Walter Dundervill’s ARENA @ JACK

Photo by Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova


This is Walter Dundervill’s ARENA

(This is writing about dance.)

As an artist myself, I consider writing to be one of several modes of my artistic habit, which includes being a dancer, choreographing dances, watching dance and performance, thinking and reading about art, having conversations about all of it, and working to stay engaged. I am new to Culturebot and new-ish to New York, so my viewership context here is far from established.

One criticism of dance writing that often comes up with my artist-friends is that a writer simply describes what happens in the work without further critical investigation. Another Culturebot writer (and new friend) Marissa Perel, in her manifesto I Want/I Vomit, says ‘I vomit on descriptive language.’

Is it worth anything to simply translate performance into words and indulge pages and pages in the minutiae of description? Are these details superfluous when compared with the potentially more succinct essence of the work?

All this was on my mind prior to seeing Walter Dundervill’s dance/installation ARENA at JACK performance space in Brooklyn last Saturday.

(This is description.)

The space is filled with piles of fabric, garments in mid-construction. Squares of coloured Perspex are waiting in one corner; coloured ribbons are coiled and stacked neatly in another. Aluminium hangs in sheets down walls and stairs. In one corner, a muslin backdrop, edged with blue silk ribbon, drapes down a wall and covers the dance floor. A designers’ DIY workshop.

The performers are in repose – from standing to various states of recline. Conscious of being gazed at, their expressions are focused, woozy, expectant, seductive, aloof. Athena Malloy and Omagbitse Omagbemi are framed by the backdrop, as if ready for an old-fashioned photo-shoot. Tyler Ashley and Niall Jones take turns sitting in a chair atop the seating bank stairs, throning the ordinary seat with their countenance. Benjamin Asriel and Jennifer Kjos are almost hidden on the corner stairs, while Kevin Lovelady is splayed on the floor, completely disguised under bogeyman-ish felt coveralls and hood.

These are Walter Dundervill’s models, dressed in whites and crèmes, and he will spend the next three hours dressing, undressing, adorning, accessorizing, and styling them.

Walter Dundervill is already at work as we enter. His brow is furrowed, pins in back pocket or held between teeth. He is fixing a muslin skirt over a female performer’s bustle. He secures gray Louis XIV-style wigs to his dancer-model’s heads. He threads a ribbon – blue against the beige palette – around a waist, gathering and bunching more fabric as he goes, changing the forms of these garments. He calculates each decision as he works. This is of the utmost importance.

There’s something about the desire to dress and style that goes hand-in-hand with male homosexuality. That may be a stereotype – as is the gay man’s affiliation with dance and choreography – but I’m interested in why these stereotypes are attractive to gay men. Walter is an artist and he identifies as gay. In ARENA he is both dance-maker and designer (as well as DJ – his self-made disco mash-up is another element of his design). As a gay man myself, I felt a close affinity for his fervent activity over the three-hour performance.

I should say that this intersection of sexuality and aesthetics is not necessarily Walter’s preoccupation, but my own. I do feel that ARENA is a great catalyst for this dialogue, whether intentional or not. So what is this synonymousness between homosexuality and draping fabrics all about?

(This is gay.)

David M. Halperin unpacks gay male cultural practices in his book How to be Gay, examining these stereotypes – like love for fashion and design – that are inextricably linked to ‘gayness’ despite having nothing to do with male-to-male sex. In brief, he suggests that many gay men have no immediate outlet for their homosexual desires as they discover them, in childhood, and this manifests a deferral of their desire to internalised expression and yearning, which may also find external expression through sensualising objects.

Halperin names this ‘queer desire’, although he is still speaking specifically about gay male experience. These desires – that manifest as desire for transformation, reversal of gender roles, and aesthetic beauty – do create social cultures that celebrate such desires. But Halperin suggests that these desires are actually counter-productive to the fulfillment of gay sexual desire, because they are a solitary enjoyment, anti-social, sometimes melancholic.

All of these desires find an outlet in the act of dressing; the transformative possibilities, the borrowing of traditionally ‘feminine’ activities, the internal aesthetic processing, the sensualising of objects.

What complicates this in ARENA is the fact that this is a choreography, a social activity, not a solitary one, both between the artists and between their audiences.

(This is choreography.)

The first break of the still-life-ing comes from Ben Asriel, who is seated, gesturing his arms above his head, fingers pointed, moving like some air-traffic control disco dancer. As the performers juicily step and shift into the central performance ‘arena’, facing each other across diagonals and meeting eyes for the first time, the dance slowly emerges. The space churns with their slow-burning desire to meld – the dancers thickly squeezing into each other, into fabrics, into themselves, holding each others’ arms, stepping over and laying on top of those laying on the floor, ballet and tableau gently suggested. They remain driven by their own individual impulses. This could be improvised…

Transparent Perspex boxes are introduced – the first unmalleable textile surface – and the dancers proceed to squeeze against these as well. One giant zhuzhing of a sleeve, a cool orgiastic ruffling of space. A finding and refinding of the pleasure in materiality. Surfaces are sexy.

Walter continues to work – wrapping bodies together with more ribbon, ripping character heels from the dancers stockinged feet – the composed space melts to make way for group desire. Design becomes fluid, impossible to credit one hand with its endless unfolding. Something more Utopic is at play, pleasure and sensation the guiding aesthetic principles.

(This is moving design.)

A designer (choreographer, artist, decorator) scrutinizes and agonizes over the tiniest of details. In Da Vinci’s words “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” One could keep one’s mind occupied forever attending to and tinkering with the details of a creation. Walter’s brow is furrowed. I imagine many designers/artists prefer their work to remain static, with their own hand controlling all adjustments.

