(Behind) the a/effectivity, absurdity, and illusion of spectacle: (T).
By its own statement, Luis Lara Malvacía/3RD CLASS CITIZEN work (T). is a dance piece ‘not meant to be reviewed’ comprised of a cast of dancers who don’t know who they are. Well, sort of. A dance of rigorous spectacle, (T). premiered this past weekend at Danspace Project.
As the audience trickles into the cavernous dark, lit only by a staircase of florescent lights (Miranda Mikesh and Malvacías) peering from behind curtains, Malvacías and his main performance collaborator, Jeremy Nelson, worm around each other in patterned bodysuits. In front of this duet, each dancer (and Ivo Bol, Sound/Composer) introduces him/herself shrouded in cartoon-like personas, and costumes you won’t quite find shopping at a Halloween superstore. Despite my initial reaction, somehow these intelligently designed outfits and characters make the wearer more visible. In (T). even the chasm of Danspace is outfitted; the floor is paved in matte marley and black curtains extend up to the balconies, leaving a twenty foot gap before the arched ceiling above. This gesture both transforms the space while keeping visible that which is being concealed; a gesture that extends to the costumed performers. This is just one of the ways the spectacle used in (T). is notably effective while acknowledging it’s own affectedness.
When we are introduced to dancer Theresa Duhon in a black cloak and vampire mask, she speaks to us silently through printed signs reading ‘the cloak does not belong to this piece’ — they are ‘post-producing,’ perhaps by recycling costumes from previous works. Following, Kaye Ottinger and Maya Orchin state they have made dance phrases that will not be shown in the dance. They immediately perform these swift phrases in unison with repetition and alternating facings. Marking a transition to the large middle section of the dance, Timothy Garlid counts down from one hundred, oscillating patterns of head and chest voice, slowly walking towards the audience, as if to build our anticipation for the arrival of the dance. However, the dance has arrived, the dance has been performed and processed, and the dance is also becoming, here, live, in front of me, perhaps just in a different way than I am used to. I am forced to consider what is actually happening for the first time, and what is the significance of doing an action, such as performing a dance, for the second, third, and nth time over.
This concept of ‘post-producing’ introduces an important way of viewing the work in relation to time; to see the dance as an object of the past. Having actually worked on (T). with Malvacías for a few weeks as a dancer, I am conscious that I have a different perspective than an audience member who is new to the piece. When the ensemble performed certain sections I was able to engage as an insider to the process, knowing some of what was motivating this performance content. Even so, I believe the idea of ‘post-producing’ can prompt the dance to be seen as an object for a stranger as well. I engage with the memory of rehearsals, the presence of the dancers performing physical tasks in real-time, and the proposition that these moments are entangled in one another. As someone seeing this content for the first time, given the concept of ‘post-producing’, they may be engaging with the question of what is recycled and what is not.
Had this dance been happening solely in my head, a witness to my thoughts (or one imagining them) might experience a time travel vortex to the likes of Doctor Who. Though, lucky for us both, my vision of a blurring past and present is an idea, and the dance persists in front of us. It has been rare to see this particular performance presence in dance; amidst the body of postmodern choreography, to see both a dancer and their dancing is to take part in my own humanity. Whether the performers have processed this concept of ‘post-producing’ or not, I see it in their bodies. I actually experience this very early on when Garlid introduces himself, wearing only an old man mask, stating something like ‘from the neck up, I’m an old man, from the neck down, I don’t know who I am’. But these dancers do know who they are; profoundly so. I see it when I see their costumes and their bodies, their person and their movement. With this, a presence arises as the performer sits just inside the choreography, wearing it like a cloth; not unlike the costumes and masks, the choreography is also worn.
The absurdity of spectacle is another concept that arose for me in the work (this is an aspect I can comment on as new to me, as certain elements of spectacle were not present while I was in rehearsal). Throughout (T). there were multiple sections with the entire ensemble on stage. For long durations, dancers performed inquisitive, segmented motions with attention to singular sections of the body. Accompanied by slowly up-and-down fading lights and a live sound score of crackles and frequencies by Bol, these sections were punctuated by onstage costume changes through a series of suits completely covering the body. After a number of these sections, the group made its way to the corner of the space where Bol revealed a still life of fruit and vegetables. Surprisingly, this was actually an electronic instrument. The entire cast, some wearing latex masks of an old man’s face, some in what looked like Mexican wrestling masks, others in vampire or fleshy lipstick masks, proceeds to ‘discover’ and compose the powers of this touch-activated sound-fruit. I couldn’t help but think of classic Commedia dell’Arte lazzi (comical scenes or actions), especially with the Dottore and Capitano similarities; as these stock characters became a composition of idiots playing a musical still-life, the absurdity of this spectacle was brought to the forefront. This lazzo was further accomplished when the cast seemed to wiggle as electrocuted worms while Bol, Malvacías, and Nelson stripped to a crescendo of earsplitting edibles.
