December 2014 in dance: MR Festival, Greg Zuccolo, Keely Garfield, Tere O’Connor.
Articulate movement: holding what can’t be had
AN EXPLORATION IN NAMING, one of Movement Research Festival’s three research-driven performance evenings this December, might have been the most experimental experimental dance I’ve seen this season. The evening featured collective research performed by Massimiliano Balduzzi, Daria Faïn, Whitney V. Hunter, Shantelle C. Jackson, Athena Kokoronis, Tuomas Laitinen, Iki Nakagawa, Odeya Nini, Cassie Peterson, Chana Porter, and Arturo Vidich, all of whom addressed movement as it manifested in their individual bodies, and also as it informed a larger, systemic group dynamic.
There were some recognizable forms in the dancing itself—I could identify circular movement patterns throughout the space, duets in which two performers held one another and shared each other’s weight, and a proximity between performers in space that loosely resembled a line—but more often than not I imagined the performers in a laboratory with little vials of as-yet-unidentified matter, testing its catalyzing effects on the world that pre-exists around them. That this year’s Festival was titled M A T T E R I N G feels appropriate. What haven’t we touched, played with, fleshed out to the furthest extent possible that is waiting just beyond arm’s reach?
The curatorial proposals, as stated in the program:
- We propose to contemplate the person’s organism, and to look at everything that surrounds us as interdependent organisms: individuals, environment, histories and futures. We propose to free these organisms from a duality of self and other, rather allowing for cultural engagement that weaves together sociology, economics, philosophy, intellect, art, and spirituality within an ever transforming ecology.
- We propose somatics as a path to activate interdependence as an agent for transformation, inviting us to live with impermanence: the body as portal.
- We hope the festival invokes all elements of one’s life, to question the relevance of our humanity, to ponder what this is all for. Of our lives and our practices, we are asking—how are we M A T T E R I N G?
Daria Faïn, who co-curated the festival with Rebecca Brooks, was a brave member of the “Collective Research Group” who presented the EXPLORATION. Dressed in a white painter’s suit, ready to perform labor, she kept an intense focus on the movement material, even when she broke from a score to have a dialogue with one of her fellow participants about what questions they were proposing and hoping to address. There were by no means any answers proposed to these questions, only experiments: “Holding what can’t be had.”
Often Faïn spoke in a non-human voice, stretching her tones until she ran out of breath, continuing in a spacey whisper. It would have been creepy, if it was not so oracle-like. Occasionally, though, as with several of the performers, she spoke and laughed about present situations in a regular mode of conversation. Often I couldn’t hear what she said. In this way, the evening felt more like an open rehearsal of ideas.
This is a performance during which I was really hoping for some conversation. When Faïn and the performers asked us to join them on the floor in a circle to talk, we were technically still part of the performance. Only about five minutes in, when a timer went off, did Faïn announce that the performance had officially ended. Still, to me, the equal and opposite statement might have been more true: only once the timer rang did the conversation Faïn was proposing to initiate really begin.
In discussion, the artist expressed how deeply troubled she was by the limits to making the cultural social. How can dance-makers and artists translate, give, or inform the current state of affairs in a real way? In a way which matters? This was the most compelling part of the performance: seeing an artist authentically engaged in expanding our impact as articulate movers, and, like a scientist in a laboratory, working to increase our potency.
How to come to terms with scarcity, find freedom, and acknowledge that there will always be a trolley cart in your field who is more respected than you are (Greg Zuccolo at JACK)
In Too Much Too Soon Mr. Zuccolo, Greg Zuccolo comes out dancing with verve. Suddenly he says “Cut!”, lights come up and music goes silent, and he walks front center stage. He begins a story that will carry the performance to its end. It is about an artist residency called “Rainbow,” which we learn from his occasional (intentional) slips is really the famous artists’ working community, Yaddo.
The dancing is disarmingly intimate, which is in large part due to the way Zuccolo frames it. We laugh along with him as he gesticulates and sips water and curses as he talks of Rainbow’s cold, rude staff and the fellow artists he meets. When Zuccolo dances, he is often in darkness or spotlighted by his contraption of hand-held flashlights, so we can’t see his face. Each section of movement is like that moment in junior high when you spy the class clown engaged in something he is truly, unironically passionate about. Zuccolo lowers his rhetorical defenses when he moves, and we see him in what feels like his most enlivened, do-or-die state as a performer. By the end of the dance, almost all of a sudden, we realize the high stakes this aliveness truly has.
