the gaps without showing us “how it really happened”. The beauty of archetype is that we’ve seen these characters before, hundreds of times. We don’t need Richard Maxwell to insist they actually sound like this, they move like this, etc.

So these archetypes—who are they? First we have Cosmo, the pleasure-seeker, the free-loader, the one who’s given up. “I want to get high. I use people.” He’s old, he wears a velour track suit and a gold chain, he’s carrying a pizza, he doesn’t give a shit. Then we have Asi, the fighter—a literal fighter (UFC) and an emotional fighter (misogynist). Cosmo tells him he should retire and Asi boxes his ears. He feels loss as a threat, he’s one of those insecure macho dudes, he feels the pressure of time running out. “I want to fight. I want one more fight.” Something has happened with him and the woman and he’s full of regret. Last we have Beatrice, the lone, young female—the seeker, the restless, the escape artist. The men order her around and she’s not surprised, she just gets them another beer. She wants to go to Istanbul, she’s been saving up. “I need to change camp.” She wears sequin shorts and she’s too big for this small town.

We’ve met them all before, and we’ve probably been them all before. They form a smooth surface for emotional projection. They’re a triangle of crossed desires, base-level drives that bounce off each other and ricochet off the drab walls. Both men kiss the woman the first time they enter. There’s a complicated history between them—Asi refers to when he and Beatrice used to live together, but they don’t anymore. Cosmo has given her money to go to Istanbul and Asi wants to know what she did for him that he gave her that money. They’ve all wronged each other but they’re resigned to sharing space.

And these archetypes, they’re like action figures that repeat one of five phrases every time you press a button. “I want to get high.” “I want to fight.” “I use people.” The woman mechanically opens a beer. The fighter draws back his fist again and again. The pleasure-seeker action figure is one of the kind that would walk straight into the wall and keep walking till his batteries ran out. We know who these people are because they tell us over and over. They can’t help themselves. “I want to fight one more time.”

The setting itself forms a spatial archetype in much the same way. We see terrible beige flats, the outline of a standard-issue small town bar. A TV plays sports silently in the corner, but it’s greenish like an Instagram filter and it blends in with its surroundings. A generic band plays off to the side, just loud enough for the performers to need to raise their voices, like you do. It’s just a sketch but we’ve been at that bar hundreds of times.

In fact, the quality of “sketch”–vis a vis these archetypes–is a mechanism to help viewers relate to the characters and situations. Comics use a range of drawing techniques, from photorealistic images to an outline as simple as a smiley face. The conceit is that the less “photorealistic” the image, the more relatable it’s supposed to be–so we see the bad guys drawn specifically and the protagonists drawn sketchily, and the reader identifies with the good. Functionally, the more specific they get, the less we can fill in, because they become objective realities rather than a subjective canvas. This extends to our trio in the bar: Any details, a hometown, a sibling rivalry, a favorite color, a penchant for scrapbooking, any desire beyond the most broad archetypal yearning, would make these characters into more objective “others”.

When you start looking, it’s hard to miss other connections to representational practices in comics. In addition to these open, pulpy characters, the exposed frame of the flats suggest a comic panel frame. The poses and choreographies of the characters are chock full of Brechtian gestus, gestures and still poses that show the “gist” of a relationship or attitude, distilling power structures into tableau-like arrangements. This recalls the still frames of comics, where position in frame must convey relationships and psychology when movement can only be represented by motion lines.

Maxwell’s gestus lives even through movement; when the men are fighting, Beatrice places a hand on both of their chests, simply conveying her intimacy with each of them as well as her efforts to keep them apart. Realistic physical exertion or realistic caressing would destroy this double-image and reduce it to one or the other. It’s very Brechtian…but then again Maxwell ultimately out-Brechts Brecht because in the end there is no clear pitiable Mother Courage or detestable Ui, no side you “should” take, just three archetypes lost in space and each other.

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

Yes, by the end they’re out of the bar and in outer space. So this huge changeover provides an interesting catharsis–but rather than a narrative catharsis we get an aesthetic catharsis. Clean bright light, camouflage suits, no architecture, three figures evenly spaced against a white wall. The representational practice of the first 5/6ths of the piece is about visually defining the characters’ positions in space (a bar) relative to where they are onstage, and the duration of the performance is equivalent to the amount of time that elapses in the story. When the changeover occurs, however, the rules change as well: we are wherever and whenever Cammisa says we are. They are doing whatever Cammisa says they’re doing: climbing a mountain, diving into the ocean, etc. It becomes an oral comic book. The frames change as she speaks, and we imagine these impossible stage directions, over great amounts of time. Really, it’s Maxwell giving these stage directions (they use actor names instead of characters now.) If this were a comic book the narration would simply appear in bubble text hovering above the image, rather than spoken by any of the characters.

