In Which We Try To ‘Understand Everything Better’

Photo by Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova

Dan:  On Friday, Alexander Thompson and I attended David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group’s I Understand Everything Better, which is playing at Abrons Art Center through April 25th.  We did not sit together and have not discussed our feelings about the show up until this point.  My training and expertise skews to the theater side of things.  Alexander has a wealth of dance experience.  Prior to viewing, we committed ourselves to adhere to a response structure in which I would argue that the piece was theater and Alexander would argue that the piece was dance, and we’d see how quickly that approach got bogged down with the hope (expectation?) that we’d then find a new way of looking.  The approach, admittedly, is a bit disingenuous in that we both know that we’re unlikely to look at complex performance pieces wholly through either a theater or dance lens, but – here we go anyway.

This was clearly a piece of theater that utilized movement, text, and mixed media to dramatize the internal (of the mind) experience of a dying man as he went on his journey towards death, assisted by a team of semi-abstracted Hospice-type workers and by David himself, who was both himself and his father?  Right?  I mean, there were characters.  Everyone had a name!

Alexander: Here we go indeed! I’d like to insert quickly that we also both have prior experiences with and relationships to David’s work – you know, in the interest of full disclosure and contextualizing our experiences and observations.

Yes, it is true that there were characters and that the characters had names, and it is also true that there were scripts included in the press kits we were handed before the show, but I don’t know that these facts preclude the piece being a work of dance or movement. There’s a long history of narrative dance works including, most glaringly in the Western European dance tradition, ballet, as well as Native American story dances, Kabuki dances in Japan, and many, many others. I mean, the entire piece began and ended with movement, and not theatrical or representational movement, but abstract movement. And since at least the sixties in New York text has featured prominently in many important dance works. It’s one of the hallmarks of post-modernism, really. Is there a similar history in theater of integrating movement as an essential aspect of the storytelling or general aesthetic?

Dan:  There used to be – Shakespeare-era plays would sometimes be book-ended with a courtly dance and song, but the dance wasn’t performing any necessary function; it was more a little prologue, an opening act prior to the play itself.  Then, at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy (King Lear, perhaps!  More on this later), the dead people would get up and dance.  But this was also considered to be ‘outside’ the performance.  The audience presumably did not infer that Shakespeare’s world view included postmortem dancing as actual reality.  Even now, the more experimentally minded playwrights I know don’t tend to build in moments of dance unless it’s at least tenuously ‘something the character might do.’  (We must believe they have a reason to be dancing.)

Also, I was reading the Advanced Beginner Group’s mission statement on the train after the show and noticed that it ends with, “We actively attempt to create experiences that are difficult to describe.”  So, we’re already doing a good job of that.

Can you dig into the way you experienced the show?  I was really intrigued that it started with a fairly lengthy (as you put it) abstract movement sequence which was then followed by very presentational introductions by the supporting characters (the excellent Tei Blow as sound guy and performer, the energetic John Gasper as performer and referred to as ‘rookie,’ and always present Jennifer Kidwell, performer also).  And then, here comes David, decked out in what I read to be a faintly humorous version of Kabuki gear.  What were you expecting in that moment? Because depending on how you were watching it (and we’d been given enough information to be watching either as dance or theater at this point), I posit you’d have a different set of expectations in terms of what might come next.

Alexander: Hmm, sure yes. Well, having spent a good deal of time deep in the bowels of post-modernism myself, the interjection of Tei’s voice didn’t come as a complete surprise – or, at the very least, it didn’t exist outside of the realm of what I was willing to accept as possible within the confines of a movement based work. I also know Tei from his work with Big Dance Theater and his own theater/sound/media duo the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble so I am also used to him transitioning fluidly between the roles of mover, speaker, musician. But certainly it was a moment that disrupted what had come immediately prior – just shredded the fabric of the preceding dance phrase, really. It was an overturned table moment, for sure. But one of the things I find really compelling about David’s work is how fluidly he navigates these sometimes extreme transitions. It was a moment of disruption, but it was a disruption that I didn’t question. Hard to say how much of this is David’s directorial virtuosity and how much of it is my own familiarity with stepping into and out of pretty different worlds with some frequency, but in any case I don’t know that I would have actually thought about it in this way without being specifically asked about it. So thank you for that.

I’ve seen some devised theater and some physical theater that also plays with those boundaries between movement and text-based theater – Dan Safer’s Witness Relocation comes to mind immediately, as well as Ann Bogart’s SITI Company, and, of course, the aforementioned Big Dance Theater. But another interesting thing about David is he comes from this totally intermingled lineage – born to parents who co-founded Mabou Mines, the experimental theater company, but went to SUNY Purchase for dance and went on to dance for a number of acclaimed dance companies including, and this was news to me, Willi Ninja the acclaimed voguer, before founding his own. So he has feet planted pretty solidly in each world.

I don’t know – did you have a drastically different experience? Did you find the moments of transitioning between Acting, capital A, and Dancing, capital D, to be notable and/or jarring?

