Culturebot contributors Stormy Budwig and Tara Sheena explore the dialogue-as-criticism form of performance review. In their conversation, they speak about the work of Alex Rodabaugh and Rakiya Orange in a split bill curated by Miguel Gutierrez for the inaugural DoublePlus series at the new Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts. A critical conversation meant to convey their unique experience, they touch on Rodabaugh’s absurdist politics in his new work for eight performers g1br33l; Orange’s shifting identities in her solo Aziza; and how form acts as both a clarifier and complicator of dance work. Excerpts of their conversation, edited for consistency and taking place two days after witnessing the performance, are below.
Tara Sheena: [On Alex Rodabaugh’s work] It was impressive how they made so much out of so little space. The performers were so enclosed in the space, contained by this hexagon. You know how sometimes you see the space and it either looks larger or smaller than it is? That space looked small, even when no performers were in it.
Stormy Budwig: I couldn’t really figure out what was going on the whole time so I stopped trying to figure it out. When Craig [Cady, the poet and speaker] left the microphone halfway through the piece and went to the performers as they were rolling on their stomachs, that was the first time I felt compelled to pay more attention. It felt like whatever they were saying was the truth or anti-truth of what Alex was trying to do. It was from the mouths of the bodies rather than the narrator.
TS: Yes, I felt I trusted the piece more at that point to guide me along this experience.
SB: Totally. They [the performers] were the enactors, not just the talkers, not just a voice. From what he said at the beginning of the work, this shift into action seemed like something Alex was interested in.
TS: His language was very dense in his monologue at the beginning of the piece. It just kept going and when I didn’t think it was going to keep going, it kept going. The one thing that stood out to me was his tone. It had both a 700 Club, evangelical Christian, late-night talk show tone and also a motivational speaker tone. It was somehow earnest and conversational at some points and how I would imagine he speaks to people in his everyday life.
SB: It was a very frank way to communicate lofty, heady ideas without the self-deprecation. I think that’s why I really was compelled by it. Normally, if someone were to say the sentences he did, it would be punctuated by, “You know?” or “I don’t know.” Or, the things that we say to reel ourselves in.
TS: And, to justify everything we are saying.
SB: Justify or not speak for the absolutes. He didn’t do that so I was constantly thinking, “Oh, he’s really saying that.” It was totally not qualified.
TS: The actual language was sort of veiled by his soapbox moments but the content of it wasn’t that. The lines that stuck with me are actually just very empowering statements, like when he said, “It’s time for courage.”
SB: That’s one I wrote down, too!
TS: I think he emphasized that line and I believe repeated that statement but the line that precedes it is: “Show me, I am okay with it.” I think what you said about not having to qualify statements is relevant. There was a lack of one-sidedness, oddly enough, that made space for him to say these really beautiful, eloquent words that I believe in.
SB: My question is: am I the person who he is speaking to or am I the person who is allowed to question the people he is speaking to? I think it toggled back and forth. He started saying, “We don’t like surprises.” So I thought we are the people he is trying to speak to or speak about.
TS: Ultimately, I felt, he did want to bring us in to it. Maybe not make us “believers” but definitely bring us in to this world.
SB: If the performers had started with the fractal, hexagonal crossings [a part in the second section of the work where the performers moved across tape lines in the space within a marked hexagon shape on the floor], the dance would have been less approachable. They were in that world and we were watching it and that’s very clear. We [as an audience] are sitting, digesting. When Alex was speaking to us, he asked a question along the lines of, “Are we living in black and white or are we going to allow ourselves to see in color?” Because of Ashley Handel’s presence [ as a soloist at the beginning of the work], my instinct was to question whether she was the one allowing us to see in color. She complicated my relationship to him but that worked for me.
TS: I feel the same way. And, slightly more than that, in this weird, liturgical dance way, she was his apostle. She was the product of the system he preaches. But, I also don’t think he was assuming that we [as audience] are all the opposition to his views, both in his character and as a maker of this work. Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously on Alex’s part, the piece made me think that he knew the audience in the room would be predisposed to the revolution he was explaining.
SB: I feel like it was intentionally kitschy, especially in terms of the costumes. But, also, the fact that they gave out gifts [towards the end of the piece], which were folded one-dollar bills. And, when they ran out, Alex said, “I am sorry that’s all I have,” that was important in physically and situationally, showing us the limits of the presentation of that kind of power; and the limits of that presentation: look at what I can offer you to transcend. And, then, I am sorry I ran out, I don’t have enough supplies.
TS: “We can’t change government but we can change our reaction to government,” was one of the lines that stuck with me. Looking back, I think I was projecting absurdity on to this performance more than it called for.
SB: Really? I think it was calling for it.
TS: Was this irony? Is the joke on us? That is still what I am parsing through. Apart from that, the dance was well-crafted and every performer seemed to be on the same page and very much portraying a member of this tribe in a similar way. However, they did face each other for the majority of the performance, which I think helped with that.