The representational practices following the changeover, while it definitely breaks from the preceding performance, does so with tactics that strike us as precious, tasks we’ve seen a lot of: speaking stage directions, using actors’ names instead of character names, use of a live band. It dips into the twee instead of taking us to outer space. This is in contrast to an earlier moment in the bar, in which both men reveal the blood packs used to simulate their gunshot wounds. They didn’t need to reveal artifice throughout, because this significant yet understated moment accounted for all of it. Once they got to the white environment, there should have been even less need to tell us how to feel.

The style of performance deployed in The Evening is not just stylized in order to be different or avant garde; the techniques offer negative space for the viewer to interpret and project. Maxwell offers a formal alternative for live performance that is opposed to the hyper-real standard set by television and movies, rather than trying to replicate it. In the same way that impressionism reacted to the rise of photography by seeing what painting could do that photography could not, The Evening shows what theater can do that film cannot. It is formally generous, in that it allows the viewer’s experience to diverge from what is actually happening onstage. Because our contract as the audience is to submit to theater time as it unfolds (we aren’t going to close the browser window), we can project our own emotional fictions and personal associations with the archetypes. This ultimately feels more “real” than the real sweat on the football players on the TV screen. Maxwell’s work trains us as viewers to connect the dots ourselves, although the alternative remains present for those viewers who don’t want to do that work. If you want everything to be justified and given to you, there it is on the screen in the corner, in full color HD.

Note: Fire Drill is on tour during the performance weekend, so this blog is in response to the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.

 

 

The Ecstatic Celebration: Omar Souleyman at The Cedar

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 Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the […]

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Omar Souleyman; Photo: Molly Hanse

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 Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the Cedar. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word “Hafla (حفلة)” carries the sense of both the English words “Concert” and “Party.” It might be more accurate then to refer to Syrian singer and electro-dabke wizard Omar Souleyman’s performance to a packed crowd at the Cedar on Friday night as a hafla. Slowly traipsing back and forth across the stage, Souleyman led one of the most frenzied and ecstatic dance parties I’ve ever seen in the Twin Cities. When I saw this crowd of supposedly reserved Minnesotans losing their minds like a bunch raving club kids to Souleyman’s synthesis of traditional Levantine celebration music and Western electronic dance music, I have to say I was a bit relieved.

International pop artists like Omar Souleyman are so often positioned as mere intellectual curiosities by Western press and promoters. A lot of the discussion around Souleyman seems to amount to little more than saying, “He wears a keffiyeh  and he makes electronic dance music?! How fascinating?!” When people come to shows expecting to see some think piece of a pop performance, they’re rarely ready to dance. In July, I was lucky enough to see the legendary Ethiopian pop star Mahmoud Ahmed at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Sadly, while Ahmed and his band were laying down the rawest gutbucket grooves, most of the people in the crowd were standing stiff, flaccidly nodding their heads, or taking Instagram photos. It took over half a set of the 73-year-old Ahmed’s desperate coaxing before the audience allowed itself to stop observing and start participating (I don’t think it helped matters that two hardly-danceable free jazz trios served as the opening acts that night). Thankfully, those who attended Omar Souleyman’s party in Minneapolis came to play.

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Vacation Dad; Photo: Sam Segal

The hyperactive cosmic slop of opening performer Vacation Dad provided a perfect entry point for the night’s festivities. Vacation Dad, the project of producer Andy Todryk, ramped up the BPMs on the spaced-out electronic exotica of his recordings in favor of lush, drop-heavy dance music. After a short set of Bernie Worrell meets Diplo magic, Vacation Dad cleared the stage for the man we were all here to see.

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Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Building up the tension with the skill of a true showman, the performance began with Souleyman’s master keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, alone on stage. Over the years, Souleyman’s band has trimmed down to the solo accompaniment of Sa’id, who somehow manages to conjure an entire dabke orchestra on two old Korgs. With a slow, somber melody emanating from the keyboard, Souleyman’s ghostly Arabic greeted the crowd from somewhere offstage. “He’s saying, ‘Goodmorning,’” a guy next to me told a child near him. The guy continued to translate Souleyman’s speech for another minute, but eventually he gave up, telling the child to “think of the words as music.”

