falling queens & everything one: AUNTS @ Renaissance

Anna Martine Whitehead (image from artist's website)

Anna Martine Whitehead (image from artist’s website)

“Everyone is a collaborator.” Thus is invoked the attitude of inclusiveness that runs through much of the dance and performance happening now in New York. A group called AUNTS – devoted to dance, based in Brooklyn, and whose shows constantly test a model of producing dance/performance/parties – has become one of the main curators and presenters of those who practice and preach certain ideas about what new performance is for. That is, being articulate about their choreographic philosophies has never stopped them from harboring a wide array of artists, as inclusiveness is a part of that philosophy. Their most recent show was a double bill by Anna Martine Whitehead (joined by Marie Alarcon, Althea Baird, Marian Castaneda, Darlene DeVore, and Jennifer Turnbull) and Tei Blow & Sean McElroy at Arts @ Renaissance, a hospital turned arts space in Brooklyn, July 12th and 13th. In the spirit of collaboration, this show was free – so long as you brought a contribution to the free bar and/or boutique. The performance space was indicated by a large square of black marley in the middle of the room, which most people crossed to get a drink or to check out the boutique. Pre-show atmosphere of casual attendance: check.

“Everyone is a collaborator” is from the program notes for Whitehead’s piece, falling queens. This sextet opened with a solo by the choreographer. Traveling across the floor on the ground, she stretched her movements to near breaking points, then gave gravity a hand in guiding her limbs forcefully back down onto the black marley. There’s a tenuous grace to be found in struggling to control – or struggling not to control – one’s being, actions, emotions. Whitehead’s solo, with its urgent and attentive use of the body, spelled this out clearly, and it’s something that falling queens seemed to want to enact at large.

After the solo, another performer joined Whithead on stage, sat down in a chair, and was embraced by Whitehead – predicated by the struggle, it’s worth noting, of Whitehead’s opening solo. Thus was established a precedent of narrative entailment, however faint, however resistant to language. That what afterward prevailed was a confessional atmosphere entailed accordingly; in what turned out to be the most language-heavy part of the piece, the direct and compassionate presence of another person was being examined. The other performer spoke about her past, and Whitehead asked questions that went unanswered. They were then joined by four others, and all began to move together. A few moments of complex unison and juxtaposition of bodies that acknowledged the baffling nature of the simultaneity of perception were nailed. One even seemed like a toss-off, and was more impressive for it. At some point, “Didn’t I” by Darondo played (the other audio consisted of mashups created by Marie Alarcon). Suddenly the six performers were clapping  happily for one another and for the room, cheering one another on. After such a deft choreographic display, the performance of an emotional state, evacuated of its other possibilities, was somewhat jarring. The initial surprise of seeing such a range demonstrated so quickly wore off, though, and what was left was a sense of virtuosic genre-hopping. The alchemy at the seams was the only weak spot, but when those transitions glided by – or were intentionally disjunctive – they provided some of the most visible moments of the piece.

Which is somewhat excessive to say, as the performance was a work-in-progress showing. But the fact that the pieces describes itself as a “perpetual work in progress” is less interesting than the fact that Whitehead is so capable in so many different genres. My viewing experience was reminiscent of reading the novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – wowed by sections, often lost in the interstices. And yet, the fact that that’s seen as a structural negative is itself suspicious. In her own words, Whitehead has said that the work is “anti-presentation in that the investment in the displaying of the work as a cohesive performance is minimal.” Some would argue this is more “true to life” – narrative resolution, that is, need not be the balm we apply with our art when it lacks in our lives. As the piece went on, there was more partnering and group work that seemed to reflect what it’s like to be alive when the volume gets turned up too high, or the frame shifts too quickly – too much valorization of the impulse, too many moods co-existing for too long, or too close . The ideal form of this could be described as “movement as behavior”, to use the words of the choreographer and director Dean Moss. The ideal form of that is what choreography looks like when you rip away the narrowly narrative scrim upon which the audience member can project her narrative needs and biases. falling queens worked toward this state, it seemed, and at times successfully, but there was also the tendency to resolve building tensions or difficult puzzles by increasing the energy until a kinetic boiling point was reached. When used too often or in too difficult a choreographic situation, this became predictable. There are different scales of exiting, one extreme end of which is a denouement with no spine. When in doubt, perhaps it is better to boil over than to fizzle out.

