I walked in with my homegirl at 7:55 to directions – instructions: Choose a group, follow the movement and try to repeat the words you hear. I kicked off my sandals and got to work – trying to flock and mirror and echo/respond. Being a dancer in this community means it’s not that big a […]
I walked in with my homegirl at 7:55 to directions – instructions: Choose a group, follow the movement and try to repeat the words you hear. I kicked off my sandals and got to work – trying to flock and mirror and echo/respond. Being a dancer in this community means it’s not that big a risk to copy some homies on the Southern stage, so I tried hard to follow my directions. Still, I cannot remember one phrase or word that I repeated. Very challenging activity, but me and my homegirl* appreciated the outlet for anxious energy. I think it was Jeffrey who finally told me “ok have a seat.” We grabbed our stuff that we had flung down and by the time we found a seat, there was more work happening on stage. I realized that the curtain talk was being given and I had no time to read my program or even orient myself. This was a good place to be as I entered the world of it’s [all] highly personal.
SuperGroup has a dance film where I remember them being very tiny. I felt shrunken down to the size needed to build a tiny shelf and then shot inside of the collective mind of the group like InnerSpace. Once inside the mind, I’m getting buffeted from place to place, text firing at me like synapse in the brain. Bits and pieces jump out and stay out “we do what we can,” “sometimes we don’t,” “this is what we do.” I keep bouncing back and forth between following the text thread like a conversation and just letting the cacophony of voices wash over me like a soundscape. Ah white art. My homegirl said the piece felt very white, like culturally white. I’m always searching for the content I can identify within white art, because I have a lot of white dance/art homies. Like white noise though, this is kind of relaxing, but like eavesdropping through the cubicles at work, this is kind of disturbing. I’m trying to grasp what these words are about – are these empty platitudes, like super general astrology readings? Are they deep insights? Or are they just every possible qualified sentence that can exist?
It is the movement that makes people laugh, draws us in. The snarky gossip, the bored housewife, stoner, wanderer, captain. I always say that I don’t like unison too much, so this piece really put that preference to the test. There were so few moments of unified movement , everything was so individualized. (spoiler alert) I dug using my binocs to zero in on one person at a time. The rare moments of sync were strong and well oiled. I used my binocs like a telescope to make everybody tiny. I liked the way the ensemble would seem to click into place and then just as easily break back into themselves – moving independently but not in isolation. There was a kinetic feeling of connection and moving in concert, even though nobody was doing even close to the same thing. And this group was seriously super. They spoke and orated in accord, while moving, singing, dancing – it even got choral at one moment. And the jumpsuits… the jumpsuits are amazing.
Leslie O’Neill‘s Fortress started with a world created for and by kids. Laura Selle Virtucio and Erika Hansen really managed to convince me of their childlike mentality through movement. So much so that I became unnerved by the possibilities. There were more than a few treacherous moments – movement-wise. There were precarious positions and super-charged couplings that spoke to me of violence. There was such a physical sense of foreboding, my homegirl described it as ‘heavy.’ The physicality reminded me of some less embodied people, and also young people who don’t know their own strength, who are hard on their shoes, who are gangly and unsteady on their feet. My homegirl doesn’t like when adults play kids on stage, and I might be with her on this point. Or maybe I was just unnerved by the way Laura and Erika took it to the darkside on so many occasions.
The environment made me uncomfortable to start – two girls whispering inside a tent. These girls’ friendship started to remind me of the friend I had who called me a n—— one time. We were pretty close but she still took it there. There was a dark edge to the way these two girls did everything, and I began to get a sense of the secret world of childhood that grown-ups are not a part of. Now we all know it exists because we were all children once, yet the dark corners get blown out in this work. I was getting the feeling that these girls were powerful in different ways. One girl was more classic – strong and daring and bossy. The other girl was deeper and had complex ideas and twisted emotions, she was subtle with her power. Now why did these girls feel like they were so connected and had to drag each other in and out of dark places? And like all kids, they were attracted to the dark and the light at the same time. They wanted to be scared and comforted all at the same time. There was much unknown in this piece, and I felt like I didn’t get it. Or I thought I was getting something and then something threw me off that track near the end…
*my homegirl: an amalgam of all the homegirls i talked to throughout the night.
