Gwen Welliver’s “Beasts and Plots” at NYLA

Gwen Welliver

I caught Gwen Welliver’s newest work at New York Live Arts on Saturday night. Beasts and Plots deals with the human form through group dancing, live drawing, campy theatrics, performed music and a few elaborate costume pieces. I found the experience to be totally engrossing but mystifying — equal parts bracing and soothing, scary and funny. It starts with Stuart Singer, solo, arms encased in long spools of brown paper, the ends dragging along the floor as he shifts his posture in his seat. This opening sequence feels like an attention warm-up, priming us to pick up subtle sounds (helpful, as most of the accompaniment is provided by the cracking, jostling, and grinding of small objects into microphones) and the body’s ability to extend motion into space (Singer’s paper arms give small gestures big visual imprint).

A pensive-looking Beth Gill watches him as his stillness turns to melodrama; gesticulating, babbling inaudibly, and marking dance phrases that escalate to full-on across-the-floor leaping while she half-listens/half-daydreams. She eventually begins moving through a dance of her own, stoically hinging her joints and shifting facings against the white paper backdrop. Other performers meander through, change clothing, move props, and our attention returns to Singer, this time laying face down on the brown paper, tracing himself with charcoal.

The rest of Beasts and Plots is similarly episodic. There is a recurring bit in which the five performers move together in a clump, dancing individual variations on the theme of constant and arbitrary-seeming adjustments. This group choreography reads like a chain reaction; an elbow folding in causes a knee to swing up which causes the head to fall back, even though it makes no physiological sense. Phrases are built around loose bending, swinging, and curving of the upper body. The lower body determines orientation and trajectory, creating pathways of travel while the arms carve pathways in three dimensions. It seems less concerned with visual composition or emotional state as much as tracing directions of energy in the body and how they intercept/intersect each other.

The imprint of the body is somehow equally resonant in three dimensions as in the drawn self-portraits. Just as drawing also functions as a movement practice for Welliver, here dancing is treated as a parallel method of tracing the body, except that it leaves no record. The dance exists mostly in human-scale, the movement neither contained nor peripheral, and dimension changes are a relief. The moment when it shrinks from medium-sized and medium-paced dancing to barely-perceptible shaking, stomping and gyrating in place is one of the most memorable.

Periods of dramatic substance are also a welcome respite from the cold formalism. Julia Burrer’s white unicorn horn and Welliver’s black hockey mask release us from the rigor of the vocabulary and prompt us to concoct fantastical scenarios that turn sinister when Singer’s throat is slit while straddling Kayvon Pourazar’s knee. Duets start off tender, turn malicious, and somehow end up funny. Beasts and Plots‘ ability to hold our attention is rather uneven, and it starts to resemble a collection of research findings about halfway through, which I actually kind of enjoy. It’s a little baffling and the sequencing feels jagged, but it taps into some valuable investigations of possibilities for translating information between media and what it means to make a self-portrait.

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