Dan:  As much as I am also invigorated by many of the same artists as you list above, I have to admit that I usually pick a way of watching and try to stick with it.  As someone who uses text as my primary tool, I’ve developed a theory that much of the ‘engagement/entertainment’ value that can be derived from a play (that is, a piece of performance that primarily uses text to tell a story) comes as a result of the gap between expectation (what the audience expects will happen next) and what actually happens next.  This is also how you tell a joke.  Set-up followed by surprising (let’s hope funny, if you’re a comedian) punchline.  The audience however must be a bit seduced into watching a play in this way; they are compelled to lean in and to invest in the outcome by creating their own set of constantly changing (line by line) expectations only if the form remains clear enough that it may be identified.  If you have no idea what that line of text meant, it becomes harder to then take pleasure in ‘what comes next.’

Which I think is why I was curious to find out if you were able to experience this piece in that way.  I was!  I think David’s big costumed entrance played sort of as a joke, wherein the introductions that had preceded it acted as set-up (for our ‘artist of distinction’) and then here he comes only to strike a pose, stopping just short of ‘dance,’ and then he suddenly becomes the subject of the piece – an exploration and re-enactment of a transformative final journey, told both from the perspective of the person who is dying, and also by those who are helping him along.  In this way, all the dance that followed could be interpreted as a sort of abstract expression of this journey. (I was helped to view it in this way by the line that is repeated at the top of many of the group movement sequences, as spoken by David: “I’m going on an outing…will you join me?”) This is to say, I was generally able to invest in the movement in the same way as I would usually invest in text, and it was because I was able to identify and place the ‘meaning’ of the movement and position it within the larger narrative that I was able to do so.

And so, usually I don’t feel compelled to do this with dance performances, especially those without text.  It’s a totally different way of watching, in which text disrupts your focus on The Movement.  Sometimes I get bored.  Which is why, I guess, I’m drawn to the more hybrid work?  How does (if one might be so bold to ask) one watch dance?  When you’re creating a dance piece, how do you structure it in such a way that it engages an audience?

Alexander: Lol. Dan you’ve hit upon a question that I’m pretty sure the dance community would love to know the answer to.

I’m interested in this theory of expectation and actual occurrences that you’ve developed, primarily because I don’t know that I have a systemic way of watching anything. I think, anyway, that I generally try to feel out where the work is coming from and meet it where it’s at. So if I’m watching a meditative dance work with few dynamic changes I’ll sit inside that world for a little while and see what it feels like to live there. And if I’m watching a rigorously athletic work I’ll allow myself the awe and excitement of watching the human body do extraordinary things. And watching I Understand Everything Better, a work that doesn’t want to live comfortably in any one category, I think I just allowed for the coexistence of all of these things and went along for the ride. Which is partly due to David’s craftsmanship, and partly due to the fact that, as a generally analytical and hyper rational person, viewership is one of the few places that I can experience intuitively.

But to answer the question you pose above, I’ve seen a number of different approaches to structuring dance work. Some turn to formal devices like repetition (which was, as you note above, a feature in this work both with text and movement) – another more recent trend is pulling material from more entertainment driven modes (vogueing references are popping up pretty frequently in work and I love it) and pulling it apart, investigating and deconstructing it. So you’ll have this pretty abstract performance that’s often accompanied by pop music and sometimes lipstick and flashing lights and it’s this mash up of familiar and unfamiliar and I think it’s amazing. But I think there’s a lot of people out there using more traditionally theatrical devices to frame their movement – text, costumes, and characters included.

What’s interesting to me about David’s work in general, and I Understand Everything Better in particular, is that it doesn’t really feel like one thing inside of the other – when he does theater he charges boldly into theatrical territory and when he does dance he charges boldly into dance territory and oftentimes they’re both happening concurrently and inseparably. That is, it’s not that the text is providing a backdrop for the movement or that the movement is illustrating what the text is saying, it’s this other thing altogether. Which gets us to what you said at the outset of this whole experiment which is that it feels disingenuous to even attempt to parse out the dance/movement aspects of David’s work – though I think the questions you’re asking are really important (in particular this issue of finding dance, at times, to be boring, and of not being able to find a context or container for movement) and it’s been super informative to hear your thoughts about text, humor, and expectations.

And that actually seems to be a way that the script functions here; it provides a framework or an architecture in which all of these different elements – movement, sound, metaphor, Shakespeare references, autobiography, stylistic and aesthetic nods to David’s Noh training – can live in. It gives a shape or a form or an organizing principle that allows all of these otherwise unrelated things to co-exist. Am I capitulating? I don’t know.

I remember a friend of mine in college who had spent a significant amount of time studying folk singing traditions in different parts of the world telling me about a language in South Africa that doesn’t have different words for singing and dancing. It’s literally impossible to linguistically distinguish between the two, to imagine one without the other. The story may be apocryphal, but the idea of it feels important and related to this work. Could the text exist without the movement? Sure, but it would be a totally different thing and vice versa. I don’t know if that strikes a chord for you at all.