On Thursday, the 10th installment of Momentum: New Dance Works premieres at the Southern Theater. Since 2001, the Walker and the Southern have been co-presenting cutting-edge work by local, emerging choreographers. This year’s line up includes SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski/ Leslie O’Neill (July 11-13) and Pramila Vasudevan/ Jennifer Arave (July 18-20). In preparation for the […]
On Thursday, the 10th installment of Momentum: New Dance Works premieres at the Southern Theater. Since 2001, the Walker and the Southern have been co-presenting cutting-edge work by local, emerging choreographers. This year’s line up includes SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski/ Leslie O’Neill (July 11-13) and Pramila Vasudevan/ Jennifer Arave (July 18-20). In preparation for the upcoming performances, local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones sat down with this year’s artists in TALK DANCE to discuss their processes, challenges, hopes, and expectations. To shake things up, Jones ventured from his typical question and answer format and had the choreographers interview each other.
Emerging out of a culture of increasingly formalized music and music performance, the punk rock era rejected virtuosity in favor of uninhibited expression. Despite its ultra-modern, progressive philosophies, punk rock was male dominated. In Canon, Jennifer Arave studied gestures from punk rock music videos to generate movement and presents the male-driven experience through a feminist lens.
In this piece, [generating movement is] relatively easy, because I’m taking YouTube videos of punk shows in the 80s and basically stealing the movement and then recontextualizing that movement into a narrative of some sort… We projected video on the wall and basically copy it as much as we could, physically. Sometimes, they’re in the middle of a move and you have to figure out what foot they’re pushing off of or what they’re doing once they’re in the air and we get as much as we can and then we improv with it. So, it’s kind of like what stays is what’s left when things slough away.
SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski, it’s [all] highly personal
Photo: Gene Pittman
For their newest work, it’s (all) highly personal, trio Erin Search-Wells, Jeffrey Wells, and Sam Johnson team up with playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski to examine the daily events that unnoticeably change and transform us, juxtaposed with our conflicting desire to experience both ritual and risk. When asked by Arave where the line is between a work being a collaboration vs. when people are working collaboratively under the helm of a director, SuperGrouper Sam Johnson explained:
This discussion of collaboration is obviously really interesting to SuperGroup. With each of our processes, we sit down and we ask ourselves how we want to work and work with each other and that changes a lot. So, just because we’ve worked a number of times collaboratively, we don’t have a way that we’ve always worked. There are times when one of us will come forward and say, “What is this? Or, “What are we doing?” Or with those [questions] that kind of stop the process.
Pramila Vasudevan, F6
Photo: Gene Pittman
Part of any artist’s process is recognizing and negotiating the space in which their work will be performed. Whether it’s a site-specific work or a traditional theater arrangement, utilizing the space creatively can add depth and meaning to a work, engaging audiences in exciting new ways. Unlike her Momentum colleagues, and many of her broader choreographic colleagues, Pramila Vasudevan has never created work for a theater. Having presented pieces mostly outdoors and in galleries, the conventional theater dynamic presented Vasudevan with new challenges and opportunities during the creation of F6 and in keeping with her experimental roots, she breaks the fourth wall and reverses the audience and the dancers.
For me, the very first encounter was, “how do I contend with the constraints of the space? And how do I find my voice inside of this space? And how do I also challenge myself?” I’ve never really worked in a traditional dance setting, ever. So, it’s kind of a great challenge, and because of the formality, the physicality of it was so hard to contend with, especially because of the space and the set… It’s not highly conceptual like other pieces in the way that I’ve rendered them in the past. It’s really about the physicality – the smell of it, the sound of it.
Leslie O’Neill, Fortress
Photo: Gene Pittman
For Leslie O’Neill, the creation of Fortress came through her and her dancer’s exploration of the body and memory. O’Neill considers the layered emotions and experiences of children, which can fluctuate on a moment’s notice, without warning. During the piece, the dancers negotiate the parameters of their relationship while simultaneously discovering their individual identity.
I’m trying to portray in the body the way that I see and remember a childlike brain working. So, I’m thinking of the scattered attention and the intense focus one moment and then indifference the next. I’m thinking of the mind like a place that holds many pockets and crevices and… pain and pleasure and all those things that are being stored up constantly. Trying to get at that in the body through movement, so it’s ending up looking like the way you see a child running, limbs akimbo and all that, but then also stops where time seems to expand or shorten.
This year’s participating choreographers come from diverse backgrounds and employ a variety of techniques and processes that enable each of them to create truly unique works. Momentum runs July 11-13 (SuperGroup/O’Neill) and July 18-20 (Vasudevan/Arave) at the Southern Theater.
The next Choreographers’ Evening, November 30, 2013, will be curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs. Update: The audition slots are now full. If you would like to be put on the wait list, please email WalkerArtCE@gmail.com and you will be informed as slots become available. Thank you for your interest! Yon and Griggs are […]
The next Choreographers’ Evening, November 30, 2013, will be curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs.
