The Success of Failure
The thing about failure is that everyone is in on it. It’s not some big, inescapable secret we keep tucked away to reveal when the time is right. The time is right now and for all of the messy, unwelcome excess that failure connotes, it may be one of the surest connecting threads amongst our moving bodies. Relational failure, communicative failure, unwitting failure, queer failure, I welcome you all with open arms at Festival TBD: Emergency Glitter. Failure surfaced a lot in my viewing of works by Gillian Walsh and Lauren Grace Bakst during the five-day festival for choreographers in the early stages of their careers.
In Walsh’s Grinding and Equations: Two Duets at Abrons, two interdependent duets grappled with movement that echoed forms of voguing and twerking while following highly composed movement scores. The opening image of Walsh seated between Robert Maynard’s legs, his arms and legs supporting him with his pelvis to the ceiling, is one I will not soon forget. She rested with her back to his chest so when his pelvic thrust shot her into the air with a sudden lofting movement, she hardly saw it coming. With each thrust and landing the couple tested the limits of how far they could go. “My arms are coming off the floor,” Maynard said at one point. “Don’t do that,” Walsh deadpanned. The manifestation of failure takes new shape as I realize each performer has the power to impose it, which involves testing the bounds of how far they can stretch their limitations (physical, mental, or otherwise). Limits did not seem to exist with Walsh’s work as much as the discovery, even creation, of limitations. With a pared down approach to movement and performance (even the costumes were rehearsal clothes and, all but Walsh, in hues of gray), the container of the work seemed casual and quotidian—an in medias res moment in these performers’ lives.
Maggie Cloud and Mickey Mahar, the second duet, allowed their long limbs to quietly trace angular patterns on the periphery of the space, retracing the memories of, perhaps, a more vigorous version of these movements; either that, or a super slow motion replay of last night’s dance party. Even when Cloud lifts her leg in a high ninja kick and pauses there for many seconds she does it with a calmness that borders on ambivalence. Walsh finds an intriguing way to subvert what it means for performers to seek instant gratification from the audiences that bear witness to their acts. Who is impressed by whom exactly?
A simple movement score dictated the second half of the work and in this half inherent failure was ever-present. Each performer had corresponding movements to a number, one through four; Walsh and Maynard had butt cheeks and Cloud and Mahar had sassy, exacting poses. The execution of the movement score had slip-ups and successes, but the interdependency of both duets was a product of irreverent construction on Walsh’s part. Each of Walsh and Maynard’s butt cheeks tightened and loosened with impressive rigor and, dare I say, virtuosity. Cloud and Mahar blurred through hip pops and half lunges with ambition. Even when Cloud let out a giggle and Walsh meticulously peeled back underwear to expose more butt, I realize it is a product of what the score called for, not some cheap contrivance.
Deliberate interpretation of performance scores welcomes a sort of sardonic enjoyment. The combination of strict score with equally strict casualness was a meaningful way to expose how Walsh’s brand of performance possesses solid structure while maintaining a preoccupation in subverting what she refers to as “the tyranny of the image.”
The thing of it is that the performers take control, even in the midst of shared failure. I am still thinking about how Walsh expressed this control in a way that was born of necessity. There was a need to show deliberateness to action without forcing it. In the moments after the piece ended, the echo of Nicki Minaj’s “I Endorse These Strippers” still resounding, I thought about how failure can be a form of complete control. In Walsh’s case, the combination of highly crafted design and unaffected performance seemed to be the completely rousing conditions within which this failure could exist.
In Lauren Grace Bakst’s You Are Special, Lydia Okrent reminds me that control of physicality can reside in the space as well as the body. As she switches lights on and off there is something about it that is entirely deprecating; no matter how much she attempts to prepare what she is doing, it may never be enough. The trio of performers, which consists of Okrent, Bakst and Niall Jones, live through a series of collaged circumstances where they attempt to gain their footing without ever seeming to know what they want. Bakst enters the space with wonderfully stilted movement and begins to mouth a series of pleas. At one point I see, “Ouch,” at another it’s “Can you hear me?” It’s a cry for help without enough desperation to galvanize someone to action, not even Okrent or Jones, who just play observer to Bakst’s self-sacrificing dance.
Non-verbal cues flesh out when Bakst and Jones come into the audience to pass off a script, ping ponging it between themselves and the unassuming spectators they had at their disposal. “This is a memory you don’t ever want to have again,” I hear. Another audience member answers, “I didn’t talk about it to anyone. I didn’t want people looking at me feeling sorry for me.”
Bakst, claiming full control as performer/director, pared the heartrending language down to its basic parts. Each audience member traded off reading at Jones and Bakst’s seemingly arbitrary direction, as if the performers never wanted the full weight of the words to come to its tragic fruition. Letters, sounds, syllables, rhythm—all devoid of its true, potent meaning. Much like Bakst’s stilted movements before this, the joint recitation was a group effort in figuring out only the basic elements of this performance. Bakst was able to divorce these words from their meaning as she was able to divorce movement from being a coherent physical sequence. This failure of potential was both infuriating and enriching.
As the piece dwindled, each performer took turns dancing under the veil of a light pink sheet while another performer would attempt to interpret the movement occurring underneath. These simultaneous solos allowed the sheeted performer to relinquish immediate presence (and presentation) and leave it to the non-sheeted performer to anticipate and assign movement to what is going on. The failure of control took shape in exciting and boisterous ways. Who has it and who decides? Bakst’s collaged understanding of herself and other in You Are Special presents more questions than answers—more welcome than any self-righteous rendering of its titular phrase.
Here’s to failing to conform. More glitter, please.