The spoken narrative begins with the intricacies of bureaucracy at Rainbow (including the way a trolley cart gets the largest of the artist studios, while Zuccolo is left to a slightly-bigger-than-closet workspace) and bleeds into the mass murders in Zuccolo’s home town of Coquitlam, British Columbia. The commentary that is imbued and embedded and interjected into the narrative — its timing, its progression, its toggling between the hilarious and the tragic, the way it expands in scope just toward the end of the piece — is meta without being narrowly concerned with itself: Zuccolo’s performance focuses on the scarcity of art-making and yet scarcity itself is Zuccolo’s most bountiful resource. It’s just him on a stage, telling a fairly linear story, with only a trolley cart as a supporting character, a very DIY costume including purple sheer tights, a lighting contraption made out of mini-flashlights, and a hand written poem. The only extra performative element I want for him the next time he makes a piece, if only to see how far this performance could evolve given the way he works with what he has, is limitless, expansive space.
Zuccolo’s portraits of people—the types who, judging by our consistent laughter, we all recognize in some shape or form—are as exaggerated and defined as any caricaturist’s animated cartoon. His recollections of bureaucracy-speak, especially the kind that the sayer somehow presents under the flimsy guise of being accommodating or responsive, when in fact they are the opposite, is all the more effective because he only begins to tell us about them after his spurts of high-energy dancing. He is out of breath, and it is the narrative that seems to exhaust him, not the movement. If he needs water, it’s because these people and their dry way of interacting have made him thirsty.
It is almost gratifying that narrow-minded human beings are alive, just so a perceptive person like Zuccolo can expose their behavior. The audience basks in the narrative, relaxing from what’s ingrained in how we are supposed to approach daily interaction: we speak in euphemism, strive to see the glass half full, find the grey area, try our very best not to stereotype, make excuses for nasty human behavior as product of circumstance, and so on. We try to see the light. During this performance, we are simply allowed to be on the good side, and to identify the rude people in Zuccolo’s story as being, simply, the “motherfuckers” they are.
To see a contemporary dance that centers on narrative is a rare thing these days, and in this case it is a joy. The narrative culminates with Zuccolo’s reference to (and transformation of) the actual trolley cart he’s used onstage into the story’s competitive character, Trah-lee. This is one of the greatest breaks from realism I’ve experienced in a piece of art. It rivals the moment in One Hundred Years of Solitude when Remedios the Beauty floats into the “upper atmosphere,” or in The Pale King when the concentrated Drinion begins to levitate out of his chair as he listens to a story. All of Zuccolo’s other characters in his story are real people, but his defining character is an inanimate object who, up until this late point in the performance, merely served as a prop for the flashlight fixture and a water bottle. Unlike the above two fictional characters from books, Trah-lee does not levitate. Still, as a converted “Jewish Vegan with Lyme Disease,” it grabs our attention as if it did. The trolley cart might signify all the misspent dollars in the Arts field: while a dance artist who needs space tries to spend his residency in a semi-literal closet, this piece of furniture has access to an entire, expansive dance studio—the very dance studio that the staff assured Zuccolo did not exist. Exempt from the material and worldly rules that we mere mortals must navigate, Trah-lee, in all of its modest swagger, has come out on top.
Zuccolo ends the piece with an account of three family Christmases past and a gay party in “subterranean theatre catacombs” after a solo performance in Germany. These involve more situations that have stifled, criticized, or otherwise left their impression on the artist. In the dancing that follows these narrative sections, we see Zuccolo’s relatively new freedom to be, and to be seen, that had been stifled/criticized by others before he discovered two strategies for survival: dance, and New York City. These final solos are no longer meant to make us laugh. After gesturing toward his aim of presenting a queer performance throughout the night, Zuccolo offers a definition of queer work as being “askew; not on the level; wobbly.”
The artist shares much of himself—and of dance-making, of cohabitating with other artists, and of how to continue to find connection to personal history while still managing to forge ahead, even if the road is full of red tape and darkness—and it is neither too much nor too soon.
The dance concludes with Zuccolo’s recitation of a poem:
“My bitterness is showing
Like the tinkling of baby teeth
I’ve disemboweled the baby
And use it as a sheath
Like Rudolph’s emoticon
With the balls of squinty winter
From a vegan Christmas wreath
My favourite reason
For a season
My bitterness is glowing
Like an ancient worm
Like an acid perm
And listen kiddo, perms don’t lie
Perms grow and they learn
That when your own hair makes you high
Every day is a reason
My bitterness is flowing
Like a river of shit in Germany
I’ve dismissed all my teachers
There was nothing left to learn from me
If the pedagogical imperative
Were to vanish in sands on beaches
Then the pleebs could more than pleeby be
And the merkin
It isn’t werq’n”
 These include the “morose poet, Brian,” and a handful of killjoys concerned with having “not enough vegetable protein” at residency meals, who are hell-bent on “getting in their morning pages” while maintaining a “forced nonchalance” composure.
