Standing in line outside of Abrons on Wednesday night, it dawned on me that I wasn’t bracing for a long night of Serious Art-watching; this was supposed to be fun. Rebecca Warner and Burr Johnson shared a program on the first evening of the hotly-anticipated Festival TBD: Emergency Glitter at Abrons, which made logistical sense — they both oriented the audience on the stage — as well as aesthetic. Both works grapple with what Pryor calls “capital-D dance,” and neither are ashamed of enjoying it.
According to the artists, Warner’s Into Glittering Asphalt deals with the “deep love of and urgent need to dance,” and Johnson’s Shimmering Islands generates “romantic energy between the dancers and the audience rather than between the two dancers on stage.” The program as a whole felt like a love letter to dance and the culture of going to see dance. With the dearth of contemporary performance events during the summer months (in somewhat-formal theater settings, anyway), there was a sense of everyone appreciating the chance to reunite in this context, and the vibe was generally open and generous.
Into Glittering Asphalt has us facing out towards the empty house while Warner and her five colleagues present an accumulation of themes — limbs that thrust out on diagonals and melt towards the center, heads swinging down while stomping lunges launch forward and recover into intricate travelling footwork, grand battements toward the corners with fast-revolving arms — with regal, self-aware carriage. They join up in small herds that gain rhythm until we get comfortable, and then someone intercepts or goes off or the pattern changes without warning. I kept thinking about the mental timing that builds over the course of a rehearsal process and how necessary that shared rhythm-memory must be for this group. The experience of performing seems to take on a different kind of pleasure when one can be only semi-conscious of the work unfolding in time, but fully-aware of the sensations that rhythm feeds. Warner seems to place value in the inherent pleasure of dancing, watching dancing, and being watched while dancing.
It is obvious throughout that the dancers are having fun. By the time the schmaltzy, show-tunes-y music comes in towards the end they’re practically beaming at each other as they pass. What sticks in my memory is the feeling of a closed loop of joy. We watch from outside the bubble, spying on a party we weren’t invited to. The structure of repeated revving-up generates an energy reserved for participants; we take vicarious pleasure in watching but our presence is not acknowledged.
Into Glittering Asphalt feels partially-formed, but like Warner has located something worth articulating. It comes through that she is following a quality that is genuine and holds significance for her and her collaborators — some gratifying feeling of syncing up or group exclusivity/ connectedness. Questions around dealing with audience seem carefully considered, and the way Warner has chosen to treat spectatorship feels coy; we are ignored but aware of the necessity of our position as voyeurs. There is a memorable early duet between a dancer on stage and one in the house, and inactive dancers are almost constantly stationed on stage, watching from the same distance as the seated audience. The presence of the witness seems essential to whatever energetic exchange it is that she is chasing. What that thing is might not be fully realized or named, but it’s curious enough to keep my interest as we watch her sift through and refine it.
Shimmering Islands shares this sense of investigating something that doesn’t yet have a name. It isn’t presenting a strong point of view but is circling some particular energy that we can only glimpse on occasion. It feels more inclusive than Warner’s work, with Johnson and Reid Bartelme coming right up to our knees while sauntering forward with open arms to Robyn’s Indestructible. Bartelme worshipfully circles Johnson as he leaps and rebounds, both repeatedly pushing into our space and receding towards the curtain. Bartelme traces delicate spirals and Johnson skims backwards along their narrow shared path — the boundaries are blurry between their solo spaces and between theirs and ours. They maintain individual vocabulary and affect, but the energy generated is communal and affectionate.
The most striking moment comes when Johnson spills his body onto the stage from below the edge, using a swimming motion to reveal himself inch by inch over the course of several minutes, eventually coming to rest like something that’s washed ashore. Finally rising, they ceremoniously deliver each audience member a small gilded twig, implicating us in the shared experience and acknowledging the relationship created. The gesture feels very earnest — it makes tangible the transaction of us consuming what they are offering, and communicates their appreciation of our attention. We watch as they place the tokens in each spectator’s hand, and the reverent feeling is extended to us (everyone silently mouthed “thank you” while making eye contact with their offerer, and part of me felt guilty about not having anything to give in return).
Compared to Warner’s work, here we feel explicitly involved and acknowledged but like the duet could just as easily happen without us watching. While in Into Glittering Asphalt we feel a direct correlation between what is happening and our role as watchers, in Shimmering Islands this relationship is more subtle. Somehow the connection between the dance and our consumption of it is intuitively strong but difficult to articulate; I found myself feeling fairly indifferent to what Johnson and Bartelme were doing most of the time, but totally enamored of them and absorbed in the scenario they created. It’s unclear if we leave feeling fond of the work or fond of them, but they definitely succeed in prompting some form of shared endearment. The first program of Emergency Glitter in general made it pretty hard to feel cynical about the work of “emerging” and “young” artists; clear vision doesn’t seem important when freshness feels so productive and sense of play deeply valuable.