SB: It was very focal point oriented. I feel like a lot of dance that I see allows my eyes to wander. With this piece, I feel like we were all watching the same elements of the stage. Did you feel that way?
TS: I did! But, my excitement was still there.
SB: Right, it still wasn’t predictable.
TS: Well, even when it was predictable, my anticipation was still there. You knew the inner workings of the hexagon structure because there were the clearly marked lines connecting all sides and the performers walked along these lines. But, they stayed on these pathways we could see so clearly and did it so seamlessly. That was really exciting to me.
SB: The lack of predictability for me came from the extra choreographic stuff. At one point, one of the sounds was the AOL sign in white noise and dial-tone. Also, I have it built into me now to expect costume changes, so I was expecting their onstage costume change as well. [When they disrobed] they revealed the silver unitards with nude pasties on their nipples, which was expected in one way but, in another way, even if you anticipate a choreographer’s use of some formal device, you don’t know the particulars of what it’s going to be. Just because I expected a costume change doesn’t mean I expected nude nipple covers.
TS: In my notes at one point, I wrote, “Are we preparing the apocalypse? Is this government collapse? Are they the same thing?”
SB: When [one of the performers, Craig Cady] gave me the gift, he whispered in my ear, “The revolution is here.” So, I imagined the arc of the piece—assuming there is one—is that of gearing up for revolution. In the end, though, when Alex was holding up the flags, I was not sure about those references. What are those flags? Are they used in specific contexts? [Alex covered all of the performers with the same flag before wrapping himself in a different flag at the end of the work.]
TS: The flag that Alex was wearing was the bald American eagle and it was red, white and blue, and it said Welcome.
SB: The ones the performers wore read Don’t Tread on Me.
TS: With the Welcome flag, I thought it was just a big joke. It looked like this weird flag that people in lesser suburban towns would wave and display from their front doorsteps. It was kitschy commercialism of these American ideals just pasted on this nasty, nylon flag.
SB: Since Alex was standing holding his flag, and the performers were covered in theirs lying on the floor, I wondered, are they now the casualties of this revolution? Is he the only victor? Or, the only transcendent one?
TS: I thought he was protecting them. But, there was also deception in it. All of the performers were covered by flags that Alex, the leader/maker, has covered them with. He is saying “Welcome,” but hovering above them. Is he protecting them? And, from what? That’s why I return to this idea of cults. He was kind of this flawed leader, as with cult leaders, who protect who are in their group but oftentimes they are protecting them from these delusional ideas on society and community.
SB: Maybe there is a tension there, and why we felt an insider-outsider theme. If it’s just one guy, people point and say, “That crazy person” or “That overzealous, narrow-minded, myopic preacher” on the street. But, if there are many, then it’s a revolution, and then institutions really can break down.
TS: Also in my notes, “Is this activism?” I still have a lot of question marks with Alex’s work but I know I definitely enjoyed it. Let’s talk about Rakiya and her work Aziza.
SB: It started with a scene of club dancing.
TS: It started really abruptly. Boom! We’re at the club.
SB: And, then she drops over straight legs and that’s the first time we get silence and stillness which is a very stark contrast.
TS: She was also on this small, triangular platform. The platform was interesting to me because the piece started with this large, beat-hitting dancing but the platform was not more than six inches off the ground.
SB: Right, she was so incredibly confined.
TS: It was so small and she’s was not really elevated. It didn’t signify any necessity to me.
SB: I saw no necessity in it. I am wondering if she was using it just so she could step off of it. I thought she put it in the piece as a framing device.
TS: She was also wearing these shoes with high socks and I got a bit of a go-go dancer vibe.
SB: I thought it was more of a school-girl vibe. Her top was a crazy, sequined, light reflective, flamboyant costume, then from the waist down it was kind of school-girl style, from what I remember with her stockings.
TS: If you were an actual go-go dancer at the club, you would not be wearing these particular shoes with this outfit.
SB: I thought the outfit was intentional, but I don’t feel it gave me more information on what she was portraying.
TS: I thought it was kind of a weird double effect of the same person.
SB: I don’t think it was enough of a double. I think she just made a choice.
TS: She brought us in to this world that was very evocative of a certain scene, at the club, sticking my ass out and shaking it hard.
SB: What do you think she was exploring in that? Gibney had a better description of it in their promotional materials than what was in the program we got. I am not a huge believer that I need to read something to understand it, but in this case, I am curious what that says.
TS: I think it was a lot about an exploration of the black body and how that is situated, objectified, held up in society and what that means to her as a young, black female. [Contributor’s note: the description referred to reads, “…Aziza is a complicated investigation of self and identity, foregrounded by Stephanie Leigh Batiste’s idea that “The performing black body is material and metaphorical, real and unreal.” Orange’s body becomes a site of infinite feedback, reflecting the gaze of the spectator. She foregrounds her ambiguous status—as a real person, a theatrical representation, and a sociocultural construction—to explore, expose, and explode definitions of blackness.”]