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Omar Souleyman and Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Over the years, Souleyman has replaced all traditional instrumentation with electronics, leading him to develop a totally unique style of manically sped up, overdriven dabke music. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he referred to this style as a sport: “The fast music is a kind of sport, it makes you move—it’s like any sport where you jump or run. And it’s the same for the audience as well; they tend to dance even more to the fast music.” Well, if this concert was a sport, then Souleyman was our haggard veteran coach, effortlessly conducting our boisterous participation with stoic hand gestures and the occasional affirmative grin. We clapped when he clapped, and we shouted back in call-and-response joy when he pointed the mic towards us (no doubt botching the Arabic phrase he was looking for).

Throughout the show, I was doing my best to try and figure out which songs Souleyman was pulling from his massive catalog, but outside of the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, I could hardly quit clapping and jumping up-and-down long enough to even try. I’d come in with all sorts of political questions: What does it mean that Souleyman is performing music that is increasingly becoming a historical artifact with the devastation caused by the civil war in Syria? Does it matter that this audience might not understand the ethnomusicological context of his music? How much will a Western audience project its stereotypes of Arab identity onto him? But when the skittering beat took over and Souleyman’s gruff voice began calling out poetry I could only understand as another musical instrument, those questions really didn’t seem relevant. What was relevant was the moment and the simple awe of watching a pop star at the height of his powers leading a crowd in communal celebration.

More than the Beat: Choreographers’ Evening 2014

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 Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel […]

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Top photo, left to right: Wealthy Phonseya (INC), Travis Johnson (INC), Blake Nellis, Deneane Richburg, Lisa Berman (INC), Madeline Howie (INC), Taja Will, and Darrius Strong (STRONGmovement). Bottom photo, left to right: Arturo Miles (INC), Renée Copeland (INC), Joseph Tran (INC), Tonya Williams, Cheng Xiong (INC), Deja Stowers, Junauda Petrus, and Canaan Mattson. Not pictured: Kendra Dennard, Aneka McMullen (INC), and Ashley R.T. Yergens. 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 Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I heard that beloved artist, educator, and community advocate Kenna-Camara Cottman would be curating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening at the Walker, I knew she had a daunting task ahead of her. For an artist of color to be asked to present their personal aesthetic in such a privileged space, the honor was not without immense responsibility and heavy baggage. I’m sure the curatorial process is never a cakewalk, but for Kenna, this journey had to come with the deep reckoning that any “minority” (POC, differently-abled, Trans, queer, female, etc.) artist has confronted at one time or another: How do I represent myself? How and with whom do I identify?

These questions of representation are in fact universal, but diverse artists will tell you that we pay a special tax. There is the burden of gatekeeping, of tokenism—being that one privileged voice asked to speak for all of your kind. Decision-making becomes bogged down when one honestly faces that they may be the example, the experiment. Will there be another black curator? Will diverse artists have another chance like this to be presented and aesthetically valued?

Let me put this another way:

As a young child growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I was not only the sole black student, but often the only black girl in most of my classrooms and activities. I hated February and any discussion of U.S. history for without fail, the buck would be passed to me. What did I think about slavery? Was my grandmother in the Civil Rights movement? Do all black people laugh like that? What is up with black women and your hair?! And on and on. All heads would spin, eyes stare, and ears open as their inquiry suffocated me in its spotlight. Alternately innocent or offensive, always ignorant, these types of questions haunted me through my college years. The responsibility to be the one voice communicating the diversity of my entire race in white spaces was paralyzing.

You can imagine my relief when I saw that this was not so for Kenna and the artists she chose to present at this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. At the 9:30 pm Choreographer’s Evening performance on November 29, I witnessed 10 choreographers and countless supporting artists refusing to be frozen. Unlike most Choreographers’ Evenings, this year’s evening rode an arc of cohesion as it revealed themes of triumph and defiance. Gone was the disjointed variety show featuring the curator’s “Top 10,” instead was a unified vision making a bold and relevant statement—a feat I attribute to Cottman’s curatorial prowess.

