Audience Crisis, Parataxis, and Flexibility: A conversation with Karinne Keithley Syers
The following interview was submitted a long time ago and kind of fell into the space between our desk and the wall. It was a busy winter. But now with Karinne’s newly-minted PhD status and the launch of her freelance writing and editing enterprise Sentences and Paragraphs, it seemed as good a time as any to publish it, however belatedly. What follows is a conversation between Eric Conroe and Karinne Keithley Syers on the occasion of her work Another Tree Dance from October 2013.
In October, I saw Karinne Keithley Syers’ new work, Another Tree Dance, at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City, Queens. The below ‘conversation’ was cobbled together from an e-mail correspondence I began with Keithley after she returned to New Orleans. We talk about parataxis in choreography, pedestrian wonder, and sounding the intervals between language and movement.
STUDY OF NOTHING
Seeing Another Tree Dance, I was reminded of the oft-invoked dichotomy between language and movement. I mean, this belief that: the differences between the two when deployed in a theatrical setting is significant and therefore each must be thought about, treated, and executed differently. That dichotomy. It’s the same parsing that happens between words and dancing, writing and choreography, dance and poetry – anything that draw definite and ontological distinctions between the verbal and the physical. I highlight this supposed difference not because I’m convinced of its usefulness or even its basic relevance, but so I can identify where, in our assumptions as makers of performances, it rests, so that we may do something about it. By we, I mean anyone who thinks about language or performance as converging art forms.
Karinne Keithley Syers:
I think the dichotomy is not in the forms themselves, but in the different approaches we use or expect, in language or movement. As a maker, I don’t experience a dichotomy. Patterning, modeling, picturing, conceptualizing, and generating vocabularies are all basic parts of dancing and making dance material. The same analogizing intelligence is at work in either form of thinking, but of course we are born into a shared language, whereas few people who are not dancers really explore our shared anatomical condition. This leads to audience crisis for those who haven’t spent time experiencing their bodies moving, thinking there is a key to the concepts that underlie the movement. Because in my own work, my movement in and out of different modes or mediums has happened so gradually, with one mode calling the next, I tend to experience all my ways of working as the same thing, with variations in approach.
That said, I am aware of a specialness that dance can offer that I don’t know how to get at in language, except perhaps in singing. And reading philosophy has always made me think of dancing, so the two are so yoked in my experience that I can’t imagine them as separate.
That you use both language and movement so well is the first step, I think, to breaking down any barriers between the two as performative modes. And the fact that you don’t experience a dichotomy certainly helps!
In your solo performance as a whole, there is an aspect of this pedestrian wonder. A silent ontology expressed with the body; the physical presence alone. We talk about bodies being “expressive”, but what is it that they’re expressing? Perhaps it’s a belief in the power of presence, or the practice of presence. Whether that presence seeks to advance an idea or just indicate itself and thereby draw attention to ontological approach, it is the crucial thing. The quality of your presence was key in shaping how the various texts from Emerson shaped the audience’s perception of both the language and the movement/presence.
I think of pedestrian wonder (which was the title of a dissertation chapter that got nixed when the thing turned into an Emerson monograph), as very much an inheritance from Thoreau and Cage. It’s in Emerson, but you don’t get the sense of him really actually being out there on the streets, even when he’s talking about the low and the familiar. Here, wonder and attention to task converge. I think the wonder comes from that shared anatomical reality, wonder at being a body, besides all the small delights you find when not reaching for expressive or soulful or impressive actions.
Perhaps it’s in that wonder at being a body that the lines between language and movement disappear. In their most focused and intense moments in the piece, the two mediums are not presented simultaneously. The integrity and presence-focused execution of each is where the tender strength required to let each one allow the other to pass – through and between, behind and around – can be realized. If you hold the two forms apart too strenuously, you have to become an adept at transitioning between them. I see performance artists and choreographers who work with text pushing themselves to become such adepts, as if it were a skill desperately needing to be listed on some sort of resume. What they are too often mastering is the art of transition, and this is what’s often pointed out by critics and casual observers alike: “they transitioned from one thing to the other so smoothly”. This valorization of the interstitial overshadows careful consideration of the work itself. In Another Tree Dance, this practice of highlighting the interstitial as virtuosic was left behind completely. What are your thoughts on the space between language and movement? Does a consideration of this go into your rehearsals and performances, and if so, how?
