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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.

Listening Body: Penelope Freeh on Panaibra Gabriel Canda

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 Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Time […]

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Panaibra Gabriel Canda and Jorge Domingos performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photo courtesy MAPP International Productions.

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 Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos by Panaibra Gabriel Candathe second evening of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

There are stations onstage: a chair and amp on center, three microphones on stands in three corners and costume elements near the middle wing stage right. As the lights fade moments before the piece formally begins, a guitar player lays down near his equipment. Lights up and Panaibra Gabriel Canda, his back to us, speaks Portuguese into a mic, translations projected onto the scrim upstage.

Identity is outlined as a major theme here. With a clever trajectory of verbiage we become entangled in the macro/micro crisscrosses and crosses to bear of Canda’s personal history. He comes from a musician father and dressmaker mother from Mozambique, a country colonized by Portugal, turned communist, turned democratic. It is a confusing story that seems to have forced this contemporary dance and performance artist inward. Out pour guttural stutterings and a body wrestling with itself.

Intimate dances occur, accompanied by the virtuosic musicianship of Jorge Domingos. The two performers are always in counterpoint. Very little needs to be communicated between them in order to be completely on the same page. For a work with a subtitle that contains the word “Solos”, this reads very much as a duet.

Canda’s intelligent body holds many qualities and dynamic ranges. Initially making well-muscled arm gestures that repeat with accompanying text, he moves into more sinuous musings, traversing space. The geography is specific and seems to jump from the stage onto Canda’s very skin. I begin to perceive his body as a map, zones, multi-locations with various topographies. Stomping and gentle tapping accompany flinging arms and tight-fists. Grooves are interrupted and swell into eruption again and again, like water lapping.

A slow and deliberate crawl from upstage to down is my favorite moment, executed with profound coordination. We see the body lower then upright, and it is significant in its changing of planes. The bone and muscle dances begin under the low mic. We are reminded of what’s under the skin (that cannot be rubbed off, no matter how hard he tries). We are left with sweat and breath, a silent musician and a darkening space as we listen hard.

The Boundless Journeys of Faustin Linyekula: Deneane Richburg on Le Cargo

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 Deneane Richburg shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Le Cargo […]

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

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 Deneane Richburg shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula, the first evening of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Entering carrying Sortir de la Grande Nuit by Achille Mbembe and what appeared to be a traditional Yoruban wooden carved stool/sculpture, Faustin Linyekula begins Le Cargo facing the audience at a microphone, contemplating the benefit (or perhaps lack thereof) his storytelling has on those about whom he tells stories. Also woven into this moment are questions surrounding whether or not he has actually ever danced and the politics of determining what is and is not dance according to the ideology that governs the spaces one inhabits. Considering the geographic spaces he has traversed throughout his life (born in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, attending university in Kenya, and presenting his work all over the world including Europe and North America), the civil unrest that sometimes incited these journeys, and his desire to create work that speaks to the complexities of his upbringing and his experiences, as Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild comments: “Linyekula writes choreography […] his creations are chock full of compound movement ‘sentences’ that often end in ellipses, parentheses, or semicolons, rather than full stops[…] Linyekula makes sense of the complexities of his heritage by using his fierce intellect to interrogate those conditions onstage and in conversation.”

Linyekula invites the viewer on this boundless journey that has no mile markers and no specific end point. Woven into this experience are stories grappling with his identity, that of his Father, the internal journey that led him to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the physical and ideological corners he was/is pressed to inhabit in Kisangani, throughout Africa, Europe, and the United States. Just as he observes the intricacies inherent in the process of defining/identifying, Le Cargo remarks on the complexities of being via Linyekula’s sophisticated and layered use of space, lighting, storytelling, and movement. The stage is divided into three “regions,” the first is a downstage center area where he places the wooden stool/sculpture, the Mbembe text, and a microphone. In this space he addresses the audience engaging in a very familiar proscenium, performer-audience relationship. This relationship is in contrast to those in the other spaces of the stage. Upstage left are two footlights that, when illuminated, create a corridor of light emanating on a downstage right diagonal. The presence of two footlights and a strong yet narrow path of light create the feeling of introspection and a solitary tension which is reflected in the frenetic feel of the movement he performs in this area. Finally, stage right are a grouping of footlights arranged in a circle; the circle representing a place of togetherness/community/not being alone. As a result of the circular placement of the lights (on the floor lining the circle) each time he enters into the circle, two shadows appear on the back scrim creating the feel and image of two additional ghostly bodies moving in the space together with him. Throughout the work he walks along the circle of these footlights making careful decisions of when to enter the circle and when to remain along its perimeter. The presence of the circle and the manner in which he moves outside and inside of it seem to illustrate the ideal this symbol represents while acknowledging its placement as simply an ideal; not necessarily a reality. Throughout the work it seems in some ways Linyekula’s physical, and perhaps intellectual and emotional travels mirror his journeys on stage between these three spaces.