Update: The audition slots are now full. If you would like to be put on the wait list, please email WalkerArtCE@gmail.com and you will be informed as slots become available. Thank you for your interest!
Yon and Griggs are imagining the performance line up as a selection of songs for a mixed tape, carefully chosen for someone special. They are dedicating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening to Nicky Paraiso, performer and La MaMa Moves! curator in NYC, who in their words “ has an infectious admiration for performers. He puts together programs that are wildly eclectic, thought provoking and moving. We are inspired by his impresario showmanship and ability to tug at your heart strings.” As part of the audition process, the curators would love to know if you were to dedicate your piece to someone or something, who or what would it be?
Auditions will be held at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Avenue on Thursday, August 15 from 6-10pm; Friday, August 16 from 6-10pm; and Saturday, August 17 from noon – 4pm.
You must email WalkerArtCE@gmail.com to reserve an audition time; auditions are accepted by appointment only.
All forms of dance welcome.
- You will receive a call or email confirming your time slot
- Auditions are in 10 minute intervals
- Pieces are usually 3-6 minutes in length and may not exceed 7 minutes
- DVD submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred
- Works in progress are accepted for auditions but no pitches please!
For more information and to schedule an audition, please email WalkerArtCE@gmail.com or call the Walker at 612.375.7550.
Uruguayan choreographer luciana achugar believes that dance has the power to do many things. She deliberately chooses to write her name without capital letters in a way to minimize hierarchy. Through her creations and the process of making each one, she deliberately instills philosophies in the dance’s structure and performance qualities to transmit her beliefs. […]
luciana achugar, Franny and Zooey Photo: Alex Escalante
Uruguayan choreographer luciana achugar believes that dance has the power to do many things. She deliberately chooses to write her name without capital letters in a way to minimize hierarchy. Through her creations and the process of making each one, she deliberately instills philosophies in the dance’s structure and performance qualities to transmit her beliefs. When witnessing her work live, one is drawn into a unique experience of sensing the motivations of the dancers within its contemporary theatrical framework. Her values, based in labor equity and post-colonial thinking, infuse the environment with a sense of togetherness and being in the moment that is conscious and inclusive of the audience and every one of the performers. Her works progress with ritualistic repetition and easily engage the audience, while, as the director, achugar possesses the determination to reclaim the uncivilized female body and derive her movement vocabulary from the pelvis, as the root of pleasure. (more…)
When preparing to announce each new performing arts season, part of my job is to write about the upcoming shows and add warnings about adult content or any atmospheric irritations potential audience members might need to know about: violence, nudity, loudness, strobe lights, and fog. But it was the nudity warnings that required the most […]
Eiko & Koma, Naked, 2010 Photo: Cameron Wittig
When preparing to announce each new performing arts season, part of my job is to write about the upcoming shows and add warnings about adult content or any atmospheric irritations potential audience members might need to know about: violence, nudity, loudness, strobe lights, and fog. But it was the nudity warnings that required the most careful wording last season. It may have seemed simple but I have been trying to be transparent, writing cautionary notes as creatively suggestive, with their tone and intentions matching the ultimate exposure in the performances.
My insistence in avoiding the use of generic nudity labels started with the John Jasperse Company’s Walker-commissioned piece Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies inMay of 2010, when I wanted the audience to see beyond the nakedness to the themes enumerated in the show’s title. The warning–
(Note: Performance contains nudity and sleight of hand tricks)
–also hints at a section of the performance when the choreographer does a magic act poorly, further emphasizing what the real actions are as opposed to the intended ones.
Later in 2010, Minneapolis-based interdisciplinary choreographic collective SuperGroup performed an innocent although cheeky (in more ways than one) dance work in that year’s Choreographers’ Evening curated by Susana di Palma. Since Choreographers’ Evening is a group show of short pieces, I didn’t want to reveal who was going to be naked and ruin the surprise, and yet I didn’t want audiences anticipating something in-your-face-naked and taint the other works which were so different. SuperGroup’s piece Spring Dance Unrated was inspired by pseudo-classical Isadora Duncan style movements, so the lightness of the choreography needed to be reflected in the spirit of the warning. The language used–
(Note: Performance contains joyous nudity)
–was playful and unassuming–and “joyous” became the baseline office reference for all nudity for years after. I was encouraged by this level of attention to detail and the effect it can have on positioning expectations and dissolving any loaded references.
Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012
The ability to boldly underscore the obvious was fun in Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Untitled Feminist Show. The publicity photos never hid the fact that the performers would be naked the entire time so the warning was intentionally redundant–
(Note: performance contains [a lot of] nudity)
–in order to get to the point of what makes gender and where is humanity in the flesh.
The 2012-13 season opened in September with another Walker commission, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People’s And lose the name of action, named after the Shakespearean line in Hamlet. Last summer as we were putting out publicity materials in advance of the performances, the show was still in development and nudity was being explored but was far from confirmed. The research and themes of the piece evoked paranormal phenomena and neuroscience, so having a non-committal note–
(Warning: Some potential nudity)
–worked with the possibility that the nude parts could be cut out of the final production while also playing into the mind games of the superstitious and hallucinatory aspects of the choreography. I covered my bases by having the warning listed and still was able to stay true to the piece.
The BodyCartography Project, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman
October’s premiere of BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature had plenty of nudity but without any sexual references. The piece explored the theme of the uncivilized versus the socialized, so to add to the atmosphere I noted this–
(Warning: Some bodies appear in their natural state)
–as part of the National Geographic-ness of the work.
During Out There, Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun was a theatrical adventure and so having a charged message–
(Warning: Full frontal nudity)
–explaining the naked parts was encouraging, emphasizing the exhilarating ride the play was.
The final exposure of the season was more haphazard in Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, and Trajal Harrell’s two-hour hot mess of a show, (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M). Also part of Out There, this performance was more of a series of overlapping solos and costume changes, part song-and-dance marathon within a character-based play. The waiting between numbers was as important as the numbers themselves. As such the language–
(Warning: Costume malfunctions. Expect nudity)
–highlighted the anticipation as much as the events.
I am considering adding this newly developed skill to my resume. The innuendos and reveals in each felt like mini works of art. If you have an idea of what to name this talent, let me know. Curator of expectations in adult content?
Dance and the Body Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters is a four-part series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper […]
Dance and the Body
Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters is a four-part series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical meaning behind the works. Feel free to add to the discussion and share your own insights in the comment section below.
Understanding dance performance begins with simply describing what we observe. Certain terms help us communicate these observations. For example, we can use terms that describe parts of the body, like head, face, shoulders, arms, legs, torso, and feet. We can describe how bodies in motion create shapes and divide space. We might describe the symmetry or asymmetry of the arrangement of bodies on stage, or we might describe rounded or angular motifs in the positions of the dancers (Cunningham). We might describe the dance techniques employed in the performance. Some techniques are muscular (Streb), while others require dancers to move from their bones and organs (BodyCartography Project); some techniques use breath at the center of movement (Eiko & Koma); and some techniques use all these elements. Beginning with simple descriptions of what we see, we can begin to think about how a dance performance makes us feel and what it means to us. Reflecting further on the cultural context of a performance, we can begin to consider what it might mean to its choreographers and dancers, and what its broader cultural impact might be.
The body is the instrument of dance. We – as audiences – watch how the body moves or doesn’t move. We observe shape, movement, and technique; body size, gender, race, age, and more. We make these observations and others through visual cues whose cultural histories predate the present performance. What is communicated through dance performance depends both on the dancers’ bodies and the audiences’ cultures of perception. That is, our bodies, as viewers, are part of the meaning.
Imagine a performance involving black dancers and white audience members. In the United States, this occurs in and communicates an ongoing negotiation of power dynamics and cultural conversations. The same can be said of a performance involving a woman dancing for an audience of men. In these examples, the significance of the dance has to do in equal part with the dancers and the audience members: race and gender are part of ever-changing cultures of racism and heteronormativity. These are only two examples of ways in which visual cues interact with audience culture to affect a performance’s meaning, message, and impact, in the field of dance and beyond. Many dancers and choreographers, aware of the complexity of visual cues, create work with such negotiations in mind.
Choreographer Bill T. Jones creates art with his audience in mind. He observes that the audience that sees his work is mostly white, and he admits that this awareness informs his choreographic choices. Jones addresses issues of interest for his audiences, challenging what he perceives to be the social and cultural assumptions viewers bring to a performance. In discussing his 2012 work Story/Time, Jones asks audiences to “watch [ourselves] watching.” He explains, “I’m always aware that I am a subjective consciousness, trying to observe something and trying to relate to it. It makes me very self-conscious, but it also makes me feel like I am participating in the world of ideas.”
