Spring Movement, (un)finished

Rebeca Medina

“Trenza,” by Rebeca Medina. Photo by Guillermo Camacho.

Last month Center for Performance Research presented Spring Movement, a collection of three trios and a duet in various stages of finitude by young choreographers. Spring Movement is part of a biannual presentation of finished, unfinished, cross-disciplinary and experimental work by emerging and international choreographers that is curated by previous participants. Reading the program on May 2nd, it was clear which piece was the “international” one and which one was the “cross-disciplinary” one, but the finished pieces were not distinguished from the unfinished ones. I wondered which pieces were “finished” and whether my viewing would be altered by knowledge of the choreographer’s perception of a dance’s state of completion. What does it mean to be finished? Does it mean that the choreographer stops adding or changing movement or stops coaching dancers how to do it?  Most choreographers don’t really ever stop doing those things as long as they have space and time to continue. (The omnipresent dissatisfaction of Martha Graham is recorded in her famous advice to Agnes DeMille in Martha, The Life and Work of Martha Graham after the 1943 opening of Oklahoma!, which DeMille choreographed yet had misgivings about.) Does it mean that the idea of the dance is fully developed? Or that the dancers have had enough practice doing the idea to feel comfortable in front of (non-dancer) audiences?

The idea that a dance, or any work of art, can be finished has become odd. The work of an artist lives in their work’s reception. To put a box around The Thinker and freeze all additional interpretations would be antithetical to the motivations for making art in the first place, wouldn’t it? Likewise, the desire for a dance to be finished seems analogous to the wish that it never be performed. If “finished” means being able to perform a dance the same way night after night, this almost suggests an arresting of its conceptual development, and being finished implies a stability that could be seen as in conflict with the very danciness of dance. That kind of finishing feels related to anxiety about the ephemerality of dance. As André Lepecki argues in his essay, “Inscribing Dance,” dance’s self-image fell inferior to other art forms when modernism’s concept of “presence” became allied with “the visual.” According to Lepecki, the strategy for shoring up dance’s “presence” was to film it from every angle, describe it completely with written words, freeze it and preserve it. He suggests these actions end up missing the mark because they deny dance its materiality—the way that it vanishes as soon as it exists. Dancing depends on bodies that are never alive in the same way from one moment to the next. It also depends on witnesses that are similarly mobile and never the same from one moment to the next. How could it ever be finished? Perhaps because I am more familiar with the label of “work in progress” to denote dances that are presented before they take their fully produced form, the word “finished” stuck out to me. I realized that I tend to take “work in progress” as referring to the space or production value as much as to the gestation of the dance itself. On this program of unidentified unfinished dances, I decided to make a game of figuring out which dances on this program might be conventionally considered finished and why.

The first trio, aptly named Honey and choreographed by Emily Jeffries, featured three women moving with the viscosity of raw honey in a gradual diaspora from a gathering low to the ground down stage right to pressed high on the three walls of the theater. They shared vocabulary but not necessarily in unison. Their precarious awkwardness and uniformity of level throughout gave the sense of a community of vulnerable equals. I saw a development from center to periphery, from inner space to external space and several gestural themes that appeared and reappeared. Something about it still seemed unfinished. Perhaps it was the way the development happened; it was not linear but expanded and contracted in an organic way, with groupings that reiterated prior themes emergent rather than arrived at. Unison moments happened in the same way insects of a particular species might move in unison—with the same body parts and same character but not exactly at the same time or with the same range or facing. The third trio, Free Range, choreographed by Maya Ochin, offered some welcome speed. Unlike the other trios, it opened up the stage quickly to large, diagonal spatial patterns with lots of two-against-one-unison and big gestures that stylistically surfed between jazz, contemporary release and ballet. Fast unison is a dead giveaway for dance that is planned ahead of time—the degree to which dancers achieve unison can be a criteria for judging when a dance is done. The weaving and variation of gestures from one section into the next and the recurrence of AB themes are also patterns that I realized often signify finished work in my unexamined perception. Whether this is due to the fact that my college composition classes advocated such patterns, that I know from experience how much work it takes to arrive at those patterns, that the design of those patterns allows for ease of perception, or, most likely, some combination of those factors, I can’t objectively say. The ritualistic circle that appeared and reappeared confused me somewhat though the dancing was full and ready. The last piece, choreographed by Katie Rose McLaughlin was a smart mash-up of moves that could have been drawn from a series of famous modern choreographers, exercise videos, lounge dancing and large extravaganzas that happened in the movies of the ’40s. This duet had a Laurel and Hardy timing executed by Brighid Greene and Mary Kate Sickel that seemed finished—the light, cast by projections designed by Michael De Angelis, gave this piece a considered aesthetic, which added to the polish.