Dan:  Thank you for humoring me.  I agree that this is the point at which we abandon our singular approach to the work and embrace the complexity and (I’m glad you used this word before) craft.  I don’t think this particular script can exist without the movement, and it’s a great credit to the playwright (Sibyl Kempson) that each utterance is both specific to the performance and also constantly enhances and complicates the world.  As much as I’d like to be able to break the work into pieces and understand how it all functions (i.e., this part is theater, this part is dance, here’s the transition that links them together), I suspect the most honest way to approach this piece is to say, “It all worked.”  Each component was placed specifically and with rigor.  A moment that I mentioned earlier and wish to return to now occurs late in the piece; after David has established multiple sources for voices (his own, that of the dying man, and a meteorologist) and effectively blended them together so that no one voice seems constant, he wraps himself in a sheet and ascends a platform at the back of the theater.  It’s covered in paper and plastic, if I recall correctly, and it’s been there the whole show and just seemed like a structural element, but once David is upon the raised structure our brains somehow turn it into a mountain-top.  The light changes.  He is handed a branch, at the end of which is a microphone.  He begins to speak as King Lear.  There is sound underneath, bubbling and then growing.  The Lear text devolves into something weirder and stranger, the echo on the mic is turned way up and so it all becomes reverb, noise, a man at the top of a mountain yelling out into a storm.  It’s a deeply beautiful moment (in a show that’s already full of memorable flashes of insight) and there’s really no way that I could have said to myself, “You know, I liked the Lear part but I wish it would have happened earlier.”  There was no way to anticipate it, but once it started happening it felt inevitable.  It felt… right.  

And the opposite feeling, which I didn’t experience during this show but have during so many others that similarly stretch our boundaries with complex ingredients, the ‘this feels wrong’ feeling…  The feeling that something has been placed incorrectly, or that somehow your trust in the performance has been manipulated or misused in some way.  Do you know this feeling?  Is it only intuition that allows us (both as audience members and creators) to determine what feels right and wrong at any given moment?  This feeling of intuitively liking (or disliking) something, but being unable to articulate precisely why, is something I’m working to get better at – my personal journey to acceptance that it’s okay to feel deeply without knowing how or why you are feeling that way.

Alexander: I got goosebumps just now. Yes to everything you said above. Yes to complexity and yes to craft and yes to rigor and yes to feeling deeply. This reminds me of a section in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the author embarks on an inquiry into Quality – this question of what is good and how we decide that something is or isn’t that thing that we call good-ness. And we try to come up with criteria all the time – there’s a whole area of study in academia that attempts to understand and articulate those criteria called Aesthetics – but there inevitably emerges something that challenges or breaks those criteria. And maybe we can speak to specific aspects of a thing that were good, but in the end it’s about exactly what you said: it just feels… right. And I have definitely felt that other thing, the not right thing. And, you know, I think it’s useful to experience that other thing, even if it results in boredom or frustration, because it helps to define and clarify that feeling of rightness. Andrew Simonet, who co-founded Headlong Dance Theater in Philly and runs Artists U, likes to talk about art as research, as the formulation and testing of a hypothesis. And sometimes that hypothesis fails, but it gives us information, and maybe the result of that inquiry catalyzes an entirely different inquiry and a “failed” work of art inspires or influences a “great” work of art (whatever those terms mean in this context), but it all exists in an ecosystem and everything is related and connected and vitally important for the continued existence of the whole. And I like this analogy, but I also think that what I love about art is that it isn’t always clear, that it has this un-nameable mystical component that maybe is related to ecstasy or euphoria, the rightness that feels so good. So whatever the reason, be it craft or rigor or magic, I am interested in this world that David creates, interested in its refusal to be categorized, interested in its confounding of our expectations of what it is or should be, and interested in the feeling it evokes in me that this thing that is taking place in front of my eyes, this thing that is being performed and lived in by these living, breathing, sweating human beings, these moments in time that are steeped in referentiality and deep inquiry and inspiration, that all of this is somehow just… right.


Alexander Leslie Thompson is a creative consultant, community builder, and cultural organizer. Trained as a musician, he stumbled upon dance at Bard College, where he fell in love with movement in all its myriad forms. He has performed in works by Bill T. Jones, Amii LeGendre, Alex Springer + Xan Burley, Olase Freeman, Kevin Ho and Ching-I Chang, and Mercedes Searer, and has been a guest artist at a+s works On the Farm festival. He is the Manager of Communications and Community for Abraham.In.Motion, the Chair of the Dance/NYC Junior Committee, and does freelance consulting, management, producing, and design work for dance artists. You can find him on Twitter at @lexanderthomp or on the internet at www.alexanderlesliethompson.com

Dan O’Neil is a playwright & text designer. He grew up on a small farm in northwestern Minnesota, where he learned to drive a tractor, use a chainsaw, and identify various star constellations. He lives in Harlem. www.danoneil.org

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