The evening was as timely as it was clear in its statement, forcing the audience to acknowledge the zeitgeist seizing hold of our nation this past week. The grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for his shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown has ignited fervent rage and protesting beyond the city limits of Ferguson, Missouri. A new generation has awoken and arisen all over this country. We are no longer blinded by the promises of a  “post-racial society” or content with what our fore-parents accomplished. There is still work to be done, and we are determined to wail, and shout, and stand until it is finished. A clear takeaway from Saturday’s performance is the importance of artists’ role in this work and their willingness to do it.

Artists are often first responders, the canary in the mines, each singing their own song of alarm. The night’s shining star was a work by Darrius Strong of (Strong Movement) entitled Piece by Piece. Alongside four other dancers, including the powerful and captivating Ashley Akpaka, Strong charges through space summoning a collective spirit as he shows a community in breakdown. Religiously implicit motifs suggests a ceremony of induction as the group shifts between altruistic care for its members and almost cannibalistic violence upon itself, showcasing the best and worst of what happens when we all come together.

Less literal but equally relevant was Significant Nothings, choreographed and performed by Canaan Mattson. Mattson is an entrancing, gooey, and technical mover—able to organically shift through disciplines and seamlessly juggle maintaining the intimacy of his work while still inviting us in to witness the magnificent beauty of a young black man. For the work’s second section, Mattson forgoes recorded music and is joined by vocalist Eric Nordstrom onstage. Nordstrom happens to white, and as he steps on stage in his all black suit the contrast between himself and young Mattson donned in all white, is stark. The visual arithmetic is unavoidable if not intentional and for a moment, my breath caught as I watched these two young men share space and produce creativity rather than destroy life. To behold a young black man, as not dangerous, but beaming in his prime is a lesson our nation needs to learn.

TU Dance’s Kendra Dennard also hits literal high notes in her solo work Dancing With God. While the program notes aptly describe the work as an exploration of the fine line between love and hate, brilliance and calamity, it also resonated with my own experience of the Brown tragedy as young black woman. Brown’s and the countless other shootings in recent years are maddening and heart wrenching, not because I see myself in these men, but because I see my brother, my father, my partner, and I fear for my future sons. There is a loneliness in black women’s sorrow. We are secluded to ourselves but oh so affected. As we lose ourselves to grief, as we isolate ourselves for strength, the threads of ourselves start to fray. This is my own reading of Dennard’s work as she croons and morphs the melodies of Billie Holiday on a stage lit like a cell by a single overhead light. Dennard is beautiful yet tortured as she dances for composure, for relief, for hope—she dances for God to hear us.

From Ashley R.T. Yergens’ sassy Is this more ladylike? to Deneane Richburg’s Quiet As It’s Kept, all of the evening’s artists seemed to share a similar rebellious vision. Shucking cultural expectations, flipping the gaze, and honoring the artist’s civic duty to demand that culture face itself in the mirrors we hold up, this year’s choreographers delivered. An abundance of marginalized artists were given the opportunity to express themselves as so much more than our expectations. With metaphorical megaphones in hand, they spoke up and spoke out—not as tokens or tropes, but as authentic rich, lush, and complex individuals who truly see the world and demand to be seen. For that I say, Bravo! And thank you.

Islands of Imagination: Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

SPOILER ALERT: This piece will never be the same.  If you saw it last night, you should go again. Keep in mind that what I am about to write happened last night between 7:50pm and 8:57pm (give or take an hour).  It was a time warp in a theatrical jungle filled with wise, old children, living props and movable obstructions for the imagination.  Oh, and they danced.

We line the staircase, buzzing with excitement.  The lobby seems full of people eager to witness something unknown.  What we do know is that we are here to watch Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson inhabit the McGuire Theater for an eight o’clock show.  And it’s almost eight.  What they will do and how it will look is a mystery to us all, including the veterans of improvisation already on stage.

And so it begins… We enter the theater together, some carrying coats, others still wrapped up tightly to fend off the wintry air they carried in from outside.  We hang our coats and head to our seats.  There is a beautiful lightscape happening on stage.  It’s very dark, but there appears to be a moving constellation spiraling towards us.  The piece has been happening, before we came through the doors and long before we arrived here tonight.  The last few audience members trickle in and a few brave souls wander to the stage to sit (with great alignment) on a few pillows that have been placed in front of the first row.  “Oh cooooool,” I hear a woman next to me say.  I look at her and see that she has just realized that Paxton and Nelson have been on stage the entire time.  The lights fade and the second scene begins (or was that the prelude?)

