Juliette Mapp’s “The Making of Americans”

I’ve been thinking about how watching live performance is often an act of meditative practice for me. I’ve considered this before, but Andy’s recent post about watching performance as a spiritual practice was quite eloquent and inspiring. It has had me actively pondering how to explain a parallel (or intersecting? or shared?) theory, especially after another critic laughed when I recently told her I might use this approach in relation to responding critically to Juliette Mapp’s recent Making of Americans, seen last week at Dance Theater Workshop.

Alex Escalante

Alex Escalante

I told her I found it sublime. She scoffed and pointed out its unevenness. I agreed, but found that I was still able, often enough, to engage with the work in the same way that I cultivate meditative thinking – observing what passes with little judgment. Practicing a detachment to values and outcomes. Obviously, this is not what a typical critic does and is useless for anyone eager for praise or critique. But, in part, it may have been cultivated as a survival mechanism against the assault that is my daily schedule and the volume of work that I see at certain parts of any season/semester. It also reveals, again in part, how I’m still willing to participate in any process that ends in public commentary about other artists’ work.  I’ve often sworn I was done with reviewing. I have run well past any interest in desecrating someone else’s artistic efforts. I have plenty of opinions and aesthetic preferences, but I came to writing about dance as an act of advocacy, and think that sometimes I’m still in this game because much work simply deserves a witness and not an arbiter or play-by-play analyst.

And, often, that time sitting alone in the the dark allows the kind of quiet, still, and unplugged experience that feels increasingly rare today. Live performance is an offering and a challenge; whether offensive, provocative, illuminating, rapturous, inspiring, delightful, absurd, profound, or simple, as long as it isn’t dull I’ll take it as a cause for stimulation or consideration. That said, I admit I prefer to stick to a specific aesthetic range of concert work in an effort to limit tedious viewing experiences. Sometimes there isn’t enough “Om Namo Narayana” around to balance out boredom in a theater.

So, when a work, like Mapp’s examination of family and community in her “The Making of Americans,” opens the door to contemplations about life and legacy while providing ample space and time for reflection, I am grateful after a long day of runaround. I’m especially grateful for a beautiful duet between Mapp and Kayvon Pourazar – performed mostly laying on the floor – that distills many epic tales of love and loss into simple shifts and gestures. I’m grateful to hear Gertrude Stein read aloud; my preferred manner for consuming Stein (check here if you live in Portland and like to listen to Stein and drink wine). The repetition and rollick of her writing serves like its own evolving mantra:

…and the women, the young mothers, our grandmothers we perhaps just have seen once, carried these our fathers and our mothers into the new world inside them, those women of the old world to bear them. Some looked very weak and little women, but even these, so weak and little, were strong always, to bear many children. These certain men and women, our grandfathers and grandmothers, with their children born and unborn with them, some whose children were gone ahead to prepare a home to give them; all countries were full of women who brought with them many children…

Mapp begins her work with the performers – first, Mapp, Pourazar, and Levi Gonzalez, then, Aretha Aoki, Vanessa Anspaugh, and Molly Lieber (The Babysitters) lining up and reading text from Stein’s opus (including the selection above) and though not all of the text is delivered with equal levels of articulation and verbal command among the cast, I am grateful too for Vicky Shick’s commanding presence and readings when she joins later (along with Anna Sperber as “The Immigrants”). With the opening language, Mapp’s interweaving of her family’s history in Gary, Indiana (along with The Jacksons) and the knowledge that this was to be the last work I would see produced by DTW at DTW (before it becomes NYLA), I am easily induced to a reflective state and observe much of the resulting performance through the lens of metaphoric acts of motherhood – creative, generative, sacrificial, selfish and, yes, sublime. Especially when Shick, Mapp or Aoki is on stage (or screen). Shick and Mapp should be no surprise to anyone who has been watching dance in NYC in the past couple decades (or longer), but Aoki, a newer artist in this community, maintains a transcendent singularity next to these revered artists.  Okay… Aretha and I went to grad school and worked together in the past, so I can’t pretend there is no bias, but regardless, she resonates with a kind of sly centered knowing that makes each appearance in Mapp’s work seductively beguiling. She portrays an embodiment of the sublime mental states in Buddhist meditation that include loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity – perhaps a different reading of the word than a western philosophical understanding where “sublime” carries loftier connotations. But, perhaps not.

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