Tei Blow and Sean McElroy comprise Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble (R.O.K.E.), presenting hybrid works of performance, video, and music. For this performance, titled Everything One in the Disc of the Sun, they were joined by Leanne Grimes, who is a painter as well as a performer with a presence marked by a calm, tender strength. Blow and McElroy exuded an air of resigned implosion – one of the first things they did in the piece was recite a litany of repetitive actions: “wake up, take a shit. eat breakfast, go to work…” leading to “jack off, go to sleep…” and back again in a loop. But first, as the audience filed into the concrete room where the performance took place, we passed by Blow and McElroy seated at a table, painted gold, dressed in black suits, and wearily explicating various things (all I could make out was something about the evolution of bicycle seats). There was a palpable muting and un-muting of the kind of mind that can eat itself alive. We were then greeted by a silenced video of a man sporting a mullet and explaining something, with hieroglyphics superimposed. We each received a mark on our foreheads, like it was ash wednesday, or we were receiving tilak – marking the body as a temple and purifying it at the same time, while also being explicitly marked as the spectators. After a moment, the three performers alternated in providing the vocal track to a projected video of a guru answering questions and lecturing a pupil, who listened dutifully. Throughout the piece, repetitive, haunting music played (composed by Blow and McElroy), providing a counterpoint to the excited declamations of the guru.

There was, immediately, the tension of seeing a smart play between irony and sincerity. What at first seemed ridiculous for its ostensibly naive optimism and opaque generalizations became quickly humorous. The guru saying to the pupil “…you are the experience” was the first moment to draw laughter from the audience, who, at this point, had all been provided with a communion cup-sized amount of what tasted like a bourbon liqueur (which was refilled at least three times throughout the piece). In other words, in our viewing, we lent this very heavy thing its light side. To say that there was a lot of nervous laughter doesn’t quite capture the richness of the environment that R.O.K.E. built.

This balance was maintained with videos of dating advice, both by women for women, and by men for men. Each was deliciously and depressingly typical – terrified, desperate graspings at meaning and order that barely mask underlying rage and disappointment. Of course, as the un-implicated viewer, it was easy to feel this way. The vocal track provided by Grimes, Blow and McElroy was delivered in a neutral, hypnotic tone. “Just feel your way through it”. “We all make too much of all of this. You can build intimacy later.” The words from these self-help workshops, interwoven with the somewhat psychedelic, Egpyt-centric video art and the at time haunting singing of Blow and McElroy, created an environment wherein one’s one’s critical frame got nudged, over and over again, between operating under two assumptions: that of arch irony, and that of flat-out sincerity. The beginning of being attentive in a performance like “Everything One” lies in trying to see both sides and take neither, and nudging the viewer toward this state is a slippery director’s task indeed. Blow and McElroy achieve it, and it’s wondrous to see. As for the trio’s physicality, it was relaxed and lacked affect. The sparse movements – more like blocking than anything else – were deployed at a pitch that complimented the video and the audio unerringly.

The costumes, as well as the imagery in much of the original video work, were that of ancient Egypt. Gold body paint, ancient Egyptian headdresses, and animations of the pyramids being built were a constant, and somehow this didn’t feel like a performative schtick. R.O.K.E. describes itself as a “musical priesthood”, and that was embodied in their performance, partly due to the way the two men were completely at ease at times tender with one another on stage.

Submission, control, and absurd hope are among the things that R.O.K.E. seeks out in the videos that it samples from and creates; simply repeating their dialogue was enough to make the audience laugh or plunge it into a reflective silence. Blow and McElroy’s harmonizing voices provided a surfeit of gravity and grace to whichever guru or self-help video they alternately spoke and sung over. After animation of the pyramids being built and the oppressively misogynistic flavor of the dating advice video for men (unmistakably made in the 1980s), the piece delivered another representation of submission/control in its final section: footage of what appeared to be shoppers sprinting into a store on Black Friday. This provided a critical segue into the footage of Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate group and architect of the largest mass suicide on American soil. He spoke calmly and compassionately about voluntary extinction, using homey yet threatening gardening metaphors. If you haven’t been recycled by those of us who are here, go into the privacy of your closet to think about what I am saying, he commands. Don’t ask your neighbors. The truth that resonated in Applewhite’s words, however misguided, was not overlooked. His closing thought, delivered by the performers, was this: “We hope to be of some service to you in this time before our departure.” As a statement that is perfectly metonymic of the task and hope of the artist, and as one of the final messages of the piece, it hit home.

The work presented by AUNTS, by putting all its bets on the value of live group experience, retains its integrity like water in a cactus. Writing about  choreographer Adrienne Truscott in 2005, Karinne Keithley said that “the durational, unrecordable nature of performance, which cripples it as a functioning marketplace commodity (and so calls into dire question this whole problem of finding ways to do it) is nevertheless its greatest aspect.” This is what AUNTS seeks to hold up as true about choreography and performance now; they have embarked on the necessarily messy struggle for such an idea to gain purchase in the public’s perception of dance and performance at large.

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