SB: Of her commentary on those ideas, I remember two particular moments, A) she starts dancing with the club music and the music goes to silence so we can deduce and draw connections there. And, B) the way she was looking at us and the way that she would check to see if we were watching and then smile, a lackluster smile but with a lot of twinkle. The whole time I could not tell if she was trying to make me feel implicated or if I was in on the act with her.
TS: I was compelled with that, actually. She was kind of coy and shy but also really working it out. The moments where she had her fullest dancing, she was also facing the upstage wall [the only side of the stage where no audience members were seated]. There were a lot of times her gaze was down and withdrawn they just were not as strong as the go-for-broke dancing moments.
SB: There were a lot of moments she was very interior, like at the point when she was lying on her back and her legs were moving kind of like seaweed. It seemed like a moment where she was like, I am feeling how my body feels in this movement, more so than, I am making sure I am pleasing you. That was the one window in, the moment after she took her shoes off, where I thought the piece took a different turn. But, no material or section ever felt so different for me that it led me to look outside of the world she created from the beginning.
TS: I agree, nothing fed back into the exploration of identity that I do think she set up in the first moments of the piece.
SB: My roommate, who also saw the show, was telling me that the moments that were most compelling to her were when the music was playing. To a large extent I agree, but I find that problematic. I thought that the music worked as a device to tell me how to feel.
TS: And, a really explicit reference to a scene and a character.
SB: Totally; a lot of legwork can be gained by using music with a fairly concrete reference.
TS: And, they didn’t even credit it in the program. That was disappointing.
SB: At a certain point, I was expecting or hoping that she was going to do something to break out of the neat structure she set up for herself. It felt like one type of stereotypical exploration that was tied to this specific type of music, and I wanted to know what comes next. How does that evolution complete itself without the music determining the road it takes?
TS: I think it’s what you said earlier where in Alex’s work he set up a structure that seemed predictable but exercised freedom within it. With Rakiya, the music tended to play on my expectations in a way you are getting at, especially since it was the thing that introduced the piece. Not her body. Not her movement. The music. And, the entire time, I was waiting for the music to come back, and it did, just like you were waiting for the togas in Alex’s work to come off.
SB: I don’t know why I am so keyed in to costume changes, what that says about my aesthetic preferences or whatever, but I’m going to bring up costume again. I think if any person enters the stage wearing heels, no matter what you’re exploring, they will be taken off. When Rakiya walked onstage with those heels, I understood they were sensible enough to dance in for a long time so her feet wouldn’t start to hurt, but they were tall enough that she would be forced to take them off [at some point].
TS: I am still so perplexed by the heels though.
SB: They were very sensible.
TS: Exactly. And, I wish they weren’t.
SB: If they were meant to complicate the cliché, they weren’t complicated enough. They weren’t lumberjack boots. They weren’t fuzzy green socks with frogs on them.
TS: I also felt there was a hesitancy [on the artist’s part] to literalize so that perhaps explains why the platform was so small and why she faced upstage when she shook her ass and why she rarely confronted the audience. In the moments where she did offer up her gaze, it was always the quieter, slow moving moments. But, when you introduce so many tropes and so many references that are so evocative [like the music], it’s hard to escape that.
SB: And, leaving us hanging for so many aspects [of the ideas she was exploring] is not the same thing as reworking them. I don’t need a takeaway or an underlying thesis, but what was going on? When the performance ended, I was wondering what it was for her?
TS: I think there’s also something about the fact that this was a self-choreographed solo. She ended up literally where she was [on the stage] as when she began and seemed unchanged. When I see a solo performer being him or herself on stage, I don’t want them to end up in the same place. My human instinct and my empathy toward them is to question, “Where are you going?” She did purport this piece to be about identity; she included that in program notes and language on this work.
SB: But, what solo piece isn’t about identity? And, what solo piece isn’t vulnerable? I thought she spent a lot of energy trying to make us recognize her vulnerability. When a soloist walks on stage, though, I am already thinking, Fuck, they are vulnerable.
TS: She did spend a lot of time convincing us of vulnerability, of persona, of these references, and I didn’t feel trusted as an audience member at a certain point to take in what it was.
SB: There was a fourth wall thing happening: even though she was looking at us, I wasn’t convinced she was really looking at us. Because she was trying to prove she was vulnerable to our gaze, there was no reason for me to try and get past that. So, I didn’t.
TS: I felt outside of the moments of being really aggressive with her dancing, she was very generous and soft at the same time. I do think some other element, especially another sonic element, could have offered more dimension. Aurally, it was only that really banging club music. It was exciting to listen to, but I definitely wanted more from it.
DoublePlus continues through December 20th. More information here.