 As per JACK’s online description of the piece, Zuccolo’s solos are in part comprised of the female sections of ballet Swan Lake. The other parts are wholly aberrant to ballet vocabulary: high-velocity army rolls to standing, flamboyant, broken lines, an interpretive “rainbow” step, and inverted wall-crawling that ripped down JACK’s metallic wallpaper are some of the most memorable.
 For me, the performer and the character are the same person in this piece.
 Seriously: the trolley cart character’s name was Trolley, but in recent history it has become transgender, and now goes by Trah-lee. More on this later.
 Every time Zuccolo explained something he said or did that was not in keeping with some tradition/social more or another, he licks his pointer finger and puts it in the air, like he’s determining from which way the wind is blowing, and says: “Queer point!”
“Wow!” said the universe.
Keely Garfield’s expression during her new dance, WOW, reminds me of a section of Zadie Smith’s essay “Take It or Leave It”, in which the author writes about sincerity:
“I don’t think any nation should elevate service to the status of culture. At best, it’s a practicality, to be enacted politely and decently by both parties, but no one should be asked to pretend that the intimate satisfaction of her existence is servicing you, the “guest,” with a shrimp sandwich wrapped in plastic. If the choice is between the antic all-singing, all-dancing employees in New York’s Astor Place Pret-A-Manger and the stony-faced contempt of just about everybody behind a food counter in London (including all the Prets), I wholeheartedly opt for the latter. We are subject to enough delusions in this life without adding to them the belief that the girl with the name tag is secretly in love with us.”
This “stony-faced contempt”, which decries dishonest interaction and draws into sharp focus how quickly we allow delusion to reign, is the one Garfield often expresses as she works: her performance never feels artificial.
WOW is comprised of disjointed yet wholly developed chunks of dancing. Each of these sections culminates in an often absurd extreme of just one possible route it could have taken. A plausible explanation for this could be that the choreographer is a cutthroat decision-maker. One notable conclusion occurs with Garfield sitting on a chair, close to the audience, facing us. It is purposefully final, and comes after a series of high-energy movement. But then, instead of starting a new section, she keeps going with this one by disrupting the finality of repose. She picks up the chair, repositions herself six to seven feet behind where she was, and sits down to stare at us again as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes the disruption/continuation of an idea is more predictable. After the aforementioned chair repositioning, for instance, Garfield starts bobbing along percussively to the beat of the song. Her acknowledging the music after having danced along to it makes us conscious that the music is part of the performers’ world, too, not just an unexamined background for their dancing and our emotional responses.
In another section, the performers devolve from a church scene, during which they appeared to worship in pews, into walking slowly through the space with books on top of their heads, singing Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart”. It is perfectly absurd, and again must result from Garfield’s commitment to following instinct. How many other choreographers would have resisted a tempting urge to cut these idiosyncratic, almost tangential sequences for sake of continuity or coherency with the larger piece? If she had, we would not have had the delight of watching these strange souls parade around, singing, semi-distracted, quickly picking up the books and placing them atop their heads again when they fell.
decidedly not hopeless
To me the most visually striking section of WOW involved Garfield hurdling toward us wearing a traditional, lace, long white dress. Brandin Steffensen and Jordan Morley restrain her from breaking free. She flops forward and struggles in their arms. This goes on for a while. Kathy Kaufmann’s dim lighting design here accentuates the dark hopelessness that contrasts Garfield’s never-give-up energetic drive. As 2014 comes to a close, and after seeing many performances with many striking situations and turns of events, this singular struggle is the animate image to which I keep returning.
One movement becomes a refrain for the piece: Garfield upside down, red-faced with blood rushing to her head. She does a handstand using Steffensen and a chair for support. It is so blatantly what it is—“Look, a handstand!”—that all I can consider is the pure mechanics of the act: that’s a person, upside down.
glitter v. lace
WOW begins with all five performers—including musician and vocalist Matthew Brookshire—in period-piece garb that evokes the Industrial Revolution. They stand in a circle, taking each other in, and begin to sing: Do you know what I really need? Later, after many costume changes, when they are dressed in glittery articles of clothing and old sweaters with a koala bear picture on the front (Garfield), they somehow convey just as much sincerity as if they were dressed to endure another Great Depression. But then, aren’t they? And isn’t multicolored glitter the new white lace?
life = a game of musical chairs
A notable recitation of Kate Bush’s “Army Dreamers” as the performers played a serious game of musical chairs: “What could he do? Should have been a rock star. But he didn’t have the money for a guitar. What could he do? Should have been a politician. But he never had a proper education. What could he do? Should have been a father. But he never even made it to his twenties. What a waste.” One by one, as they scramble, the performers’ chairs are pulled out from under them.
