Existing In A Noncircular Space: lec/dem at Roulette

“I am like a second grader who is obsessed with doing the right thing…[but] I don’t know if what I am doing is helpful for anyone else except myself.” Kyli Kleven tells me as we sit in a gallery cafe down the block from Roulette, the venue where she will unleash her first curatorial project, lec/dem, later that evening. I empathize with her thought process; how do you know if what you want is ever worthwhile for someone else? It is a challenge of making, of performing, of relationships, of curating, and one that she is confronting and expounding upon during the course of our conversation.

Of the initial seed ideas for her performance series, Kyli mentioned wanting to craft an experience to engage with others’ work in a less formal setting, but one that still embraces dance’s rigor, thought process, knowledge, craft, and labor (labor is a big one for her). “A lot of dancemakers’ goal is to get a show and maybe [lec/dem] can be a way for that artistic labor to mean more — not just in that goal-centric way that mostly happens.”


There were two different evenings of lec/dem and, unfortunately, I could only attend one. I can only respond to the presentations of Tara Willis, Kim Brandt, and Justin Cabrillos, in their inspired proclamations, profound simplicity, and odd intelligence, respectively. The other artists presented in the series were Michelle Boulé, Hilary Clark, and Macklin Kowal.

A podium sits onstage and the unmistakable wail of Nina Simone washes over the space as Tara Willis enters to deliver “Practice Lecture #1.” Her exploration is more “lec” than “dem,” as she rapidly speaks about the implications of the song we are hearing. “That was a song about going to church [pause]. I am not interested in talking about church but I am going to a little more.” Willis’ concentrated ramblings never escape many moments of explanatory judgement or self-reflexive commentary, as when she speaks of genres (“God forbid that word!”); the Nina Simone song and a self-composed, overlaid track (“…could be love songs but I do not consider them to be”); and her reaction to recent events in Ferguson, MO alongside a duet she has choreographed (“Very little of these things explains my vibrating skin”). Willis layers facts with anecdotal interruptions very much in line with an academic lecture — a collision between deliberate information and personal attachment. Willis makes it easy to see how the difference between a lecture and a performance is negligible and all together unimportant in this context. The only time she is moved to dem was a movement description of a duet she has been choreographing over the course of the past two years, but also makes a point to mention she will not “dance.” I do not mind. I am caught up in the flurry of her words — they are movement enough — and taking in her experiences as she offers them: part journal entry, part explanation. That explanation points to black femininity, academia, white self-righteousness, among other things. I travel through the words of Jose Muñoz, taisha paggett, Jill Johnston, all via Willis and her assured delivery.

I furiously scribble notes to attempt to capture the experience of her words and my absorption of them, a knee-jerk reaction I have in response to those who stand at podiums spewing insights. Here, the experience of communication and memory. The fleeting experience of performance. Her words hold weight…like bodies do.

Tara Willis (foreground) and Anna Adams Stark at Judson Church. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Tara Willis (foreground) and Anna Adams Stark at Judson Church. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Kim Brandt’s work, “Untitled Study #1,” emerged without much warning. A few performers casually walk across the long edge of the space to a far window and sprawl across its frame, walls, and floors in random fashion. As more entered the space and added themselves to this flesh heap, each would make slight shifts to accommodate the addition of limbs, torsos, heads, and where they all fit in this odd composition. Someone opens the window allowing Lauren Bakst’s legs to drape freely over the edge. Sounds of city fodder: cars whizzing by, wind pushing through, and fleeting conversations of passersby become the instant soundtrack. Nearly twenty performers remain still, engulfed in peaceful disarray.  After a few minutes, an abrupt but small collapsing motion sent every body sinking further in to the floor, an oozing of skin and bones in attempt to flatten the plane they rest upon.

Erring more on the “dem” side of the performance, I sat wondering what the “lec” equivalent is. I thought of the Occupy Movement, bodies strewn across Zuccotti crafting community out of political zeal. Or, more romantically, an artfully woven raft—bodies anchored in support of each other, calm enough to float. This pile of flesh reminds me that people lay in seeming peace amidst environments of activism and danger. Brandt demands something more for this work, for this shaping of the space, of my attention, and of the environment. I am not sure if I have fully grasped the ends to which she is working, but I am interested. How can someone manipulate my attention so gently?

An employee of Roulette announces intermission. The bodies disperse. End. It can be that simple…and, that defiant.

Kim Brandt at the Kitchen. Photo by Paula Court.

Kim Brandt at the Kitchen. Photo by Paula Court.

Justin Cabrillos’ “Story of the Eyes and Arms” is a solo work that uses his own body as a fascinating conduit for focused physical study. It read as stop motion animation or some sort of dissected pop-and-lock dance, as Cabrillos maintained his introverted groove for the entire piece. He tosses his frame lightly from side to side, sitting to standing, never quite fully realizing each movement. Donning a multicolored nylon 80s track jacket, light denim jeans, sneakers, and white pleather gloves, he slinks around the space at his leisure using it as both playground and testing ground.

He is a melancholy robot; he is a half-realized flipbook subject; he is a cartoon character jumping off the screen. I am still thinking about how everything was done so deliberately but so freely at the same time. What about his lecture? There were many points where his mouth would open as if to speak but the words never came. To be fair, a few sounds managed to escape, but this was not a language I could interpret. Who says speaking is the only way to deliver a lecture? There seemed to be an animal intelligence at play in Cabrillos’ focus. In the same way birds chirp and dogs bark, I trust his performance in knowing he was saying something profound even if we do not speak the same language.

Justin Cabrillos at Judson Church. Photo by Ian Douglas.

I could attempt to synthesize the contributions of Willis, Brandt, and Cabrillos under a looming context of the lecture-demonstration. They all dealt with bodies, presence, research, and the nuanced articulation of these things. But, is not all performance — especially in our downtown, experimental set — constantly dealing with a rigorous level of ideas and thought process? And, the dealing with it is the stuff of performance itself?

These things — language, ideas, movement, communication — are the inherent materials of performance. They will be there whether we name them or not. “[I am interested in] giving all of those things a foundation that doesn’t let lecture or words become novel or fetishized in a weird way…they can just sit and be work on their own,” Kyli mentioned during our conversation. So, in this lower case, back slashed version, lec/dem, offered these pursuits as a means for further questioning and examination. Performance as process without labeling it “in process”; language as communication without labeling it a “message.”

At one point in our conversation, Kyli points out, “Intellectual work doesn’t exist to circle around and point to dance. It is dance. And, dance is intellectual work. They don’t exist because of each other, they exist in of themselves.”

She’s right, you know. You can only circle around so much until you get dizzy.

Conceptual framework for lec/dem. Photo by Tara Sheena, courtesy of Kyli Kleven.

Conceptual framework for lec/dem. Photo by Tara Sheena, courtesy of Kyli Kleven.

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