Nelson is wearing a black and white striped t-shirt, dark pants, dark stocking cap and bright red socks.  She is almost comical, but holding a stick she becomes a serious sort of wizard.  Paxton sports a dark top and bottom with his signature slippers.  He looks a man who has been dancing for more than fifty years and understands how he works (he’s the same age as the Walker Art Center, 75).  The two dancers take in the space and move carefully.  Nelson is nimble, articulate, and spritely.  We ask ourselves, almost audibly, “and how old is she?”  Maybe we have traveled time and space.  They move these carpeted flats around stage, creating new rooms and do-si-do-ing smoothly while we watch and listen. The sound is spacious, even sweet at times.  The invitation to observe is clear and generous.  We see them building something and watching each other, as we watch them. This is a gift.

In this beautiful museum we are watching a living exhibit.  It has an exquisite light design by Carol Mullins which was highlighted during my favorite moment in the piece.  It’s what Nelson calls “an event.”  This is one of the few things that Paxton and Nelson expect to happen during the course of the evening.  Even though it may be apparent from the outside as well, its beauty and play allows us to get lost deeper inside their world.  The sound collage morphs and warps through moments of French, whispering and moaning.  It’s nostalgic and ephemeral but sometimes strange and emotional.  Paxton and Nelson never seem in a hurry to show us any one thing.  (Will they get to that box of tissue and five-gallon pail? Who knows.) Their consciousness shifts like a group of children deciding to play a game.

Night Stand transcends narrative.  It allows us to look in from afar or join them on their islands of imagination.  The demeanor of these two performers inspires exploration and curiosity.  They design playfulness, attention, and friendship.  They infuse just enough weird with the beauty.  Images linger in my mind, during and now.  As they are ending, I feel confident and content.  But how do we know this is the end?  They have taught us how to see again.

AFTERWORD: Nelson and Paxton joined the community for: drinks, questions, compliments, laughter, the usual.  I approached and asked for an autograph.  (What else could I do?!)  But instead of handing over the pen I proposed we make a 60-second drawing together.  They obliged.  Each of us with one hand on the pen, waiting, listening, wondering “what the heck is happening?”  In the end, I have two drawings, one by Steve & me, the other by Lisa & me.  They look like memories of the night I saw Night Stand.

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues tonight, November 22, 2014 with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s second performance of  Night Stand in the McGuire Theater.

Winter Processes: Dawn of Midi + Nils Frahm

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and […]

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi,  Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani).  Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi, Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani). Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and Nils Frahm, a Walker co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Dysnomia, the second full-length album from Brooklyn-based experimental trio Dawn of Midi, is a single suite made up of nine individual tracks. On paper, it’s avant-garde jazz informed by classical minimalism, a 47 minute record that works just as well in headphones as it does on a loud stereo. In person, it’s a stirring and immersive nine-part cycle.

Bassist Aakaash Israni starts, and Amino Belyamani joins shortly thereafter on electric piano. Both repeat one note over and over. Qasim Naqvi then enters with a bass drum, creating an off-kilter polyrhythmic structure. From here the band’s sound transforms further: it’s jazz, then funk, techno, math rock. At times, I’m not sure whether I trust my own ears.

As their final song (“Dysnomia”) grew softer, I thought I heard the sound of a low-quality cell phone video a few rows behind me. But I was wrong. Actually, I was only hearing the soft ambient chatter and bar sounds from the back of the venue. After spending an hour immersed in Dawn of Midi’s intricate rhythmic structures, my sonic palette had been completely jarred.

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm‘s most recent work is Spaces, an album which juxtaposes the analog and digital, live and studio, acoustic and electronic. Though occasionally referred to as  modern classical, it also touches on minimal synth, glitch, and even dub. It is a testament to his music’s versatility and precision that set opener “Says” also appeared on  a recent mix by Swiss techno dj Deetron. Nils closed with “For–Peter–Toilet Brushes–More,” Spaces‘ seventeen-minute centerpiece which involves the use of toilet brushes as percussion. It won him a standing ovation.

