Not As Alive Without A Witness
Roulette’s three-part [COMPOSER/CHOREOGRAPHER] series provided a home for three composer / choreographer duos whose work combines / defies genre(s). Maura Donohue & Adam Cuthbért, Kora Radella & Ross Feller (Double-Edge Dance), and Koosil-Ja & Geoff Matters presented collaborative works of movement, sound, improvisation, choreography, spatial design, and video on three consecutive nights in Roulette’s newish (since-2011) intimate, good-vibes-filled space on Atlantic.
I caught Donohue/Cuthbért’s zero…sixty on the first night of the series. Donohue, Assistant Professor of Dance at Hunter College, artistic director of Maura Donohue/inmixedcompany, and frequent Culturebot contributor, began working with Adam two years ago and has simultaneously been involved in various ways with the work of her four dancers (most of whom are also affiliated with Hunter). She became interested in involving a larger batch of musicians after learning that the work could be shown at Roulette, feeling that the space she describes as “comfortable, challenging, alive” made sense for the work. “The location at Roulette was intentional so we could be that close, it could be that intimate. And it’s flexible; I wanted it in the round, or at least ¾.”
‘zero…sixty’ is a happening (“not a proper happening but it’s got that tone to it”) that examines accelerative gestures in movement and music within varying temporal frameworks in a collective creation. 60 seconds to 60 years in 60 minutes,” and includes dancers David Capps, Peggy Cheng, Timothy Edwards, and Gilbert Reyes, musicians David Broome, Adam Cuthbért, and Joe Tucker, and video by David Gonville.
In figuring out how to have an appropriate written record of the event, Donohue and I spoke a couple of weeks after the show and shared musings on process / place / presence, audience engagement, and the ways we talk and write about “ensemble-based improv that intentionally resists the Critic marketplace.” What results is maybe not an effective record of the happening (if such a thing could exist), but shares a piece of the conversations we keep finding ourselves in about objectivity & subjectivity, how best to evaluate our work, if doing so is useful, and how to talk about what we want to talk about.
In a Roulette Blog interview with the artists of the series, it is brought up that “much of the language behind the discussion of experimental dance, that is, the ways in which choreographers and dance artists talk about their art, borrows from the language of philosophy and literary/cultural criticism, e.g., post-modernism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, gender/queer theory.”
Donohue shares that, as instructor of an Aesthetics course for MA students in Dance Education, she is “often saddened by how under-read dance students are. The primary language of dance tends to be movement: all the written languages we reference are borrowed in efforts to help frame a form that has historically had major players who resist verbal articulation.” We talk about the pervasive privileging of written work over live arts, particularly in academia where concrete evaluation is necessary to determine promotion/tenure eligibility — “It’s a painful reminder that that’s still a part of it, which is a difficult thing, but I understand it; you can’t look at my work and say ‘she published a book–there.’ There’s more to it than that. What I’m observing from afar about everything that Andy’s been doing makes me think we can make this come alive differently.”
The agenda of zero…sixty is on an experience-driven structure that comes from Donohue’s interest in investigating a group process that engages with audience. We talk about the potentially phoney buzzword-ness of “participatory,” “immersive,” “audience engagement,” and she admits that she could sense her collaborators’ hesitance at the start (I’m definitely skeptical when terms like that appear in press releases and program notes, and agree wholeheartedly that “audience interaction can be so hokey and make people really uncomfortable.”) Here, though, we enter the space in full light to watch the dancers and musicians warm up and relate to each other like people; they’re never “in character.” We are encouraged to keep our phones out to photograph, video, tweet, instagram, etc, and provided with handles and hashtags. We are asked if we want to participate in cueing dancers by name, keeping time with our phones, or logrolling in a circle as a human “sundial.” It’s not faux-inclusive and we never feel pandered to.