I used voiceover in the piece where I needed them to converge (like in The Sleep Side, which is that section of a long upstage cross), and managed the transitions almost entirely through audio fields. Because we had very little actual rehearsal for the piece when Sara (Smith, a collaborator) and I were actually together (a few weeks), a lot of the rehearsal thinking (in terms of the overall sequence) was filtered through audio. I think they are not simultaneous for the most part because I tend to work in simples, no matter how much I admire very complex work. My work is complex in its movement through time, perhaps, but my tasks tend to be very simple. Also it’s quite hard in a solo to layer, and talking while dancing was never something that interested me. I try to be very plain in my transitions between sections, and am always seeking ways for the sections to feel less parsed. At one point, every section of the show was titled (The Topiarist, The Collector, The Sonographer, The Pilot, The Sleep Side, etc.). Taking those dividers out really turned the whole thing into more of a trance event for me to perform, and the only sections left indicated (besides of course through things like furniture moving), were the pause and another tree dance (which was composed of several of my old pieces in a series called study of nothing).
When I direct people other performers or actors in my more play-like work, I try to get them to speak in the way that I learned to dance – as a physical task with sense, to say and mean the sentence without calling on biographical or characterological verification.
‘I’M A PLANT
ON THE APRICOT
These all-caps words were projected one after another, off an old slide projector. I experienced them as a strange kind of performance poetry – projecting the words instead of speaking them. Instead of hearing the words uttered, they arrived at the whim of the performer’s hand, which moved them into visibility. The authorial hand, brought into real time and real space! What began to happen next is where the piece is deeply fascinating to me. As the paratactic energy of the text slowly surrounded me, I began to think of the paratactic nature of almost all choreography that isn’t an explicit pantomime or aping. Dance’s big moment for this came after poetry’s: one could say that Pound was responsible for popularizing paratactic poetry in America, and that the Judson Church group, 50 or so years later, was responsible for the same in choreography and performance. The point being that I think we, as artists and as viewers of a variety of interdisciplinary art, are much less conditioned to experience paratactic choreography without calling out for structure and precedents as a scaffold for any possible sense-making. There are moments in Another Tree Dance when the language becomes articulate about the movement, where the words spell out their own potential: “This sentence also carries me.”
What are your thoughts on parataxis, both in general and as it relates to language and movement?
I generally project some language as part of any show, as I find that there is a different allowance in the audience, in terms of what sense they can make, for seen rather than heard words. I write differently for the mouth than for the eye.
I haven’t really thought specifically about parataxis, but I can see why you link it here. I am probably an excessively paratactic choreographer, putting things next to things and sounding the intervals is basically how I think of choreography, and I think choreographic logic has a lot to do with pleasure in theses intervals, and the patterns that emerge outside of a linear syntax. I consider the Judson group to be foundational in how most of us today (or at least in my generation; my younger friends work very differently) compose….so I guess I do think of choreography as rife with parataxis. I get the most resistance from my tendency to write with the same kinds of development or patterning that I learned in choreography. Only poets feel ok with it, generally.
The projected words from that sequence you are talking about were from my heap of old things — they are mostly old titles of pieces or songs or sections of essays, dances or plays, with a few key words at the end.
Thinking about your show in the days following it, I was consistently reminded of a quote from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Specifically, Proposition 6.4321: “The facts all belong only to the task and not to its performance.” Through the lens of Judson, how do you view task and performance as being similar or different? That’s a broad question, I know….
Another Judson-related thing, but for me task and performance invoke the same thing. Because of my Judson heritage, I don’t think of performance as being artificial or even necessarily projected outward.
Perhaps there’s a key to understanding some of this in what Keithley said in her 2004 review of Adrienne Truscott’s performance “They Will Use The Highways”, a review from which I quoted in the last article I wrote for culturebot.org, and with which I am admittedly mildly obsessed with, due to it being one of the most articulate, perceptive, and disarming reviews of dance I have ever encountered. About halfway through the wonderfully associative review, more of an essay, really, Keithley concerns herself with talking about what purpose the theatrical experience might still serve in a commodity-based culture; a culture, in fact, so based on commodity and reproducibility of experience that to state as much is to approach the mundane, the irrelevant, the already understood. The last card performance holds out, she says, is “real time and real space”, the “durational, unrecordable nature of performance” is its greatest aspect. As a presence-based art, dance can be likened to the live performance of singing in some way. No matter how well-filmed a concert is (like, say, “Down in Jungleland” by Springsteen, one of the few recorded concerts that has the power to, in my opinion, change lives), it sure as hell never beats being there.
And being there – while being fortunate enough to be there – the following is what I experienced. A sensation of expectant awareness, excited stillness, and a pervasive, overwhelmingly unnameable foreboding which resulted not in fear but in acceptance. Basically, what I would call a rare and enhanced state of consciousness, achievable through unreproducible (unsellable, unfilmable, untouchable) constellations of light, movement, and language, wherein most any feat of empathetic mental flexibility is possible. Those moments are so rare – those very best moments of involvement and participation (while sitting in a chair!) that are free from evaluation and judgment, and thus anxiety. There are many small things one can do to increase the likelihood of experiencing this state, but the best bet, usually, is to just go and see a show like Another Tree Dance.