Prelude.12: Breath and Manifestos

Everywhere Theatre Group.

We are about to hit day three of Prelude Festival. The accumulation of performances and presentations has my mind circuiting in various ways. This morning I have woken up thinking about the act of speech-making and breath and how the curators of Prelude have given New York City’s contemporary performance makers the ability to employ both in new and provocative fashions.

As I write this thought, Annie Dorsen’s Spoken Karaoke comes to mind. Held in CUNY’s Elebash Recital Hall–a room that feels bright, open, and cavernous in juxtaposition to the bustling dark building it is housed in–individuals from both The Graduate Center and Prelude were invited to perform some of the world’s greatest hits of public address ranging from Jesus to Nixon, from Clueless’s Cher to Chaplin’s Dictator.

The speeches unfolded on a typical video screen, with the lines of text being colored to demonstrate the tempo and patterns of the original speech-makers. Together with the participants who followed and gave voice to the illuminated words, we existed in a liminal space of discursive practice. Through the slippage or tripping for breath to complete the thoughts in their original form of delivery the speeches became simultaneously bodied and disembodied. In these moments I found myself stepping across a boundary of rhetoric and allowing speech to become unstable…existing in its own textual space of discovery. Political thought and its forms of articulation were made new.

The day before we had been audience to a variety of forms of artistic speeches shaped in the construct of artist manifestos. The forms of these manifestos were themselves presented in a wide variety of discursive practices and performative acts. And perhaps it is a minute observation, but what strikes me and has continued to resonate from this curated pastiche of political and artistic thought is remembering how breath is a material that structures and offers strategies for approaching the fault-lines of performances. How it can be used to generate a form of civic engagement.

Breath for Leah Nanako Winkler and Everywhere Theatre Group began as a device undetected. (As breath normally is.) But slowly and subtly it produced itself. First as a method of drawing our attention to the specific journey she has taken to arrive at this moment as a working-class Asian-American playwright. The pauses of breath between the movements of her narrative subtly provided us with the space to begin to understand the accumulation of encounters and a necessity of a particular work to survive as a theater-maker in the world of New York City and its boroughs.

Breath then moved from being undetected into a performative device. Leah presented her final thoughts in a quickened pace. Her use of air was fast and energetic and driving us with her as she challenged us to:

…do your best to make it known that this art form at its absolute best can create something so uniquely human that no screen could ever replicate it. This is not the time to tiptoe around each other, do and say whatever the fuck you want in your art. Do the one thing that television and movies can’t without immediate consequence and don’t just do it on Facebook comment…

At the same time Everywhere Theater Group joined Leah on stage. Their breath grew, building from shallow to deep inhalations. This act, which began as a descriptive form of the performances of labor Leah has taken us through, transformed itself into an amassing of breath. This breath filled the vessels of each actor’s body, leading him or her to a last possible shared breath, a point of explosion, of rupture. We as an audience heard this last breath and in the direct moment following, as the lights went to black we were given the space to offer the exhalation, the next step in the system of breathing, the chance to continue the contract of living and the action of theater-making.

Breath again was an inspiring material that was used in the last manifesto of the evening: Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People’s manifesto The Problem With Dancing. Here I was so taken with the inhalation of breath that came before the word, “And…” I was taken with this action because it brought forward a ritual of dance, of rehearsal and action that I, as a former dancer am very familiar with. It was a breath I could share. It was a breath that weaved together dance composition with written composition. Instead of the physical phrases that typically follow a choreographer’s “… and…” words cascaded out of Miguel’s and Andrew’s mouths. In this moment I saw language as dance, as a linguistic stumbling and tumbling into what dance doesn’t do …. doesn’t get you married, doesn’t write you poems, doesn’t cure AIDS, doesn’t get you a Visa…

Thinking back now I also understand that the “[inhale] and” choreographed a shared space between manifestos and audience. It allowed us to process what was being said and to laugh or live in a moment of silence acknowledging certain absences that we are confronted by. This breath became quieter auditorily, but remained vitally present to the manifestos end. It lived in their bodies as they arabesqued and pony-stepped into a pure moment of joy or catharsis after an earnest and angry rant.

Big Art Group, who specifically employ languages of media in their performances breath translates to air. And it was in using air, literally filling of the Martin E. Segal theater with its company, displacing its innocuous and invisible matter that Big Art Group ruptured our traditional sense of and conformance with being an audience to life and all its passive forms of voyeurism. From this act, from using the materiality of air we both received and experienced the theory and practice of Big Art Group’s politics and aesthetics. Together we existed in the rupture of performance and became part of the contest for control … a struggle for control, where visibility is a weapon.

As contemporary performers we live in a constant moment of tension in unstable structures. This place to use speech in its different manifestations, to encounter breath, which Prelude gifts our community is allowing us to share and reimagine the boundaries between performer and audience, to participate in the working of theory into practice.

But more on that later, as there is one more day of Preluding to come.

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