An opportunity arises to “watch [ourselves] watching” during a section of Story/Time. The same story is repeated three times, each time accompanied by a different choreographic representation – first by a black woman dancing abstractly, alone on the couch, then by the cast, narratively performing the story as it is told, and finally repeated again by the cast with their backs to audience and with their real names inserted into the story. The repetition and variation emphasizes how bodies and culture can influence the perceived meaning of a story. During the piece, Jones retells a story centering on relationships, struggle, and violence and the sequence of events that unfolds. The original version of the story is as follows:
A woman is sitting alone on the couch, distraught, because she can’t pay her mortgage. The father and daughter enter and try to comfort the mother. Then, the landlord [sic] comes in with his goons, demanding the money. The mother says, “have mercy, we don’t have the money. Please, please give us more time.” The landlord says, “I don’t care, I gave you another month already. This is not a fucking charity.” He tells his lackeys, “take the furniture.” The father screams, “But you can’t do this!” the landlord says, “not only can I do this, but I’m going to take her, as well.” The mother shouts, “no, no, no, no!” as the landlord seizes the daughter and begins ravishing her. The father tries to intervene, fails, and has a heart attack. The landlord, full of himself, walks away. The son enters the scene, witnessing the carnage. The mother tells him, “The landlord is the cause of all the troubles.” The son, full of fury, takes his revenge.
The story itself is an example of using the body as a weapon for control, reinforcing dynamics of sexism and classism.
After watching each segment, some questions to consider are: What is conveyed when it is performed by a black woman? How did the impact of the story change when the dancers pantomimed the events? How did the bodies of the people portraying each character influence your feelings about it? What do you think that means? What about when the dancers’ real names are used and they are portraying themselves? How do Jones’s presence on stage and his narration impact the overall presentation? Does the impact change when the dancers have their backs to the audience?
In all three iterations, the bodies performing on stage influence the significance of the piece and affect how it is perceived by the audience. In what way might the meaning change in relation to the cultural background of the viewer? Taken together, these considerations inspire unique interpretations that arise equally from the bodies of the performers and the bodies of the audience members.
Connotations of the body vary from community to community. In times of war, the body is often used as a weapon and as a tool of control. In the 20th century, the Democratic Republic of Congo was fraught with political and military coups, political corruption, poverty, civil wars, and human rights violations. In a 2010 performance, Congolese artist Faustin Linyekula (lin-yay-coo-la) reflected on the significance of the body during political upheaval and instability:
So, you have a body. The ultimate territory you could occupy. And you know what? History could be understood through the lens of the evolutions of forms of violence against the body. Not only the history of my country, which has been particularly violent against the body, but any people, any country, can be understood through that angle. The evolution of forms of violence against the body. So, maybe a dancer is a fortune or a curse.
As Linyekula describes, violence against the body is not restricted to select countries or cultures. Violence against the body is a common phenomenon among all human cultures, and it has evolved over time. Rape, slavery, and mutilation are examples of extreme brutality, but violence also takes on more subtle and nuanced forms through systemic racism, sexism, classism, and religionism, to name a few. Dance and performance remind us of the embodied human experience in their portrayal of relationships, emotion, struggle, perseverance, elegance, and beauty. Live performance not only invites embodied empathy for characters and actors, but invites us to see the impact of our own interactions with other people. As audience members, we experience ourselves as embodied participants in an embodied story.
The methods that performers use to get us to challenge our own notions of the body vary greatly, but they all contribute valuable information and experiences to the ongoing dialogue around the body and the cultural habits that it bears.
Deborah Hay hails from the Judson Dance Theater, a dance collective whose philosophy centered on dismantling the conventions and theatricality that often accompanied dance performance and utilized every day movement as the predominant vocabulary. They organized informal performances in unconventional places, without elaborate lighting or costuming, in an effort to convey their true selves.
For her original performance of O’ Beautiful, Deborah Hay hired a costume designer to design a “post-apocalyptic looking costume… it did not feel appropriate to me, at all, in that it strongly influenced my dancing and really got in the way for me. I felt quite limited by the cuteness of the costume.” During one rehearsal in the Texas heat, Hay rehearsed the piece in the nude.
I’m in the studio one day and it’s so hot, I just take off all my clothes and I start performing O’ Beautiful and that was the costume. And what I experienced performing that piece without any clothes on was so phenomenal that [nudity] had to be the costume.
Hay no longer performs the piece live, renamed Beauty, but performs A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty in which she discusses the evolution of the piece while projecting two performances of it (one in the post-apocalyptic costume and the other in the nude) side by side.