As Walter hastily drapes a piece of sheer fabric across a dancer’s front, securing it with a ribbon tied around the neck, the performer surges away, preoccupied with their equally-absorbing task of participating in the dance. Walter pulls the final bow just before the ribbons slip fast from his fingers. Walter loses no time moving on, as his latest flourish joins the fray, undoing its form just as quickly as Walter had reassembled it.

(This is ornament.)

Ornamentation as art is often viewed through skeptical eyes, thanks in large part to Modernism. To make the point quickly, we can look to Modernist architect Adolf Loos, in his lecture titled Ornament and Crime, where he claims, “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament… Lack of ornament is a sign of intellectual power.”

Perhaps descriptive language is a victim of this criminalization of ornament; that succinct and purposeful writing is more indicative of “intellectual power.” Power may be gained through minimalism, but something else valuable is surely lost.

The tying of a bow or fluffing of a collar are acts of ornamentation, sometimes called frivolous, shallow, or indulgent. Interestingly these terms are often used in relation to modes of gay cultural practices, yet in that context the words need not be intended negatively.

Indulgence, frivolity, and maximalism are attractive in a gay cultural landscape. Which is perhaps why two of history’s most ostentatious design periods – the French Baroque of Louis XIV and the shoulder-padded hedonism of the 80’s – are routinely re-imagined and celebrated in queer art; Pierre et Gilles have done, and Walter is now doing.

After white comes colour. Fabrics in pastel pink and gold lamé, bright orange halter-tops, floral print in neon blues and greens. The 80’s are deep in Walter’s history, as his self-made music mash-up also demonstrates. The overload queers the decorative. The dancers pull against each other, heated-yet-cool, gathering and pulling apart the fabric at first treated so reverently.

The floor clears and Walter lays down a large sheet of yellow silk, covering the floor. He takes more ribbon and rolls it out against the yellow silk; salmony-pink, hot pink, pastel-pink… Walter knows exactly how to clash. He methodically crosshatches his new floor with a kaleidoscopic grid pattern. Try as he might to keep his composition where he lays it, the fabric has a life of it’s own. This floor is made for messing up.

The dancers lie on this new floor, connected via their limbs, and begin to slowly writhe. Walter, taking a large piece of charcoal gray fabric equal in size to the yellow floor silk, shrouds the dancers in this largest of bed sheets. Covering their bodily experience, but not censoring it, their writhing becomes part of the texture of this new gray fabric. Color, form, texture, sex.

(This is desire.)

Not only is Walter’s task intensely thoughtful, it is sensual. Each fabric, texture, color has it’s own sensorial experience, and Walter is capable of a deep symbiosis with each material; how it should be handled, how the weight of it will fall, when color should pop and when it should blend in. He is intimate with his objects.

Are these performers his objects as well? They are a part of his object/design space and he has directed them as well as now dressing them. However, they too have their own individual sensorial experience and their own autonomy within the frame, which complicates the design.

Walter has just placed a headpiece on performer Niall Jones, completely obscuring Niall’s vision with a white circular canvas ‘head’, bearing an occult-ish rainbow pentagram. Niall has a ribbon caught around his ankles. Niall continues his dance, turning and stepping around the ribbon that he can’t see, playing with it, continuing despite it, problematizing his own dance and making the problem his own point of interest, his own solitary pursuit.

(This is being watched.)

No one is pointing at this moment, it’s maybe not even part of the director’s vision, and maybe no one else is watching. But I home in and find my own pleasure in it, my own solitary pursuit. If the artist’s job is to attend to the details, why should the role of observing be any different? Especially when the artist presents himself at work?

The palette formalises; Walter shrouds the performers in sheer ombré fabrics. Black fades to green, pink fades to yellow. With this formality of design comes formality of movement. The performers work in unison with several repeated actions: leaping side to side and turning 180 degrees, a swinging rhythm in their synchronous jumps; marching forward and backward, head haltingly bowing to front knee as it lifts up; simply walking through space, matching the rhythms made by the other repetitions. As they deftly negotiate their pathways in space – the bodies now less heated with individual desire – the measured activity horizontalizes the surface of play. The mapping of the floor through spatial pathways finds a cooler surface; from skin on skin to figures across floor.

(This is language.)

Flowery, masturbatory, self-indulgent; these are words to describe descriptive writing. I’m loving it, though, indulging in all this vocabulary and luxuriating in phrases, writhing around in the sensuousness of words, and attempting to capture as much detail as possible. Half the pleasure is in knowing that it might offend to be so embellished. Does that make descriptive language gay?

(This is ending.)

After present comes future. And the future drips with silver. The performers resume their initial mode of posing for Walter, their dance finished, and Walter begins to adorn them with aluminium sculptural garb; an armoured tunic here, a hero’s cape there. These fantastical friezes are again Utopic, but now a still-life of futurism, all urging needs subsided from these performers. The centrepiece: a bunch-of-grapes-like amalgam of mirror-balls, atop a mirrored surface ‘coffee table’. Need I say, about design and gay…

Walter lets his final image linger, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait. No heraldic finale, no suspension of disbelief, just these people and their objects, letting time relax after so much work.

While it may appear superficial when seen for its surfaces, Walter’s relationship to his design is deep, even spiritual. Walter doesn’t credit himself as choreographer for ARENA (installation, costumes, and sound are his purview), but this is a piece of dance, one that allows the design space to be governed by the sensorial, the sensual, and the sociality of group desire. Walter’s reverence to his material acknowledges a playfulness while simultaneously remaining completely committed; his pursuit is both an accomplishment and a defeat, and that is a specifically queer act.

I hear a voiceover in the soundtrack say “entire religions have been based on our objects.”

(This is gospel.)

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