My personal insights as a result of a question asked 

After sheepishly raising my hand to ask the first question of the post-performance discussion, I realized I’d been trying to find the overall narrative of his work. Soon after asking this question I realized Le Cargo invites witnesses to compile and organize the primary messaging of the work themselves. This is not a work characterized by a linear narrative; instead it invites viewers to uncover their own point of entry—one where they witness emotional/intellectual/spiritual challenges enshrouded in the beauty of a viscerally engaging movement experience.

The Inherent Elegance of superposition: Noah Keesecker on Ryoji Ikeda

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, composer and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on last night’s performance of superposition by Ryoji […]

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

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, composer and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on last night’s performance of superposition by Ryoji Ikeda. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Ryoji Ikeda doesn’t require you to care about quantum physics anymore than quantum physics require you to care about art. Which is to say that Ikeda’s superposition is not about the math as much as it is of the math and in Ikeda’s world to be of math is to have inherent elegance.

In an interview with MoMA regarding his collaborative duo Cyclo., Ikeda states that “to me, sound is a property of physics; vibrations of air. Music is, in essence, a property of mathematics; without mathematical structures, sounds are merely sounds”. Speaking to him after the performance we chatted about a major underpinning of his work which is that even without our human aesthetic values about sound the mathematical visual derivations he is drawing would still exist. He didn’t invent the sine wave, moiré patterns, Lissajous curves, or the Qubit, but he has invented an astonishingly crisp and pointed work that easily translates the vastness, precision, violence, and subtly of physics and art in a brilliantly crafted audio-visual work.

In general Ikeda’s work stands out for its extremes and superposition is no different. It doesn’t shy away from amplitude (your program comes with earplugs), it doesn’t pander to the moderate audio frequency range of your radio (you can leave your compression at home), and it doesn’t even bother with the topic of popular music idiom comparisons (it’s not about that bass, but there is plenty of bass). What is significant about these extremes is that he is working with a full palette, because if you are going to try to make a work about quantum physics you’re going to need every hertz, decibel, and pixel you can get your hands on.

But what about the show?

It’s a fast 65 minutes. The architecture is pristine, the visuals are surgical, the music is searing at one moment and cool and atmospheric the next. You are gently lulled into Ikeda’s quantum machine and then soon overwhelmed with data. Don’t try to make sense of it all, you’re not supposed to. Someone asked me about a particular section and “what it means.” The work is not narrative anymore than a mathematical theorem is narrative; the meaning determined and extracted through its practical application and relation to a body of knowledge.

Word, words, words. Ryoji isn’t into describing art with words either. Yet words are everywhere. The live performers pound out virtuosic Morse code in unison, illuminate, obscure, and then decode the principles of quantum superposition with keyboards, analog microfilm and live video feeds. In the one quirky and lighthearted section of the work the performers have a simultaneous thought stream like two computers arguing the 1’s and 0’s of the same data set, trying to grapple with humanity, science, religion, matter, life, and meaning, and there is something cute, revelatory, and terrifying about the whole segment. And then, like a text book definition of superposition, when you try to read the position and speed of a particle at the same time, the Qubits hit the fan and the result is explosive and mesmerizing.

Addendum: What Ryoji and I talked about afterwards.

The tuning forks. I overheard half a dozen people raving about the tuning forks and for good reason. I was particularly interested in this section because to me it is the most simple and magnificent execution of superposition, and the music and math that makes it. Two sound waves firing back and forth at each other, each frequency precisely chosen (Ikeda has made hundreds of custom tuning forks at peculiar and precise tunings) for the visual moiré patterns that it produces. It’s like a mathematical proof for Superposition; simple, elegant, factual, and brilliantly rendered and this, this is beautiful art.

Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition will be performed again tonight, October 25, 2014, in the McGuire Theater.

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