Body Madness @ Danspace Project: a rumination

A lot of great things have been said about Judy Hussie-Taylor’s Platform structures at Danspace Project. They’ve served as great mobilizers of artists as advocates, curators, and creators and as springboards for a great range of dialogues among the various audiences who attend any (or many) of the shows within any given Platform theme. They are fascinating creations themselves, the individual Platforms – with previous ones addressing loss and grace, struggle and pleasure, our own history. They offer compelling ways to think about the state of dance today, to follow through lines of inquiry from multiple perspectives, to encourage that curatorial choices carry some burden of contextual thinking and not just allow presenters to act simply as gatekeepers or tastemakers, and to engage with individual works as part of a larger system of ideas. There is a past, present and future alive in these structures, an understanding that the work being made today has its origins in earlier explorations or concepts while living within the gestalt of the present moment – fed by the conversations and aesthetics of here and now. And, in doing so, offer a constantly forming vision of where dance is going. This is the vanguard. Everything’s been done before, nothing has been done like this. The boundaries continue to crash, the underground currents surface and spark, and bodies (mostly) remain at the center.

The Winter Platform 2011 “Body Madness” had two parts; “Absurdity & Wit” was curated by Hussie-Taylor and the second “Rhythm & Humor” was curated by choreographer, teacher, writer and Danspace board member, David Parker. Each section included a round-table discussion, moderated by the curator, and other additional events aside from the performances at St. Mark’s Church. Intrigued by Hussie-Taylor’s Futurist manifesto inspired description, I saw most of the Platform (in performance or rehearsal). In being invited to re-think the Italian futurists (after having stuck them on my mental shelf as misogynist, fascists with some brilliant ideas in the history of performance art), I was able to consider that what is often discussed in studies of live art, performance, etc… is actually very true and real in a lot of today’s dance processes and that Hussie-Taylor had managed to see this and structure something so that others (we, me & the participating artists) could engage with the ensuing series of works inside a heartier discourse. In holding onto the Futurist’s polemic against classic art of the past in an embrace of their (and our) present moment (s), the smashing together of past, present and future that imbued their many passionate manifestos was clearly visible to me many an evening at St. Mark’s Church this winter. I enjoyed that. It can be enough to simply see a work, experience, respond, critique, move on. I won’t take that away from everyone else, but how satisfying to be asked to think about the work in a season as part of a larger whole, as an unfolding process in a field with a rich (and still evolving) history.

This could have been a Performance Studies PhD candidate’s dream. I’m not one and I wish I could recall all the various references that eddied around the edges of my brain, but time is short and my short term even shorter. Still, I recall squirming in my chair, itching to jump into the first round-table discussion (back in February) and, eventually, I did by referencing “liveness” as the value behind many of the works and working processes of the artists on the “Absurdity and Wit” roster. Philip Auslander spends much of his book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture arguing against my point, and Miguel Gutierrez pointed this out, but I’m sticking with Peggy Phelan’s ontology of Performance for my view of Body Madness. Taking her position that performance exists only in the moment of its happening (with any documentation or reproduction thereafter as something other than performance) allows entry to an understanding of some of my most powerful – experiential and observed – moments in the platform… where evanescent formations of live bodies mattered.

Some of this is due to the two curators deployment of artists who are avidly playing with their forms. Cori Olinghouse deconstructed vaudeville and voguing and brought Archie Burnett and Javier Ninja to the church, and those boys burned it down. Miguel Gutierrez’s DEEP Aerobics turned the entire notion of performance on its dance belted ass, with a socially-conscious happening/workout/dress-up-party/love-fest/jam. Ursula Eagly re-directed viewer responsibility in the realization of her work. Chris Schlichting rode a fascinating repeating edge of erotic-no, disturbing-no, funny gestural gender play. Arturo Vidich rode a fascinating latex-covered edge of disturbing-no, funny – no, scary, scatological and lingual species play. Mariangela Lopez brought her integrated posse of dancers and “non”-types together once again for another witnessed group experience. And, of course, Yvonne Meier anchored everything with another historic score-based evening – may Brother of Gogolorez go down in infamy. The madness was rampant and delightful. As Gia Kourlas, of the NY Times, stated (after Arturo kissed her), the risk factor was often very high for the audience. The rules of performance were being carefully dismantled many times by the Absurd and Witty artists – like good neo-futurists.

Hussie-Taylor brought in artists working with rigorous improvisational processes and improvisation gathers time, space, and process; for, in improvisation there is only one time and one place for doing: here and now.  Improvisation operates in real time with idea, execution, communication, and clock becoming one.  The past as memory, the future as intention and the present as intuition fuse into a singular strategy for immediate action. But, along with the present-tense of improvisation, there was very clearly a lively willingness to play, to change, to challenge and to have fun. Parker brought in artists investigating rhythm and/or humor. That makes them players too. I was reading a book on game theory on my way to Parker’s roundtable discussion and spent a lot of that talk thinking through how investigations of rhythm (and comedic timing) must too be rooted in play. My academic calendar impinged on my ability to see everything on the second platform in performance, but Michelle Dorrance’s shared evening with Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, provided ample examples of a rhythm worker at play. Dorrance expanded the boundaries of tap with a deft and devious hand. There’s a kind of impish glee in her crafted reconstructions of tap.

I think both Hussie-Taylor and Parker played with the curators role. They mussed with the conventions of both parts of the phrase ‘contemporary performance’ and came out atop a fantastic accumulation of research and action. I’m an advocate for play. And, I don’t see how Absurdity and Wit & Rhythm and Humor could have been realized if play weren’t sitting at their bases. Play is the heart of exploration, the door to the present moment, and a key to survival. In a NYTimes Magazine article (Taking Play Seriously) in 2008, Robin Henig wrote: The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered.  In the words of Marc Bekoff, evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core “a behavioral kaleidoscope”… “I think of play as training for the unexpected…Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.” If presence is a state of being open and receiving to the changing landscape of each new moment and improvisation provides us with the resulting act of spontaneous creation of new landscapes, then play is the vehicle through that landscape.

Author Stephen Nachmanovitch begins his book Free Play with a quick description of the Sanskrit work lîla, which simply defined means divine play.  Lîla may be the simplest thing there is – spontaneous, childish, disarming.  But as we grow and experience the complexities of life, it may also be the most difficult and hard-won achievement imaginable, and its coming to fruition is a kind of homecoming to our true selves. Many times, during the course of this platform, I found myself actively engaged with this kind of play as both participant and observer, and yes, Danspace did feel like home.

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