“Body Madness” at Danspace is Halfway Through and Going Strong

Just a couple weeks ago, some of us Culturebot people were chatting around the watercooler (read: beers) in the newsroom (read: some bar), and I was remarking that this season’s Platform at Danspace Project was, well, pretty exceptional. Everyone agreed.

The theme this season is “Body Madness,” and the series is split into two parts: “Absurdity & Wit,” curated by Danspace’s executive director Judy Hussie-Taylor, and “Rhythm & Humor,” curated by choreographer David Parker. In a Q&A with Time Out, Hussie-Taylor explains how the idea came about.

“I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great to have a Platform that was inspired by Beckett?” she said, which got her thinking about several artists’ work (including Yvonne Meier’s, who performed last weekend). At some point, she landed on the idea of “body madness” reading through Marinetti’s Futurist manifestos.

“This is probably not true of all of the artists in my section, but there is the idea of pushing the body to a limit or a certain rigorous exploration of something rooted in the body. I was thinking about wit too. Wit is a turn of a phrase; in the body,” she explained, “it can also be a turn of a phrase—an intelligent, quick response. Sometimes you read it and get it, and sometimes you don’t. It’s pushing the boundaries of the body. And sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not.”

The series kicked off with Cori Olinghouse’s Voix de Ville, a punning reference to “vaudeville,” a mixed evening of three performances. A former dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company who’s more recently worked with Bill Irwin, apparently, Olinghouse’s “Animal Suite: Experiments in Vaudeville and Shapeshifting” was a disarmingly fun performance. I’ll admit that exactly what the relationship between vaudeville and metamorphosis is eludes me (at a purely professional level, vaudeville performers rarely developed within their careers, sufficing with only a couple gimmicks or shticks), but in practice it was marvelous to watch.

One of the ways I can tell how excited I really was by a performance is by how my notes look afterward. I always start the same way, jotting down the name of the show and the date in my trusty little Moleskine notebook (thanks Soo Jin–I might need another soon!), and taking descriptive notes of details I want to remember later during the first 15 or 20 minutes. By the end, if the show’s uninspiring, I tend to start writing down fragments of thoughts and responses in tidy neat script. But if it’s good, the notes come fast and furious, in multiple directions, in large-lettered scrawls, with a proliferation of punctuation marks. In this case, by page three, in increasingly large letters, I had written, “WTF is that?! Badger? Mole??? FOXES!!!!”

Developed with four other dancers who perform the piece along with Olinghouse, “Animal Suite” starts with a series of references to classic vaudeville. There’s a tap or soft-shoe routine. Two male dancers visually and physically reference Buster Keaton in a call-and-response section that starts drifting off-topic as the score shifts from Tin Pan Alley to house and back. Two female dancers (Olinghouse and Eva Schmidt) at one point construct a proscenium stage frame by stacking dour, leafless tree branches that begin the show laying around the stage, recalling nothing so much as the lonely tree from Waiting for Godot (Buster Keaton having been, of course, Beckett’s favorite).

Then “Animal Suite” starts to get really odd. Pieces of fox costumes start to appear; dancer Mina Nishmura largely dons her costume onstage. One of the males comes out wearing it half strapped on, like a performer waiting in the dressing room a few scenes before his cue. Why exactly these clowning vaudevillians eventually metamorphose into woodland creatures is beyond me, but I really couldn’t care less (one of those things it’s better not to over-think). What I can say is that I sat with rapt attention, a little grin on my face, as Olinghouse’s charmingly witty little piece played out.

The evening closed with a performance from two dancers from the Legendary House of Ninja, which was a trip for me (I’d never seen that before) and I was amazed in a different but no less meaningful way. Claudia La Rocco gushed over that part in the Times, so you can read it there. (The middle piece, by Kota Yamazaki, left me and I think most people a bit un-moved.)

A week later, I was back at Danspace on Saturday night for Miguel Gutierrez’s DEEP Aerobics. I went with an Irish modern dancer and choreographer I’d made vague plans with to see a show with a few weeks before. Given options for that weekend, she rather predictably chose the interactive performance-happening that required me to dress up in an outlandish costume and get hot and sweaty inside St. Mark’s before heading out into a still-frigid February night.

DEEP Aerobics goes down like this: you bring a costumer and/or make yourself up on the spot, then for an hour-ish, Gutierrez, looking fabulously absurd and carrying around an inflatable monkey, walks, talks, aerobicizes, and bounces (bouncing being one of the most important parts) you through an exorcism of negativity, rejection of the capitalist commodification of your body, and opens you to the complexity and challenges of the world with the intent of ejecting you at the end of the night with a renewed capacity for grappling with them.

