the verge of disorganization

Culturebot contributor Ryan Tracy holds degrees in Conducting and Music Composition. He came to New York from California where he wrote music criticism for the Orange County Register. He is also a composer and founder of Collective Opera Company. Ryan has fulfilled residencies at the Edward Albee Foundation and Yaddo.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn, for Moving Theater‘s in-studio workshop on July 29th.

Everything was disorganized. There were two adjacent performance spaces; one space had its door shut, and the other had an open door revealing a long, narrow studio where a few disparate things were happening. A woman was pinning up photographs on panels of draping muslin while a group of people sat on the floor in a circle, chatting quietly. Someone fussed with an iPod that was fastened to the floor with tape. No one told me what to do or where to go, so I waited and wandered around the enormous factory building for half an hour. Gradually more people arrived and joined me in my wandering. Soon there was a large group of disoriented people filling the small vestibule. The high, chapel-like ceiling, chairs arranged in pews and single, empty rocking chair at the front facing out like a throne made the waiting area feel like a sanctuary.

At last, Brennan Gerard, one of the co-founders of Moving Theater, herded us into the open studio and explained the evening. We were about to witness Hadley’s 60: sixty minutes of performance curated by associate Moving Theater member, Hadley B. Nunes. There would be a performance improvisation in one studio by Moving Theater members Jonathan Drillet, Ms. Nunes, and other co-founder, Ryan Kelly. In the other studio would be two outside performance pieces. Two kitchen timers were wound simultaneously and the workshop began.

Mr. Drillet started in white face and black clothes, quickly and violently decorating his body with pieces of tape. He then attached the tape to pages from magazines and stuck them to the wall, placing them higher and higher until he had to jump off the ground. Just below where Mr. Drillet was working, Ms. Nunes, in a twirling little cotton dress, painted improvised words and designs on a stretch of butcher paper hanging on the wall. Finally, Mr. Kelly emerged from the back of the studio sporting an ensemble that would have made Tom of Finland proud: combat boots, tighty-whities, a military cap and a giant rucksack with a miniature American flag sticking out.

This continued with variations until a cowbell sounded, signaling the impending start of the first auxiliary performance, Jonah Bokaer’s Nudedescendance, a fascinating etude in computer-generated movement executed by Mr. Bokaer with exacting speed and elegant form.

After the dance, a film by Cody Hugh looped. Then the cowbell rang again and the audience filed back into the other studio where much had changed. Mr. Drillet was shirtless and his makeup was gone. Body parts were spray painted. Mr. Kelly was down to briefs and boots. And Ms. Nunes, still clothed, was interacting with the other performers.

My disappointment in missing the transformation kept me from leaving when the cow bell rang again and the crowd reluctantly left for the second performance. It was unfortunate that the audience chose to fall into that Pavlovian pattern since we were told that people were free to come and go at will. The choice of a herding instrument had much to do with this.

The improvisation went on using mostly themes of language and violence. Mr. Drillet launched into missives in French. A fascinating moment occurred when he and Ms. Nunes attempted to have a conversation with a tape recorder. Later Mr. Kelly was forced to the ground in an episode of abuse. His character continued on submissively until the timers rang and everything stopped.

Hadley’s 60 was part of Moving Theater’s summer residency at the Old American Can Factory. From early August until mid-October the loft-studio functions jointly as Moving Theater’s rehearsal space and a dance studio, with yoga sessions and a Butoh workshop directed by Ms. Nunes and movement classes taught by Mr. Kelly.

Mr. Gerard and Mr. Kelly–who have worked as a team since 2002–are also there to develop their latest full-length project, Without, an interdisciplinary performance piece that began its inception last summer during a three-week workshop at the Morris Center Dance Institute. They will rehearse here, cloistered off in the factory adjacent to the day-glo waters of the Gowanus Canal, gearing up for a showcase at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process Series in mid-September.

Without is inspired by the relationship between nineteenth-century French poets and part-time lovers Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and by what Rimbaud called “the systematic disorganization of the senses.” The piece will combine theater, dance, art and music. Mr. Gerard and Mr. Kelly plan to incorporate songs written by Claude Debussy – based on poems Verlaine wrote while serving time for attempting to shoot Rimbaud – into the piece. Male soprano Anthony Roth Costanzo will perform the songs.

In a post-performance Q&A, Mr. Gerard discussed his influences – the fusion of forms in the operas of Richard Wagner and the directors Anne Bogart and Peter Sellars. Mr. Gerard says the best directors he has worked with are the ones who are good at cultivating, not directing, thus the Moving Theater uses an ensemble model to develop their work. Gerard explains that Moving Theater brings collaborators into their studio daily in order to “create an environment for things to happen. Mr. Kelly, who came to the group from the NYC Ballet, is concerned with breaking down the idea that performers only interpret material, and proving that performers are creators as well.

Adamant about moving away from serving up art in “consumable quantities”, Gerard wants to challenge audiences to make choices about what they are seeing and how they are seeing it. He sees the work of the Moving Theater as an ongoing investigation into the systematic reorganization of performance.

Excerpts of Without will be performed September 11 & 12 as part of the Works & Process Series at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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