In a particularly humorous part of the evening, Garfield states slowly, and in the manner of a public transportation announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, please be kind to strangers in all the realms.” Why is this so funny? The entire syntactical arrangement is primed to make us stop and think as we laugh:
- The phrase “ladies and gentlemen” is normative, proper, impersonal, associated with the status quo.
- That she says “please” seems to be a nod to the fact that often please is a platitude used when an authority tells us the way things already are, or how they have to be, instead of actually requesting our participation like we have a choice.
- “Be kind to strangers” is evocative of Blanche DuBois, the helpless damsel in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and her famous line in the play: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It also evokes the childhood warning: Don’t talk to strangers. Either way, we all know we should be kind to strangers, but we also put up boundaries to this kindness. Hearing “be kind to strangers” spoken in her public safety announcement tone makes it seem both heartfelt and obvious, and more like a burden—like a lot to ask.
- Garfield’s deadpan stage presence is essential for her delivery of this last phrase: “in all the realms.” My multi-step reaction to this language, which I sequenced through in a split-second, was: “I get it. She’s trying to speak as universally as possible. Wait, but seriously: what? Which realms are we talking about?”
It’s easy to laugh at this directive, and we do, but it’s equally possible, in the context of this performance, to contemplate language and its profound implications a little bit longer.
universe as audience member
“The John Stalwarts of late night television make jokes about serious stuff and we laugh and play along, and we are sure that we are part of the cure and not the cause, and so to bed. Parody and pointing to things obscure the thing as much as they try to expose it…Our good heart desires more, but we are made powerless by puns, and our powerlessness is what we feel instead of the gravity of our situations…Cynicism has seeped into our tissues, alongside skepticism and scorn. What does a truly sincere act look like? Is it sweet? Is it plain? Is it right or wrong? Is it naïve? Is it present? How do you perform from the bottom of your heart? And so, as though my life depended on it, I am here dancing around with a barrage of brave souls in all seriousness. And we mean it.” – Keely Garfield
Many of my responses to dance performances in recent months have dwelled on the question of my audience-self’s identity: Who am I in the context of the performative world the artist has constructed? Am I on the artist’s team? Her confidant has she presents her social critique? Or am I the one toward whom the criticism is directed? But when I watched WOW, I realized that—while of course the answer to both questions is probably yes—to try to make that distinction between us and them is not useful. Who is in the room to see the artist’s take on human concerns has to be less important, in the end, than the fact that the artist is asking these questions and making their performance at all. Even when many people whose lives might evolve or expand from seeing the work will never see it, the performance is still out there impacting the progression and history of things. That live performance which incorporates commentary on the human condition—however macro or micro in scope—is created as an offering to the universe and a challenge to some aspect of the status quo that was seemingly immutable before, is far more hopeful than if that performance had never been. This, regardless of whether the artist seems to be preaching to the like-minded, art-making choir.
last bits (of freedom)
An extended jazz dance routine: tombe, pas de bourre, pirouette, lay out. Repeat. They do this over and over, as if to say: It’s true! We are really doing this combination across the floor. The energy builds, and by the end of the dance Leslie Kraus is performing an incendiary solo. The final moment is one of total freedom, during which Jordan Morley in particular is running for his life. They move together around the space, unchained.
Annotation of an Artist Statement
[Tere O’Connor’s choreography finds its logic outside the realm of “translation,” operating in a sub-linguistic area of expression. He views dance as a system with its own properties; an abstract documentary form that doesn’t search to depict. The lenses of western culture, spoken language or dance history, often used to “interpret” dance, are subsumed into layers of the work and decentralized. In addition to a great love of movement and a deep commitment to choreographic craft and design, more philosophical urges animate the work. From his earliest efforts, the complex entanglement of passing time, metaphor, constant change, tangential thought, and memory have ignited an exploration into the nature of consciousness for O’Connor. Choreography is a process of observation which includes multiple, disparate elements that float in and out of synchronicity. Engaging in dance as a life style constitutes a move away from the narrow social constructs we’ve created to standardize human behavior.
O’Connor’s astounding performers and renowned collaborators constitute a family of artists who are dedicated to expanding the potency of dance as a serious art form. His boldly individualist approach to choreography has contributed new thought to the form that resonates throughout its theoretical discourse. For O’Connor, meaning is arrived at in collaboration with the audience and its endlessly diverse referential world. It is, therefore, fluid and forever open-ended.
