Beth Gill’s PORTRAIT STUDY + Laurie Anderson in Conversation with Deborah Hay

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to write about dance (and performance in general). I’m continually conflicted. As much as I want to document, to frame, to clarify to myself how a given performance is what it is, I also realize that some things are better left untouched. That said, in the same way we might record a dream upon waking—frantically writing about “a fish” that we know wasn’t exactly a fish, as the dream itself slips further and further away—so too can we (maybe) write about performance.

The dance evening at New York Live Arts (April 15) that featured Beth Gill’s Portrait Study and Laurie Anderson in conversation with Deborah Hay felt in many ways hazily dream-like. In the open dialogue between Hay and Anderson that took place in the second half of the evening, the two artists drew our attention to both the finite and infinite ways in which we perceive our surroundings. Anderson discussed her interest in creating sound that allows one’s mind to float around and later talked about the ways in which we often see, as if in a dream, only a blurry sketch of what a thing represents. As Anderson played for us a variety of what she called “gritty sounds” and trailed off on enthralling tangents, Hay systematically swirled around the space as if testing the waters. Free from an agenda, the two artists granted us access into their own exploration of their collaborative process.

This same sense of exploration permeated Beth Gill’s Portrait Study, presented in the first half of the evening. One at a time, the dancers appeared on stage to move through an improvised solo before ultimately falling to the floor to remain lying in stillness as the piece continued to play out. While at times overlapping, the cast of thirteen dancers each constructed a world entirely their own. Rather than an end in and of itself, Gill’s flexible choreographic framework gave the performers the space and freedom to respond to their environment and in doing so revealed each performer’s unique set of sensibilities. Improvised lighting by designer Thomas Dunn and a live sound score by composers Ryan Seaton and Eliot Krimsky pushed the piece further to the edges of the uncharted.

As if characters of themselves, each performer harnessed a particular energy and left a kind of pulsing mark in the space. I remember moments of the piece like snapshots of a fleeting realm. I remember the clarity in Jodi Melnick’s hips. The way Stuart Singer’s tense squat morphed into a shaking crawl. Neal Beasley’s liquid torso. A bent over David Thomson moving through a series of precise hand gestures as if collecting or sorting or searching. I remember the unfolding tableau of Emma Hreljanovic, Emma Lutz-Higgins, Katherine Rose, and Joanna Warren as they shared the same time and space but existed in their own beautiful orbits. I remember an excitingly feral Levi Gonzalez. I remember blue jeans and red lips. I find it interesting that even long after the performance I still see a swirling Emily Wexler, a pragmatically soaring Meg Weeks, and a powerfully seizing Omagbitse Omagbemi collapsing to the floor.

When later in the evening Hay discussed her process of “avoiding naming” when generating movement and suggested that her and Anderson’s piece ought to be made out of a place of not naming (both musically and movement-wise), I considered the ways in which writing or talking about Hay and Anderson’s conversation or Gill’s Portrait Study might undercut their work.

In the same way that philosopher Wittgenstein theorized that the structure inherent in language limits what can be said and thus what can be thought, Hay seemed to suggest that she avoids naming what she perceives to avoid limiting the potentiality of that thing. A widening of understanding does seem preferable to a narrowing. I wonder, though, where clarity plays out in all this. Perhaps only in suspending judgment and remaining open—to movement or to an artistic process in general—can we allow for new pathways of creating or thinking to emerge.

This kind of openness was apparent throughout Portrait Study but especially apparent in the end of the piece as the performers, after a long period of stillness on the floor, emerged as if waking from a deep sleep. They acknowledged each other for the first time and began moving through the space in what appeared to be a loosely set group improvisation. Morphing duets and trios brought the dancers into a line. Briefly, as if only offering a glimmer of what could be, the group evaporated into two smaller contingencies, and, as if trailing off mid sentence, exited the stage, leaving behind an openness that offered more questions than answers.

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