The second trio of the night, Trenza, began theatrically with a single dancer laying down letter sized paper in a downstage line, drawing attention to the bisection of audience and performers. Rebeca Medina, the choreographer, pulled what appeared to be audio tape out of a wooden box. In retrospect, I realized the paper was probably there so that the tape would be visible against it; in the moment, however, the image that came to mind was of frozen words, notes or images falling onto the page, too light and filmy to transfer anything to it. A while after the dancing began, it became clear that the low level sound of pastoral horns was coming from the wooden box and that the audio tape was slowly winding back into it. A gradually rising duet builds to a trio when Carly Czach enters and the duet on the floor shift their attention to shielding Carly’s every footstep from the floor with their hands. They greet, smile, play and acknowledge each other throughout the dance as if engaging in conversation. As they braid and unbraid themselves with varying spreads between them, the dance appears to move from charted territory to improvised lifts and shifting duets/solos. There is no strain in their play, no stress over missed opportunities, or ones taken that did not go as expected, though, for the most part, they glide into and out of each other with trust and ease. I was conscious of these dancers constantly looking to each other in order to find their own shifting coordinates in space. This exposing of process and navigation of uncertainty feel unfinished though the idea is full. When the tape has almost completely snaked it’s way back into the wooden box, they converge in a line downstage to stalk the tail end of it.

Choreographing Empathy, by Susan Foster

“Choreographing Empathy,” by Susan Foster

In Choreographing Empathy, Susan Foster suggests that the technical innovation of Feuillet notation contributed to the splitting of practice, composition and performance in Western dance. To paraphrase the first chapter: with the development of the ability to write down and distribute dance, creative production could be separated from the practice of dance. Dance that was filtered through this notation system became codified into technique that mimicked the interchangeability of the written word. Performance could then be more easily reproduced and distributed because the choreography was stable. Audience developed as dance became a form of entertainment rather than a participatory court ritual. Recent surges of participatory dance (DEEP AEROBICS of Miguel Gutierrez), improvised choreography in performance (Jennifer Monson and Deborah Hay) and performance rituals (thinking of Yanira Castro’s The People to Come) might be seen as contemporary attempts to ease the segregation of audience and performer and/or the arbitrary division and specialization of the labor of dance.

Medina’s trio allowed an uncontrolled process to unfold inside the dance. Like allowing the bronze of a statue to oxidize in the open air where it can be seen, it invites the unknown so that a real chemical process can take place transparently before witnesses. Even a perfectly unison, perfectly executed, completely finished dance might provide a platform for similar processes if the audience were allowed to interact with it and “unfinish” it.

Though I sometimes resent having to stay the extra 30 minutes past my bedtime for a post performance discussion, I felt the absence of feedback after this performance. As much as PPDs sometimes feel awkward or unproductive, they do serve the function of creating community and provide an open channel for the voices of those who formatted the space for the performance to happen in the first place. It does matter that performance lives in the people who have just experienced an event in person. There is an important exchange between embodied performers and fully present audiences even though that relationship is often still taken for granted or even as a liability in dance. If we agree with Lepecki, dance has a history of uneasiness with the delicacy of its materiality and has participated in efforts to become a sedimented product that can be easily documented, reproduced and exchanged, more like text or sculpture that has the potential to exist through time without a constant breathing audience. Like the preservatives in a twinkie, choreography can aspire to contain the dance for as long as possible, or, like salad dressing, it can augment something that is fleeting. In either case, its job is to disappear and for that it requires an audience. (For the record I enjoy eating both twinkies and salad but I am less able to participate in making twinkies and prefer eating them before the expiration date.)

Though many dance venues claim community outreach as part of their mission, they often appear perplexed as to how to achieve that. Ironically, maybe the hyper immediacy and interactivity of digital communication will be the pervasive cultural force that incites performance venues to open up broader, faster feedback channels between audience and performers. Dialogue with audiences is increasingly present in the form of blogs, in post/pre performance discussions and, faster yet, embedded in the performance itself (just like olden times). One of the first times I experienced the device of dialogue as choreography was in a mid ’90s solo performance at Judson by Foofwa d’Imobilite, formerly of the Cunningham Dance Company. I vividly remember him sweeping the floor with an industrial sized broom, back and forth across that wide floor. I believe he was muttering  an abstract monologue to himself at times in French, at times in English. His words eventually reached out to us, many of whom had gathered there to see the great Foofwa perform amazing athletic feats, not to witness him sweep the floor. When a French speaking audience member answered him with a request, I finally realized Foofwa was giving us choices, and that we were invited/ordered to voice requests for which feats he would perform. The dynamic was charged—Foofwa aggressively challenging us to use him as a puppet and us challenging him to increasingly difficult or impossible actions. Through direct, unscripted dialogue with the audience, he laid bare his desires as “performer” and ours as “audience” or “consumers.” It was a little uncomfortable. The rawness of that rusty, real time exchange drove home a question that has stayed with me ever since: what is the purpose of virtuosity?

The lack of distinction between the finished and the unfinished in the Spring Movement program at CPR could be a refusal to value one over the other, or just a function of the bare bones production. Either way, it helps me to think about how being “finished” is not always a necessary goal, and what (re)integrating the making of dance and its performance might allow.

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