The choice to see Dance Performance (according to my experience of Gibney Dance Center’s artist-curated split bill series “DoublePlus”)
Mission statements of an emerging generation of artists, in 3 to 9 word excerpts
…an examination of the intimate role of spectacle…
—Death Made Love to My Feet
It attempts to heal…
—The Art of Luv
…to generate structures of obsessive formalism.
…informed by extensive research in cognition…
—as if alone
…messages from the universe via the Internet…
…body becomes a site of infinite feedback…
…uncovers the ritualistic meaning…
…with unmitigated frustration and rebellion.
…a vulnerability emerges…
…the body unmediated by edits, gimmicks, and special effects.
—Dear Washing Machine, Long Night
Precious and worthless, earnest and flippant…
—now is now
…purposefully blunt and rudimentary…
The choice to make dances
I burn to go to dance performances that remind me of what I have chosen—and continue choosing—to live for. I know it’s a tall order, but, especially after we have all visited family over the holidays, tried to explain our work to our grandparents and our sister’s husband, and even our friends from when we were in school, some of whom are younger than us but are already on an institutionally supported “track” to earn a salary with more zeroes than those in a Doris Duke Artist Award, isn’t it the stuff of dreams to walk into a dance performance and sit together and acknowledge that this thing we do is profound, hopeful, meaningful—and fun?
In Gibney Dance Center’s DoublePlus series, I felt always this camaraderie with my fellow audience members, and during every split-bill performance I felt the stakes and energy that fueled each choreographer’s formal/conceptual concerns.
The dances they made
When Audrey Hailes performs a frenetic, chain-smoking, late-night, angst-filled dance, muttering under her breath as two performers play a casual game of cards in the dressing room.
When Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble offers us haunting/humorous advice on “how to build your body to be more attractive to women” as we sit in front of a stage layered with VHS players, wine goblets, laptops, and altars. Tei Blow and Sean McElroy lip sync as a teenaged girl on a Youtube video, projected on the back of the space, discusses a recent death: “Technically,” she says, “it was his fault.”
When Maggie Cloud performs a grand plié in Gillian Walsh’s dance—the only movement not accompanied by a spoken number—as the other performers stand still. Afterward, the performers continue reading from their notes and sequencing through a sea of formations and synchronicities.
When Daria Faïn plunges into a deep arabesque, à la Martha Graham in her dance Letter to the World, after using what must have been every chamber and cavity of her chest to voice the seemingly simple word: “Wow.”
When Alex Escalante lies down on the floor after a considered, articulate start to a solo, which gradually progresses into his use of exaggerated arms, gesturing as if to conjure something from the ground.
When Alice McDonald and Mary Read walk an invisible, intricate grid system in Molly Poerstel’s dance. They wear distinctive costumes of lamé tops, sparkling, chunky jewelry, rehearsal pants, and tennis shoes. Their gaze is well-rehearsed and intense; Poerstel’s choreography is like an ode to potential ways to move across the planet. We have so many possibilities. The shapes their bodies make are ecstatic, and the lighting design choices allow them to linger. They weave around the columns of the space and the movement feels more expansive than if the columns weren’t there.
When Rayika A. Orange finishes a high-energy dance on a pedestal, as if in a club, doubled over herself in silence. Fake applause plays over the sound system, and it is too late: Orange has already moved on, is already in another zone of intention. Later, she is pointing her foot and smiling at her audience, as if to say: “Tada!” She squats down and looks at us again. She reaches to empty stage space and tumbles toward it. We’re seeing the part of a variety of personalities that is most often hidden behind the shadows. Hers is the before and after of those eccentric, impermeable selves we try to maintain and project throughout our day.
When Alex Rodabaugh offers us descriptions of banks and Capitalism—both of which eat us alive as we pay them to do it—as Ashley Handel holds a steady balance on one foot. Rodabaugh says into a microphone: “It’s time for courage.”
When Hadar Ahuvia, Stuart Shugg, and TJ Spaur perform flawless unison in front of the mirrored side wall of the space as a multi-angled film of a parking lot is projected on the back of the space. At the end, just as one performer dons a mask of a horse, the lights fade.