Hay’s change of opinion in how to (un)dress for the piece was a response to her daily experiences (climate control). The banality of those circumstances, however, does not change the cultural significance of a woman in her 60s performing in the nude. How differently would the performance have been perceived if she were in her 20s or 30s? If she were black? If she were male? How does showing the side by side performance change the viewer’s perception? Seeing the performances side by side, we become increasingly aware of the differences that costuming has on the body and the impact costuming has on our interpretation. Since Hay no longer performs the work live, in costume or in the nude, the audience watches a video of her dancing, while she gives a lecture, live, about the work. Her academic presentation and intellectualization of the piece further de-sexualizes the performance.
Though Hay found comfort in her nudity, not every dancer or company agrees that the uncostumed self is the “true self.” In the tradition of the Harlem vogue balls, one’s true self was her or his attitude.
This realness, what is interesting, is that it includes all the artificial means that you may need to use… While realness, to be real, you may use a lot of makeup, a lot of fake bra, a lot of costumes, a lot of accessories that’s going to make you be real. So this is this interesting situation where being real is not getting rid of all the cultural elements and all the artifices, but being real is using everything you may use, from hormones to costumes to heels to fake dick to pass as what you want to pass as. – François Chaignaud
To the members of Judson Theater, their bodies “true forms” were revealed by ridding performance of traditional theatrical elements like costumes, hairstyles, and stage makeup. Dancers in Harlem’s vogue balls took an opposite approach, utilizing all available technology for altering bodies to represent their “true selves” so that the images and persona that they presented to the world matched their inner ideas of their bodies. In both cases, the notion of “realness” has the body at its center – perhaps because we, as a society, place the body at the center, taking social and cultural cues from what we see, who we see, and how we see.
Whether making physical or philosophical observations about the dancing body, perception and understanding are undeniably influenced by the culture in which we live. Analysis of the performing body requires contextualizing the work based on the background of the choreographer, the cast performing, and the demographics of the viewers. Each participant brings with her a body of unique experiences and varied perspectives that together effect the overall reception, meaning, and impact of a work. Dance is more meaningful for viewers who bring this awareness to a performance.
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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Thursday night’s Live! The Realest MC by Kyle […]
Photo by Ian Douglas
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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Thursday night’s Live! The Realest MCby Kyle Abraham / Abraham.In.Motion.Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in Comments!
A golden child is hatched downstage right. Clad in sequins and lamé, Kyle Abraham is born. Shoulders articulate. Limbs elongate then shrink. Abraham tentatively balances on his sickled feet and, for a moment, he is grown.
Soon other dancers enter and athletically frame him. Their movements are clear-cut and concise. Everything is clean and visible. The oscillation from casual hip-hop to balls-to-the-wall contemporary dance is utterly discernable, readable.
Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima
There is so much unison dancing that when an image stops for a moment, like when a trio of men sightlessly hug/spoon and reach for one another’s hands, we sit up and take notice. There is depth of meaning here that extends beyond the virtuosity of high battements and multiple turns. This piece is about coming of age, being gay, pain and rage.
Video is projected on an upstage curtain of floor to ceiling white strips. Kids chase after someone over and over, a childhood nightmare played out larger than life and in color. The music is drone-like and full of static, at times too loud but to a point. Life is sometimes unbearable and dangerous. You want to cover your ears and hide away.
At about the halfway point this full-evening piece breaks apart. Humor finds its way in by way of a video of a southern white woman giving a hip-hop tutorial. Next is a voiced-over dance lesson all about the hips. Later two men physicalize the same dance instructions, one effeminately and the other hip-hop style. A beautiful juxtaposition and, I think, complement.
The evening is comprised of episodes rather than a super-narrative. This is elegantly done and with superb transitions. The lighting helps to carry this off, creating and defining sub-spaces within the larger one.
The end brought my only complaint: I wanted the last dance episode to be a solo for Abraham. After making himself so vulnerable in a section where he by turns talked tough and broke into childhood tears, I wanted just him and his sublime musicality. Alas, I loved it anyway.
From the dancers to the clever costumes, all were well cooked. For a work that drew upon the autobiography of Abraham, credit and generous dancing time was given to the dancers.