The first time I encountered Nils Frahm was in a title of a song by his friend Peter Broderick. “Hello to Nils” is the last track on Broderick’s How They Are, an album that helped get me through my first winter in Minnesota. Nils’ music likewise helps to ease the melancholy and emphasize the transcendence of the winter months. He does not shy away from sentiment: at one point last night, he introduced a song from his Screws album as a “little bit cheesy” piece of music he wrote after breaking his thumb. But he played it with complete, moving sincerity. It was only appropriate that a fresh layer of snow had appeared outside by the time the show ended.

Potential Energy is the Best Kind: Blake Nellis on Bound by Steve Paxton

  To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), […]

 

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The piece begins with sound and darkness.  The lights take their time fading up.  And then we can better see the four 2×4’s strewn (or placed intentionally) about the edges of the black floor.  Against the upstage wall there appears to be a rectangular screen covered in camouflage material.  In walks Jurij Konjar, dressed in red tights, white t-shirt, and suspenders holding a cardboard box around his midsection.  He appears to be a tired a superhero from a lesser known comic book.  His face is expressionless, although intriguing and handsome, as he stands motionless for us to look at him.

Konjar begins to unfold his cardboard box revealing flaps covered with camouflage material.  He is careful in transforming his box, but not too careful.  To complete his persona he donnes a vintage pair of sunglasses and black swim cap.  Now, it appears, we are ready for take off.

I wonder “how would Steve dance this if the year was 1982?” as my eyes dart around the black stage finding wood, camo, and a projector being rolled to center stage.  The back wall becomes an optical illusion, almost.  Konjar places himself in front of the screen, virtually disappearing.  The movements here are accurate, specific, and spell-binding.  We know this is being made up.  We understand the power of improvisation.  We are waiting patiently as this dancer points, stretches, and carves the space without giving us too much to digest at once.  He faces away from us so we can see the projection on his white shirt and find his arms extending ever so slightly from those short sleeves.  It’s time for him to move the projector.  He gathers the chord, pushes it off to its resting place stage left and walks diagonally behind the curtain.  We will see the projector again.  And we will see this piece being composed in front of us.  Konjar takes his time, like Paxton always does, to let us guess what might come next.  The potential energy is palpable, even though in the back of our minds we know this could be the Bound climax.

The dancing flirts with gesture, repetition, and surprise.  The dancer searches the space for another place to almost do something.  It is a pleasure to watch him calculate and observe.  He finds a rocking chair and baby cradle, both wooden and slightly creaky.  This becomes a game of sound, rocking with a few swift pushes from his hand.  Audience members begin coughing, clearing throats, even melodious sneezes add to the sound score.  (My partner and I are distracted and shifting in our seats, hoping that the “coughers” will take a breath.) We see nothing fazes Konjar.  He rocks until his heart’s content.  We know he’s on to something.

My favorite part of the work felt like a dancing dream, complete with costume change (Konjar wears all white for the remainder of the show).  The “White Section” has what we hope every dance piece would have: a person on stage inspiring us, dancing in a way that we cannot, or at least we cannot fully predict.  We can follow the dance like we can follow jazz, best if we close our eyes.

Here I take the time to imagine the Paxton/Konjar journey:

shifting dynamics

energy ascending the spine

playing with gravity

being serious with gravity

listening for rests

[                       ]

looking for the end/beginning

Konjar navigates the stage like a firefly trapped in a man’s body.  He jerks and twists and slides across the floor.  I know these sensations.  His physical intelligence is gripping and still mostly filled with potential energy.  Like a young Steve Paxton, Jurij Konjar invites us to see each move for the first time.  His physical orientation is often mysterious and off-balance.  I enjoy watching as his head whips around to see what is behind him.  It seems to surprise him, too, and his body torques and recovers like a fish out of water for just a moment.  All the while, an expressionless face.  [Could his body possibly express even one more thing without his face finally breaking just a little to reveal some inner secret?]  But we keep watching as the sweat soaks through the white t-shirt.

The effort feels generous.  The spine and signature of Paxton, present just enough.  Konjar unravels a spool of twine as he walks backwards and then forwards.  With his swim cap he makes his way to the finish line.  It is beautiful and poetic.  We remember now the unfolding of the cardboard box as we realize we have seen the unfolding of a master’s piece.  A new piece has been made.  Bound (2014).

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), Friday–Saturday, November 21–22, 2014 in the McGuire Theater. Writer Blake Nellis is a Twin Cities based dancer, choreographer and educator. This year’s Choreographers’ Evening, curated by Kenna Cottman, will include an improvised work by Nellis and long-time collaborator Taja Will.

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