When Talya Epstein and Anna Azrieli subtlely and then casually and then ecstatically cry out as they writhe on the floor, while the rest of the performers move linearly and silently around the perimeter. By the end and then for the entirety of the piece, all performers continue to enact the same movement—an arabesque penché—as they take a gulp of water and spit it back into their cups.
When Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson create and perform rigorous, exploratory, honest fun together during Maree Remalia’s dance. The duet ends with Anna singing in a spotlight downstage as Taylor performs a quixotic solo that recedes into darkness.
When Fiona Lundie and Jennifer Meckley start conjoined at the feet by duct tape, and take no time to use—what must be—one-hundred percent of their energy to travel and plow through the space. It is as if they are laying the groundwork for a new kind of culture in which none of us have the time, excuse, or desire to sit still.
When moments and concepts like these unfold in a thirty minute dance, I have to smile: how lucky are we that these are the emerging artists in our field? How awesome it is that this, dance-making, is our field at all.
That performance is contained by a set of parameters is, in one respect, its greatest advantage in impacting the people who experience it: a performance situation is self-selecting, and the people who come are more or less there because they want to engage. They care about the implications of dance-making when many others do not. Even in site-specific work, the aim of which might be to draw these implications of dance-making more viscerally or literally into our daily lives, it’s hard not to question how much of what transpires on a stage is relevant, truthful, and real to the totality of our lives. That said, the split bill model, during which the audience has to do a mental reset halfway through the evening to experience a totally new aesthetic, mission, group of bodies, and/or environment, might be the most challenging presentational mode. In the split bill, because two totally formed aesthetics are offered to the audience, when we leave the performance and walk onto the street we have not one but two lenses “according to” which to see the world. It’s a lot.
One person’s relevant/truthful/real criteria might be based in the neuro-physio-emotional experience of getting drunk at a bar near their workplace with colleagues; of receiving a hot stone massage and a pedicure; of sitting down for the first time all week to watch a movie on the couch with intermittent breaks of staring into space; of eating a gourmet meal at a bistro in SoHo; of meditation, sex, or sleep; of a long walk in the cold. It’s all legitimate—the practices human beings need to carry on—so where does a live dance performance fit into this desire for authentic experience, when no one’s kneading knots out of your spine or altering your brain with drugs?
One potential answer: dance performance fits into this desire for authentic experience because it’s almost literally doing all of those things. If dance were to have a purpose, arguably it could be that of asking us to feel more alive by comprehensively activating the neuro-physio-emotional self. Especially now. Sitting on one side of the space as the performers extend their straight, turned out, in-concert-with-one-another limbs into their backspace as orchestral instruments play a staccato, extension-inducing tune is not the only sign that you’ve walked into a dance performance. Dance performance is nakedness, original sound, live sound, speaking, screaming. Getting so close you can smell sweat and go blind from exposure to heaps of glitter. Dance performance is touching, it is sharp, it is subtle. Particular and personal, archetypal and abstract. It is all and none of these things. It may be harder to define than “Happy Hour”, but certainly it can be said that one of dance performance’s many qualities is that of authentic experience.
A final list: humor, touch, love, escapism, freedom. Dance performance can encompass all of these universal hopes, needs, and desires, and for that it must be something close to magic. It is also empathy and shared experience: if someone in the audience recognizes that what the dancers are performing is fundamental-seeming (even if peculiarly so,) then it’s not too far of a stretch to acknowledge for themselves, “What I do in my life, what I have done and why, is fundamental-seeming, too.”
 In the studio, filling out grant applications, editing project descriptions, wondering if we need a stronger web presence than we have, wondering about social media, cultivating tandem writing practices, scheduling rehearsals—doing what we do to make it work.
 (and societally)
 I vote very much—but more on this below.
 Whether they are works-in-progress or finished, either way they are each long enough to have approached and grappled with very specific and well-researched ideas. And whether they are meant to be viewed in concert with one another or not, either way they are stemming from two autonomous choreographers with two autonomous ways of seeing.
 I use this word understanding that the question of “What is the purpose of art?” is contentious, often irrelevant, and often over-simplified, and am not trying to concoct some kind of absolutist answer to this question.