Most of us can say that at one point in our lives, we didn’t fit in. But how did we know that we didn’t fit in? Kyle Abraham knew because people told him so: My dad, he was a big basketball coach, and he sent me one summer to a basketball camp – which was […]
Most of us can say that at one point in our lives, we didn’t fit in. But how did we know that we didn’t fit in? Kyle Abraham knew because people told him so:
My dad, he was a big basketball coach, and he sent me one summer to a basketball camp – which was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. I didn’t know that I didn’t fit in, but I was told on several occasions how much I did not fit in. I think there’s something about that in the story of Pinocchio, where I don’t really think he’s aware that people see him as different, he just thinks that he is this boy, he thinks he’s like everybody else. But then people tell him otherwise. And then he goes on this quest; he wants to be famous and do all these things and he does all these shows with the puppeteer. So, for me, I found all these really interesting parallels between that and my experience growing up in an urban community in Pittsburgh where it seems like if you put this kind of Hip Hop bravado on, you’ll be more accepted, or you won’t be called out as different. So that’s really what the show is referencing in relation to the story of Pinocchio. The soundtrack gives you this more industrial vibe, so, for me, it was thinking, “how can I make this story relate?” And, for me, it became less about this cobbler, or craftsman, making this wooden puppet, but more – maybe it’s happening in a factory, maybe it’s more industrial. Maybe you’re turning someone into a robot. Really devoid of feelings and emotion and just this false sense of celebrated masculinity.
Contributing to the ever-evolving dialogue on heteronormativity, in Hip Hop, sports, and beyond, Abraham’s newest work Live! The Realest MC infuses dance and storytelling in a journey of self-discovery. Questioning constructs around masculinity and identity, Abraham, like Pinocchio, only began searching for himself after others informed him that he was different. In both stories, though, it seems less about finding yourself, and more about understanding yourself while searching for others like you.
For some, sports and masculinity are synonymous. In football this past season, there seemed to be as many articles about homosexuality and players’ controversial (and also awesome) statements about marriage equality as there was coverage of the games. For Abraham, basketball became a place where his masculinity was questioned, where his “difference” was called out.
Speaking of heteronormativity and sports, remember Dennis Rodman? In the early 90s, Rodman challenged gender perceptions in the NBA, regularly painting his nails, dying his hair, and wearing women’s clothing. His public appearances garnered a lot of positive and negative attention, but no matter what the response, it got people talking. Twenty years later, that dialogue has evolved, hopefully progressing.
And since we’re talking about Dennis Rodman, Hip Hop, and gender roles/heteronormativity, here’s this little bit of awesome for you.
Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the […]
Photo: Ian Douglas
Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the individual with rigid social exhortations. In Live! The Realest MC, he takes inspiration from the Pinocchio fable to explore the concept of being “real,” within the context of masculine expectations, heteronormativity, and the performance of identity in hip-hop. Upright and sparkling in gold Abraham provides a marked contrast to the cool black tracksuits of his company members. As he begins to walk, he welcomes us to follow him on this journey.
Now in its third year, the Walker Art Center’s SpeakEasy program regularly invites audience members to participate in open post-performance conversations facilitated by Walker visual arts tour guides and local members of the performing arts community. In conjunction with this weekend’s performances by Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, we offer this pre-performance blog highlighting a few themes connected to the work. We hope that you will join us after the show on Saturday, March 16, in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Balcony Bar for a discussion led by choreographer Blake Nellis and Walker tour guide/choreographer Ray Terrill.
Placing the work
Drawing from his conservatory training and youth immersed in the emerging hip-hop culture of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Kyle Abraham creates interdisciplinary work that “delve[s] into identity in relation to a personal history.” This weaving of diverse media and material is manifest in works such as Pavement, which incorporates opera, the early writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood, as well as Live! The Realest MC, with its mixture of dance, projections, and monologues.
Speaking of his interest in the work of visual artist and Walker Art Center regular Kara Walker, Abraham reflected upon identity and influences: “I am inspired by how she is able to create such provocative situational environments in her work with a willingness to evoke anger, laughter, and a whole swelling of emotions…her work deals with historic references, representation, and stereotypical content that make me reflect on my position in life…and more so in this country, as a gay black American man who grew up in an urban environment marginalized by race, poverty and sexual orientation.”
Abraham’s background provides fodder for Live! The Realest MC, a piece that both confronts issues of hypermasculinity and comically questions what being “real” in hip-hop may be. Yet behind this humor and orbiting this piece are a variety of rigid expectations and potentially cruel consequences, what Amy Villarejo has termed the “terror of the normative.” The story of Live! The Realest MC began to develop in the early solo piece Inventing Pookie Jenkins, but took on a greater significance in the context of recent suicides connected with bullying and homophobia. Abraham explained, “I began to think about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed. Hoping that if I get my voice to sound like the other male students around me, I wouldn’t be found out. I just wanted to be a robot… a puppet…”
Being “real” in this sense becomes convoluted, not simply the assertion of some genuine selfhood, but, a “yardstick” that measures one’s relationship to a variety of notions of authenticity. To “be real” morphs into an imperative to fall in line and the individual must decide how to respond.
Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima
Although brought into dramatic relief in relation to expectations that one resists, the individual in society is continuously engaged with the demand “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (T.S. Eliot). Embedded within myriad sets of relationships, the self is developed and performed through quotidian practices and in contrast or kinship with others. In this regard, for Joanne Finkelstein, the “controlled body” becomes a “passport to sociability.” If one knows social codes, and can successfully adhere to them, doors may open, even if merely for a performance that comes at a great personal price.
When does hip-hop become intertwined with identity or a lifestyle and how is this relationship performed? When is it personal, taking a set of concepts and practices into one’s own definition of self, and when is it public, portraying a role to be understood by others or assuming qualities and practices from demeanor, to speech or consumption? Abraham’s work pulls meaningfully from specific roots, yet the aforementioned questions apply to any range of accepted or desired roles. Where does the “real self” end and the “performed self” begin? Given that one is born and lives in situ and in relation to others, is the notion of such divisions simply an illusion?
When asked in an interview for New York’s Amsterdam News how race may factor into his dance life, Abraham replied, “It is inevitable that the work of any choreographer will come from a place of their individual journey. My personal story is growing up as a middle-class, Black, gay man from a spiritual family upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Whether I chose to create a work about my life experiences in a literal fashion [or not], the work is inevitably a derivative of all that I am.”
While “placing” Abraham’s work may mean providing a context for it in terms of histories, norms, and social forces that have shaped his experiences, the work is not limited by these parameters. Speaking of the larger relationship between audience and art, Abraham broadened the scope: “the same great thing can be said about dance as it can about the visual arts… I want my work to have an individual effect. It’s not imperative that people walk away seeing or feeling the same thing. Art, in all forms to me, is about evoking something…either with in yourself or within those who stumble upon your vision.”
A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 26, about (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, by Cécilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, and Trajal Harrell. […]
Inspired by the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which follows the vogue dance scene in Harlem in the 1980s, (M)imosa investigates the hypothetical question of what contemporary dance would look like today if vogue had the same influence as the Judson Dance Theater on the evolution of the art form. Utilizing elements of time, space, persona, the four artists address the question of “what is real” while trying to convince the audience that each of them is “the real Mimosa.” The element of “real” is the dominant theme, explored through song, dance, story-telling, and costuming, challenging audiences perception of gender, sexuality, and what it means to be comfortable in your own skin. After the show, audience members gathered in the Balcony Bar to discuss what they saw. Here are some key topics:
The house never went dark, except during a few sections. Performers were in audience, talking to people, to each other, drinking tea, eating. The audience quieted when Freitas took the stage, topless. Even as she began dancing, the lights stayed up and the other performers remained on the sides or in the audience, giving the performance a rehearsal quality, making the viewers aware that they were watching a very intimate scene of artistic and personal exploration. As the audience watched the performance, the performers watched each other, moving seamlessly between being viewers and performers. As an act was happening on stage, there was often something just as captivating happening in the audience, forcing the audience to choose what to look at and where to look. Costumes and props scattered throughout the audience brought on interactions between the artists and viewers that turned several audience members into performers themselves.
What is male? What is female?
From the very beginning, gender lines were blurred. Freitas performed topless for the majority of the show – wearing purple lingerie for one section then doing a Prince impersonation shortly after, Bengolea performed a section wearing a strap on penis then later performed in a red dress, Chaignaud seamlessly shifted between elaborate drag costumes to street clothes, while Harrell wore khakis and a sweater the entire show. The obscured gender lines were less about sexuality and orientation than they were about identity and self-actualization.
Will the real Mimosa please stand up?
In the beginning, each performer introduced themselves as “Mimosa.” In subsequent pieces they explained what made them “Mimosa” and how they came to identify with that word. At the end, they each made their case for why they are the “real Mimosa.” So who is the real Mimosa? In the film Paris is Burning, being “real” meant to inhabit a persona so fully that you could walk down the street and no one would question whether or not that’s the “real” you. In (M)imosa, the performers committed to each character, each persona, so that the audience couldn’t tell when they were in character or not. Their use of costumes, makeup, prosthetic, and so on, did not mask their true selves, but enhanced it. The performers utilized all that culture has to offer to highlight that there is not a singular definition of what is real. People have many faces, persona, attitudes, ideas and, like Mimosa, they change, evolve, and grow.