The dance lasts for a strict 60 minutes, and a large “RUNDOWN” board is propped on the stage. Nine of the 15 sections are prefaced with “0-60,” and time extremes, acceleration, duration, and exhaustion feature heavily. The language is free and joyful: everyone is doing exactly what they want to be doing. David silently stalks other dancers and is delicate and alert. Peggy is bouncy and playful and operates more individually. Gilbert eats up space and works at the limits: high jumps, hyperextension. Tim seems really introspective and ‘in the zone,’ and we can sense Maura’s attunement to the energy of the room; she is extremely generous. Everyone seems to have defined what they like to do and how they like to do it — they are working together but are alone in their elements. It sometimes slips into that thing I usually hate where so much is happening that I can’t see it all, but in this case I don’t mind. I’m happy to let my vision blur and listen instead.
The combination of music and dancing feels like a laboratory. Everyone is reacting to everyone and the atmosphere that results is casual and welcoming. Sometimes the audience is just as interesting as the performers; here they are dancing in their seats which doesn’t seem to happen when we watch dance without house lights. Maybe sitting silently in the dark kills the sense of play? Or maybe we only want to dance when other people can see us. The witnesses are essential here — we haven’t been invited into a world that already exists; we know that this thing didn’t exist until we were included.
The work finishes with its only set material, “THE PHRASE”, which originated from videotaped improvisations from the summer. “I wanted there to be time when we’re working together on the same thing — not just the same structure but the same material. We didn’t over-rehearse. I didn’t want it to be known so well, I wanted us to have to rely on each other. In learning it, it was always ‘which way does this face? we have to get this together,’ and I kept saying ‘can we not know the answer to that question?’” It’s so rare that we get to see someone’s memory working this way during performance. This is the way dancers learn and remember and practice in the studio, but by the time choreography gets to the stage that tension has usually drained out. We agree that there is satisfaction in formal beauty and slick, well-rehearsed dances, but there’s something valuable about the sincerity of experience when it’s not play acting — when it’s not ‘watch us be informal!’ “Everything is heightened when it’s a performance. That’s important, but rehearsals are so interesting and audiences never get to experience that.”
She points out that there has to be a balance here, because “it’s just not as a live without a witness,” and is aware of the risk of killing authenticity by chasing it. “Authentic is a hard word. All of this language gets thrown around about transparency, and a lot is actually still hidden. It’s about representing something that feels like a true experience but guarding it so it IS. Coming from a strict ballet background, I’ve always had this idea that there are things you just don’t do onstage, but now it’s like I can’t be anything other than all of my loose ends. Everything is always hanging out and I have to really know that and hone that.”
It’s hard to talk about one’s work after the fact without thinking about different choices that could have been made or what might have worked better. In Donohue’s mind, “the big mistake of the night” was not inviting her students to join in with THE PHRASE. “They were dying to dance! It didn’t click for me until the next day that maybe I opened the door and welcomed them in but didn’t fully honor it. The choice I made was the conservative one” From my vantage point of watching students watch their teachers, I had a different experience. I didn’t sense the students feeling deprived by their position as witnesses, but saw them rooting for their teachers. The fact that a portion of the audience could anticipate the choreography (THE PHRASE had surfaced in Donohue’s technique class) added to the sense of zero…sixty as a supportive shared experiment.
We agree that sometimes we want to see work and not write critically about it, but also feel like “I have to write that this happened because it comes and goes and I just want to say ‘I saw you.’” We share the experience of having/hearing conversations about what’s wrong with dance criticism, but still searching for how to talk to each other about it. “Even when we start to push to the edges we still can’t let it go! If it’s just about not liking the way Alastair writes we can deal, but it’s more than that.” It feels counter-intuitively productive to have a conversation with the artist after seeing her work that’s not tied to an explicit published review/response. We talk again about subjectivity in the audience experience — “I think what I think and you think what you think because maybe we come from different schools, and I get that I’m always just talking about my experience.” How can we continuously rethink presenting and writing about dance so it’s a worthwhile venture for everyone?