Throughout history and across diverse cultures, dance has long proffered a value system in which narrative underpinnings were dominant anchoring dances to prescribed readings.
He is committed to the power of dance as a sub-linguistic area of expression and revels in its ability to braid together the personal and the universal.]
Comments in full:
1. O’Connor’s most recent dance is BLEED, an eleven-person dance he created as the culmination of three works. It premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013, and came to Danspace Project this past weekend.
2. (My annotations will relate directly to this dance, instead of abstractly to O’Connor’s oeuvre, though it should be mentioned that his body of work is prolific.)
3. Heather Olson begins the performance with a solo. It is both communicative and abstract. She takes her time. It’s as if she is posing us a riddle, or simply showing us her life: this is how it is. She makes a gesture like putting pieces of bread to her mouth, as industrial clanking noise recedes and swells.
4. One system involves a basic strategy: some performers stand still, others move. Throughout the piece, groups bleed into one another and someone could be standing for several minutes as another breaks free into movement. In this way, the space is always contained by bodies and also allowed to shift.
5. A scene occurs in which Oisín Monaghan turns toward us and walks slowly as the other performers stand around the perimeter watching him at first seems loosely constructed and maybe even weak in terms of the overall composition of the scene: Monaghan is not close enough to us to really capture our attention immediately. Soon my take on this moment is proven totally superficial, because after a series of movements and divergent pathways, the performers all return to perform the moment again. They all stand in exactly the same formation, and Monaghan slowly turns to look at us, walking forward. This sort of blatant and exact repetition draws my attention to how actually not much time has passed at all, even though in the few movements that occurred in between these first and second iterations I had already moved on to many other considerations and trains of thought.
6. All at once and all of a sudden, the performers gasp, tilt their head back as if to look at the sun, and march backwards like mechanical toys soldiers. Monaghan falls to his back, a lighting cue reveals a rectangular box of light resembling a coffin.
7. Transitions don’t seem like transitions anymore when they signal unison. For instance, if a pair of dancers who were dancing together begin running, and two more dancers who were standing begin running, the running is no longer a transition, but a new section. There are new relationships forming, new proximities to one another in space, new sight-lines, new associations.
8. A strong, identifiable formation occurs in which some of the performers stand in a cluster and move like a wave from left to right. As soon as it comes together, it dissipates.
9. A kaleidoscopic opening, after Olson’s solo, brings almost every performer into the space. As they begin to spill out from the far upstage corners of the space, a recorded cello plays. It is transportative, and I recall dances out of a Jane Austen novel as much as I do my own sensations of longing, melancholy, and nostalgia for moments passed.
10. On a macrocosmic level, sound and movement were two such occasionally synchronistic elements. Embedded in the movement itself, two people who perform the same choreography are in one moment aligned, and off on separate journeys in the next.
11. Tess Dworman, devynn emory, Natalie Green, Ryan Kelly, Michael Ingle, Oisín Monaghan, Cynthia Oliver, Heather Olson, Mary Read, Silas Reiner, David Thomson
12. James Baker (Composer), Walter Dundervill (Costume Designer), Michael O’Connor (Lighting Designer)
13. It seems like each performer is given a platform to be their wildest, most authentic self. Each person in the family has their own role—but at any given moment that role is allowed to change. And yet, there is never too much information on stage: they take turns, and when the group moves together it is in unison or for some common cause—standing still and doing intricate arm choreography, flocking across the diagonal of the space, huddling together under Natalie Green and Cynthia Oliver as they perform dramatic flights through the space.
14. An impactful movement, which everyone I’ve spoken with who has seen BLEED can recall, is Heather Olson’s gasp, back of hand to forehead, a slight arch at her shoulder blades, followed by a slow, labored, heavy collapse to the floor. I wonder if this is so memorable because we all share the same or similar reference?
15. Towards the beginning of the piece, when the entire cast is on stage together for the first time, they enter and walk in different trajectories through the space as courtly music plays. When they pass each other, they hold hands. As soon as they establish contact, they move on to hold hands with someone new. Soon, they pick up speed and the tableau’s of contact become both more frequent between pairings and more sustained. Soon they are hugging and touching one another’s faces. This section couldn’t have felt more personal, and still it created a scene that felt applicable to a human experience at large, not just to those performing. In watching BLEED I felt sadness and elation come into close proximity, because it was never definite whether the human experience we witnessed was already ours, what we hope to have, or what will never be.