As my dancer friend noted, it gets a little hippie-ish from time to time. That is a bit true, and I’m generally a hippie-hater, but personally, I loved DEEP Aerobics (and am proud to be a certified instructor now–along with everyone else who took took the class went to the show).

I think most of the audience/participants were dance people or close friends, but for me at least, not being a dancer at all, in a weird way I think it sort of clued me in, on a visceral, experiential level, to what dance artists frequently tell me about why they do what they do. (And anyway, get dancers talking about kinesthesis, subverbal communication, and somatic methods and then tell me what sounds hippie-ish.) It’s been years since I actually performed as an actor, and I’ve long since gotten over the desire and willingness to put myself out there in front other people, retreating into the background along with the rest of the civilian population, for whom public speaking is one of the scariest things you could ever be called upon to do.

I’m not actually frightened of public speaking myself, but the idea of dressing up in a chopped-up purple blouse, pink boa, and brunette wig, covering my face in gold make-up and glitter, and then running around an old church with a hundred people I don’t know, humping the floor, and hugging a bunch of people I’ve never met…well, I do have that weird idea of “personal space” and common fear of being looked at and judged.

But by rejecting that, by giving yourself over the idea of the performance, allowing yourself think about what those fears say about you and how you think about yourself…well, at the very least, it started to give me an idea (potentially mistaken) of how dancers or, to use Bill T. Jones’ new branded term, “body-based artists,” see the art of physical performance and movement as means to respond creatively and intellectually to the nature of the society they live it. Or, to be a little more concrete, I got a little taste of how liberating it can be to personally reject the body-hatred endemic to our spectacle society and sign economy and inhabit and express myself physically.

Plus everyone loves rocking out to Nirvana like a 13-year-old dancing around their bedroom.

Two weeks ago, Ursula Eagly and Chris Schlichting (a Minneapolis artist whose worked with the likes of Hijack Dance, who’ve blown my mind before) shared the evening. I didn’t make it, but Jeremy Finch reported on it for us, who found it compelling. Eagly’s piece sought to combine dance with the panel-based visual narrative of a comic book, and to achieve that effect, she had the audience essentially blink in reverse, stuttering the movement of dancers around the stage. Not only does that seek to achieve the effect of a comic book as it shifts from panel to panel, but it also generates an intense focus and engagement on the part of audience. Art schools use a similar technique, asking students to close their eyes, then blink them open only briefly to take in a scene they then have to reproduce. (The writer Douglas Coupland attempted a similar effect in a story called “The Wrong Sun” from the collection Life After God, which I’ve always thought was his single best piece.)

Even after the comic book segment ends, Finch found that the effect left him intently focused, more aware of the action he was seeing than he otherwise would have been.

“There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing about Dietz Marchant’s movement in her solo (she is an incredibly talented performer),” he writes, “but I found myself in such a specific state of mind that I noticed and enjoyed everything about her time on stage. From the shaking in her legs, and the slightly audible clicks and pops of the sound design, to the vastness of St. Marks Church, everything felt new, fresh and viscerally engaging.”

As for Yvonne Meier’s Brother of Gogolorez last weekend, well, no one from Culturebot made it (mea culpa, mea culpa says the editor). But this weekend, I plan to hit the final installation of “Absurdity & Wit,” when Mariangela Lopez and Arturo Vidich share an evening (tickets $18/$12). Lopez’s Accidental #5 is another interactive piece, where the audience is asked to contribute personal experiences to create the work. Vidich’s Shitopia is apparently a continued exploration of the choreographer’s “long-time fascination with bodies and behavior, human and non-human.” (I think they made just not have had a better description.) Vidich’s also got a performance/installation piece coming up at Abrons Arts Center on Thursday, March 24.

Called Body Island, the piece is a live video installation in which visitors are invited to wander around watching as a single performer in a giant aquarium interacts with ten lives rats forced to use him as a life raft as the aquarium slowly fills with water. It promises to be a compelling exploration of the need to survive and the interaction between animals inhabiting the same environment. (I’ve also been assured the rats are not harmed in the process.) It’s free to go to but you must make a reservation in advance.

And finally, the second half of “Body Madness,” “Rhythm & Humor,” kicks off on March 10 with a split bill of Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (tickets $18/$12). There’s also a free roundtable discussion of the series with curator David Parker Wednesday, March 9.

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