Not About About, About Is
I was working on a project with a friend overseas about the intersections of imaginary life and imaginary art. One day while dreaming about the piece I had an image of the two of us dressed in sheet ghost costumes duetting via Skype; our project was a cyber-dance project, and this idea somehow made sense. We never ended up dancing this image because we never really worked on the piece; the whole point was to dance a dance that had never existed as if it already had, but, so it happened, it never actualized. Soon after having this dream I went out to dinner with a friend who told me that Luke George had just premiered a new work in Australia where everyone, performers and audience, were dressed up in sheet ghost costumes. I haven’t known what sense, if any, to make out of this subconscious intersection until last week when I finally got to see George’s Not About Face at the Chocolate Factory Theater. More on this sense-making later.
About George’s work: the dance began as the audience members were covered in off-white sheets with two eye holes. Stagehands Sophie Sotsky and Ben Demarest floated each sheet onto an audience member the way children would puff up a parachute. The moments directly following this greatly sparked my interest. In Not About Face, the space was bare — white light, no chairs — a scenario that welcomed the audience to roam freely. After costuming, the audience became a group of pastel ghosts standing around the edges of the room, perhaps anticipating something that would happen in the center. I was unsure what I was supposed to do and I didn’t feel the need to do anything in particular besides make ‘ooh’ noises at a friend and laugh. I enjoyed the ridiculousness of gathering in a white box unable to see anyone besides their blinking eyes. George and his performance partner, Hilary Clark, seamlessly filtered into the audience as sheet ghosts, amplifying our awkward state by peeking into our eye holes as if trying to find a friend they had come to the show with.
George and Clark moved just differently enough from the audience to cause disturbance, creating a constantly shifting of focus that rippled through the space. To illustrate: the next time you take the subway in NYC, notice the people edging towards the tracks, glancing down the tunnel. When one person looks down the tracks, even if the train is not coming, others start to peer out as well. The opening moments in the theater were similar to this domino effect; we were all dressed the same and it was difficult to tell who was a performer and who was not, I presume because of a small field of vision the eye slits allowed. With the awareness that a performance was happening but the inability to locate where or who was performing, I felt a sense of endless shifting while the audience sought out what was going on. This was a subtle introduction to the social choreography at play within the dance, and prompted some questions I thought were central in the work: what does it it mean to share space and time with a group of people? How do we navigate space together? Who is the ‘audience’? Who is the ‘performer’? What are the expectations of each? What are the potentials of each? What does togetherness mean?
As the performance progressed, George and Clark began speaking simultaneously, reciting an almost Shakespearean existential text about the abstractness of our existence in these forms and colors. Throughout this, Clark oscillated between an American and English or Australian accent (I couldn’t tell which; maybe more a factor of my bad ear for accents than her ability to perform them). This abruptness appeared again when soundtracks popped in and out of the space. After the double monologue came a series of short solos by George and Clark, punctuated by the dancers announcing ‘this is aura reading, energy transformation’ while standing next to a pre-recorded video of George dancing the same score. After a series of these solos, the dancers erupted into temper tantrums and indeed their energy was transformed. From this point onward Clark became a witness to the piece, leaving George as the main performer in the work, leading the audience through a series of group actions, meditations, and performance rituals.
‘Feel the walls! Feel your breath! Come close I want to feel you! Spread out I want to disappear!’ — George yelled at us to HAVE AN EXPERIENCE. The forcefulness felt like a commentary on the cultishness of gathering for performance and the overall contrived circumstance of being in a theater. Despite the irony of being barked at to have an intimate encounter with strangers, George had a sense of sincerity, and this exchange was both humorous and moving. Underneath the series of ‘Do this! No, do that! No, do this again!’ (orders that were overrun with sensorial confusion), there was a sort of palpable yearning in his voice, so I obeyed out of curiosity and compassion.
