Coexistence and Collaboration: Danspace Project Platform 2015

Photo: Devin Alberda

Photo: Devin Alberda

Presented by Danspace Project and curated by Claudia La Rocco, Platform 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Street provided a collaborative working space for artists from the ballet world to come together to create with artists from the contemporary dance realm. Claudia offered 12 artists from different backgrounds the idea that they would work in six pairings and present their collaborative findings over several weekends. In her intro to Platform Claudia asserted her interest in the project lay not so much in whether her chosen pairings of artists would “work” or would even be meant to work but rather if they might open up unknown possibilities.

In the iteration of Platform I witnessed last weekend (March 19-21) Jillian Pena and Troy Schumacher co-presented a work while Emily Coates and Yve Laris Cohen chose to let their partnership converse across their respective, coexisting pieces. Titled simply Jillian + Troy with Cassie + Kaitlyn, Jillian and Troy’s piece opened with Kaitlyn Gilliand and Cassie Mey oscillating between synchronized and canon like movement phrases of sleek, angular ballet lines. The piece took on an ironic tone once Cassie asked Kaitlyn, “Is this the talking part?” and, “You’re not ready? You’re not into it?” Poking fun at the idea that a dance piece can be, and often is, formulaically broken up into “dancing” or “talking” parts Jillian and Troy claimed a certain level of self-awareness as they later took to the stage with microphones, to engage in a conversation about their at times difficult process of collaboration.

I was immediately drawn to the way Jillian and Troy’s meta-conversation about the piece became the piece. However, as the seemingly improvised conversation became increasingly tense and defensive I started to question whether claiming self-awareness has the potential to undermine itself by becoming a caricature of sorts. Less interested in finding a point of intersection, Jillian and Troy seemed to pit against each other as if justifying to the audience, and themselves, how their processes fundamentally diverged. Responding to Troy’s claim that his generation of movement is often conceived by simply looking at the physical makeup of his dancers, Jillian asserted that her artistic inspiration is heavily informed by her conversations with her dancers and understanding of their unique artistic contributions. Yet throughout their entire conversation, while occasionally talking about the dancers, Troy and Jillian never actually talked with the dancers. Remaining literally in front of Cassie and Kaitlyn the entire time, Troy and Jillian maintained control of both the microphones and conversation. Whether aware or not, the conversation seemed to reinforce the divide between choreographer and dancer and suggest—intentionally or not—that if you’re not holding a microphone you don’t have a voice. While I appreciated their willingness to lay bare their process and to be transparent about the difficulty of collaboration, I wondered if the “talking” part and the “moving” part could extend beyond ironic coexistence and crucially inform each other. Under what precepts can we view coexistence as collaboration? I’m genuinely asking because I genuinely don’t know.

Emily and Yve seemed to intentionally ambiguate the notion of collaboration by deciding to speak to each other through the coexistence of their separate works. In Incarnations (Sketches For a Longer Work) Emily and Physics Professor Sarah Demers presented the performative nature of research and conversely the research inherent in performance, as they guided the audience through a physicalized journey of their findings on the connection between science and the arts. In her essay Incarnations (included in the evening’s program) Emily wrote, “I wish to assert that Newton’s body contributed to his thinking. And right alongside his embodied knowledge are my dance histories—all outcomes of a kinesthetic history that influences and generates diverse social forms, from science to art.” It wasn’t until re-reading her essay after the performance that I truly grasped what she was after. Information is better assimilated through experience, no? By guiding the audience through a historical, anatomical and scientific (thanks to physics notation from Sarah) understanding of Balanchine’s technical and stylistic innovations, Emily demonstrated the way one’s body literally informs one’s thinking and vice versa. Emily drew parallels between the dancing body and the body of a physicist by not only having Sarah watch and notate her movement as she impressively re-created a part from Balanchine’s Apollo, but also in later vocally notating the body language of a physics-lecturing Sarah. When Emily moved through a series of gestures used by scientists in their discovery of the Higgs field and particle—that she excavated and reassembled—it became clear how the gestures not only historically helped the physicists communicate their findings to their colleagues but how thinking and moving don’t simply co-exist but literally inform and generate each other.

In Patron Yve brought longtime friend and collaborator Tom von Foerster, onto the stage, who like Emily’s collaborator also happened to be a physicist, in addition to being a retired scientific editor. After being handed a giant roll of paper—a printed version of a database Tom created to record every performance (about 12,000) he and his partner attended—Tom (instructed by Yve) began to read every New York City Ballet performance he ever attended with note to who he attended with and the restaurant he visited afterwards. It quickly became dizzyingly clear to the audience that Tom’s Sisyphean task of reading his way chronologically down the roll was going to take a long time. Exactly how long though was anyone’s guess. A few audience members got up to leave. After 15 minutes or so (my perception of time was blurry at best) the iconic Yvonne Rainer, seated in the front row, turned around to tell Yve that it would only be fair to let the audience know how far Tom would read until. When Yve confirmed that Tom would read all the way until the end (the year 2015) Yvonne gathered her belongings and walked out (uncomforted by Yve’s promise that Tom would read all the Judson Church performances once he finished the NYCB ones). What responsibility do we, as audience members, have to stay? What responsibility does an artist have to treat their audience “fairly” (as Yvonnne pointed out)? As someone who agreed to write a response about the performance I felt obligated to stay. More importantly, I wanted the satisfaction that comes with seeing something through. I didn’t want to leave until Yve said it was over. As more and more audience members left, and Tom kept reading, I kept mentally returning to the famous John Cage quote: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” I wondered if I found the piece interesting solely because of its concept or if I was engaged by Tom’s charmingly methodical reading. After 30 minutes I felt invested in Tom. I felt I needed to witness the end for my own sense of self-satisfaction. After 60 (or 90?) minutes I needed to pee and I wanted to eat. Eventually around 10:40—after 90% of the audience had left—I justified to myself that maybe I was projecting an inflexible expectation of what it means for a work of art to end. In reality, I’d had enough. It’s still unclear to me to what extent Yve anticipated or intended the majority of the audience to leave and how that informs Patron as a work. Regardless, everyone had to eventually decide for themselves whether to stay or go and in doing so were forced to define the parameters of their role as audience member/patron. At what point does a patron/audience member/critic/curator/etc., move from coexisting to collaborating with an artist? In the end, I guess it’s open to interpretation.

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