Spectacle can be an action that requires an enormous amount of energy from a lot of people. From nations and regimes, Olympic ceremonies to the construction of monuments, spectacle can be an impressive act of concealment. In these contexts, spectacles’ awesomeness can signal ulterior motives. In this context, especially in a ‘downtown dance’ community with little funding and resources, I see spectacle as an almost unachievable end. I also see spectacle as something that doesn’t solely rely on the use of props and pulley systems, but the precise coordination of bodies, i.e. choreography. The pursuit to achieve something almost impossible can be both virtuosic and hilarious — if you don’t believe me, just watch a Charlie Chaplin film. As an audience member, I can be sympathetic to a failed spectacle while completely enjoying its plight. In certain cases, spectacle can be as simple as a plastic bird and nylon fishing wire. The jaw-dropping mysteriousness of an occurrence can leave one feeling stupid with laughter when the effect is revealed . This is how I feel when I imagine how this market-fresh techno-pad was achieved, summoning images of potato powered light bulbs at a high school science fair. Not to mention the the sounds it makes; like a children’s cartoon stuffed in a blender. In these moments (T). is aware of the complexity of this theatrical device, and successful in activating its multiplicitous potential.
The humourous simplicity behind spectacle’s grand illusion is introduced through this sonic science project and epitomized later in a singular moment; the ensemble changes into more pedestrian clothing, faces uncovered, and engages in waves of group phrases exploding throughout the space and eventually arranged as quartet, trio, and duet clusters. We are eventually left with Malvacías and Nelson silencing the room with a short section of almost unison, the rest of the ensemble watching along the edges of the stage. While both Malvacís and Nelson face out to the audience in stillness, Nelson disrupts what might be considered ‘dancer neutral’ by bearing a grin too wide to be ‘real’ (whatever that may mean at this point in the dance) and slowly panning it to the corner of the room. This moment challenges my expectations for the “dancer downstage in stillness peering out to the audience with a ‘neutral’ but present face” trope. This destabilizing gesture allows me to meditate on the notion that nothing is quite as it seems. It is here that I witness spectacle broken down as daily illusion; a moment I’ve seen possibly hundreds of times before, its normalcy dismantled and its effectiveness revered simultaneously. The larger implications of this are a heightened awareness to the mechanics of spectacle operating around me on an invisible level in the everyday.
As I consider this, I can’t help but wonder what (T). might be a reference to. A typographical metaphor for that sitting within and without theatrical space? The mind altering effects of the chemical testosterone and the relationship between masculinity and spectacle? Time and its elusiveness? Though I might be able to argue any interpretation, I’m not quite sure I need to know or guess the significance of (T). Nevertheless, across the characterized body, the dancing body, the neutral body, this dance is entwined in the crazy everydayness of what it is; a constantly transforming body (of work) complete with costumes, thrills, boredom and chaos. A nightmarish spectacle that is pleasantly disturbing and hard to escape because there is a desire to stay. (T) resonates with me as a dancer and human being, through the repetition of training, rehearsals, paying my bills and dreaming.
Alex Romania is a multidisciplinary maker and performer currently living in Brooklyn NY who creates dance, performance, and visual art. Recent work has been shown by Glasshouse ArtLifeLab, AUNTS, SOLOW Festival, Puppet Uprising, and Old Furnace Artist Residency (OFAR). A’ has performed in works by Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, De Facto Dance, Eddie Peake, collaborates with performance group Future Death Toll, and currently dances for choreographer Kathy Westwater and Jacob Slominksi. A’ has taught visual and performing arts through Art All State at the Worcester Art Museum, CLASSCLASSCLASS, LeAp (Learning through an Expanded Arts Program), the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival, and has received support from residencies at SPACE on Ryder Farm in Brewster NY, Chashama, and OFAR in Harrisonburg Virginia. A’ runs an online journal, ‘INVISIBLE ARTISTS’, dedicated to issues of emergence and sustainability. More info at cargocollective.com/