After George took us from sheet ghost aerobics to a cuddling pile of sheet ghosts, George pondered the telepathic potential of human experience by telling us a story about coincidence, or possibly something more. In his process of working on Not About Face, he planned to do a performance at AUNTS where he would ask an audience member to trade clothes with him after which he would dance the dance of this participant. On the night of the performance another artist in the evening performed this same score and left George stunned. The two performers were completely unaware of each others’ plans, it was perhaps just a moment of physic coincidence. George sought out the other artist after her performance and told her what had happened. She told him to do the performance he had planned; he did it that night, has been doing it since, and performed it with us at the Chocolate Factory.
I don’t know if this story was fabricated for Not About Face or if it is indeed true. I’m not sure if it really matters. I wasn’t expecting this moment of serendipity, and I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be so central in the work. I could be a sucker, I could choose to believe I can read the future through my dreams, or I could just be excited by the odd and unpredictable ways in which humans intersect through coincidence and sometimes through something more. All I know is that I had an image of something very similar to George’s work, days later heard of his piece, and was now being told a story about a similar cosmic collision. Was I meant to trade clothes with George? Was Not About Face a performance about the deep hidden parts of my dreams? Serendipity asks us to attempt understanding, or to give up understanding and just accept the odd alignment of things. I think it’s more interesting to deal with the effects of such a moment than get tied up in proving or disproving it. Not About Face made space for the audience to navigate the work through their choices; it was made with the audience in mind, and acted as a facilitator for both group and individual experiences. This moment of serendipity was my experience, and I consider how it, and the entire performance, was designed for us to confront questions about the relationship between belief and action. My response is to embrace the dialogue I had with the work as an extension of the work itself, to consider my intersection with the work as part of the content.
When George finally traded clothes with someone, his dance of this man fell short, as any one-minute dance of a stranger might. How can you possibly encapsulate another human being in a dance phrase? This might come off as harsh — I wasn’t disappointed. I saw this redirection as a subject of the work, and appreciated that the work engaged the topic of anticipation in leaving me aware of my desires.
In the final section George told us he wanted to disappear and asked us to cover him in our sheets. When we did this, to the crescendo of some pop song on repeat, he emerged in a wrestling singlet, phrasing through the negative space, striking stillnesses, punctuating with repetition and body vibration. All of this was set to a speech by a wrestling icon and the sound of a crowd cheering him on. In Not About Face obscurity and identity were like two eyes peeking through the same slit in a sheet; to disappear was to perform a magical appearance, to do something magical was to undercut the magic of the theater, to transform was to confuse, to question, to witness, through the power of belief and fake belief. Perhaps sense-making tries to fit things into a narrow definition of truth. Perhaps absorbing what doesn’t make sense allows our notion of truth to expand. I am still wondering: is it the job of the audience to decide whether to “make sense” or to just experience a performance? I go back and forth with this when I watch dance, telling myself every thirty seconds to watch differently. Sometimes a dance picks me up and I am able to not think, though on most occasions my experience isn’t being lifted into the clouds but is one of confusion and discomfort. These moments are valuable; they cause me to reevaluate how I am present.
My experience of George’s work was uncomfortable due to its awkward, self-aware, and unexpected turns. As my visual sense was obscured, the work wasn’t so much about seeing or understanding, but about experiencing the elements sensorially. George and Clark danced under many layers; inside the ghost costumes, inside someone else’s clothes, under lights, beneath a soundtrack… form was sometimes clouded and almost unimportant in the sum total of the parts. When George or Clark danced underneath sheets the clarity of the body was thrown into question and obscurity became the subject. When theatricality was introduced through accents or performative sound scores, the act of performing within these systems became the subject. The surroundings of the work became the center, asking what it is to exist within a given construct. In Not About Face George played a series of tricks that questioned the act of performing and the construct of the theater, the significance of the witness, and the potentiality of the audience. The result was a simultaneous autonomy and interconnectivity within togetherness, the complexity of sharing space.
Not About Face ran at the Chocolate Factory November 19-22, 2014.
Created by Luke George in collaboration with Hilary Clark, Nick Roux, Benjamin Cisterne, and Martyn Coutts. Performed by Luke George and Hilary Clark. Producer: Alison Halit.
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/