Thunder and Miscellaneous Thoughts

5 or 6 years old and I am dressed up as a “rain spirit” with strips of silver foil cheaply taped to some black clothes that I brought from home, and I run through the church hall making Terpsichorian poses and clapping “rhythm sticks” together with the other children, dancing my first dance for bemused and bored parents. I take this very seriously.

Over twenty years later and I come to watch others, now adults, performing things not too far removed. It can be shocking, the appearance of amateurishness; the community hall chairs; the camping blankets laid down when the chairs run out; the dancers walking out and standing, ready to show what’s been practiced; the cut of fabric that has been rudimentarily fashioned into a costume. The shock is at once embarrassing and affirming, to claim seriously this space that necessarily harks back to the child-like, however ridiculous it may appear to outsiders. That’s half the joy.

Brooklyn Studios for Dance (BKSD) has established residence in what was once a church’s gymnasium in Fort Greene. Repurposed holy rooms, like so many of New York’s dance spaces, the walls imbued with quiet reverence. You feel it when taking class at St. Marks or joining the pilgrimage to Judson every Monday night; a sacred participation. Please do not disturb the loving respectfulness.

Please take off your shoes.

Photo by Robert Altman

Photo by Robert Altman

Tonight is Tatyana Tenenbaum, premiering her new work, Thunder, “a simple theater of the singing body through its most essential mechanics – the breath, contraction and expansion of the diaphragm, and the propulsion of sonic resonance.”

Tatyana is seated on a prop-step, in that way that people sit when on stage but never in real life; legs wide, elbows on knees with a contemplative hunch. Story-telling pose.

Stories do not unfold in Thunder, but Tatyana plays with contexts, giving clues that might locate the abstraction of the voice – costumes changing repeatedly, monologues that almost introduce character – but always the information gets muddled. Sometimes these narrative (re)locations are mystifying and intriguing, other times they seem distractingly inconsequential.

She tells of a humbler time when people would share stories as they “travelled by covered wagon,” speaking with pauses in. Unexpec. Ted places. Giving weight to her. Words.

And she tells of how surprising it is to discover the body that belongs to the speaker; that a most commanding voice might belong to the body of a child.

The sound that emerges from these bodies, for the most part, is never far from the sound you expect. Tatyana herself is most able to shift from the lightest choral trill to the deepest guttural sound. You can read in her eyes, and the contortions of her face, the power that she can wield, belying her small frame. But rarely here is the voice distorted beyond recognition.

Attention is drawn to the source, the deep motor of the sound, the action of vibration – this is the focus of Tatyana’s greater vocalizing practice, where sound-making and bodily-moving motor each other.

The traversing voices create a sonic map between singers and listeners. Sometimes you can feel the sound, like a physical body in space, a solid apparition, it locates and penetrates. It rolls.

Still the voices more often than not resound in a harmonic niceness. I want to cry “Play these instruments! Let’s hear it all over up and down and loud and soft and beautiful and stupid.”

Why is scatting so unpopular?

So too do the bodies follow a gentle logic, with a movement language of calm falling, soft-jointed spiralling, arms reaching easily to feel the pleasure of an open space. (There is mention in the program of Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton, the patron saints of these dancing church halls.) If the action of sound is the seed of movement, why this strangely specific yet seemingly unexamined dancing body?

Do we perceive this hallowed and oft-repeated kind of movement – the softness of musculature, the attention closer to the center of the body, to the deeper places – more “authentic” or “truthful” or “pure” simply because of a very practical relation to our centers, to depth?

Laurel Snyder and Emily Moore almost disrupt the peace, their vocals in one instance more abrupt, forceful, insistently competitive between each other as they physically fight for firmer ground. When the ensuing fervour breaks out, it still simmers rather than erupts, is still underpinned with delicacy.

Tatyana certainly has an ear for musical composition. You can glimpse the minutiae of craft when the sound gets complex with overlaid rhythms, you can almost see the musical arrangement and notation. The “rigor,” as trending language would have it.

Marisa Clementi cries out “BEAUTY!”, still sung but it’s the money note, a rare moment of shattering the gentleness; the voice made bold, boisterous, dramatic, camp. “BEAUTY!” Just a hint of the tongue in the cheek.

Strange moments of theatricality: When two performers open a set of double doors for a third performer to exit, like attendants to a queen in some children’s play. When a vaudevillian trio brings to mind Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds dancing “Good Mornin’.” When everyone starts to skip and sing a broken line of song in rhythm with the choreography. It all gets very Von-Trapp as they each add their own individual flourishes to the tra-la-li-tra-la-li sound and skippidy-hoppidy dance. There’s delight in these moments.

Photo by Robert Altman

Photo by Robert Altman

In my notebook I find a question: “Are dance and cynicism compatible?” Is it a coincidence that “cynicism” sounds so much like “criticism?”

I have to learn how to love performance over again every time. I so want that love to be genuine. Sometimes the apparent ease of those that attend these church hall dances, proclaiming “Beauty, beauty!” with democratic devotion cloud me with positivity and I guilty crave dissent.

I am trying to imagine how to fall in love, over and over again. And how that love and dissent might be compatible.

2 thoughts on “Thunder and Miscellaneous Thoughts”

  1. Karol Connors says:

    Your writing has such rhythm, cadence, flow. Can language be a type of dance Rennie? Is writing another form of choreography?
    Are the different forms of writing (poetry, essays, scripts, etc) like different styles of dance? Each with a different style, purpose, audience, history.
    What is the difference between performance on a stage and performance on a page? Thanks for inspiring these questions. Making me wonder. Karol Connors

    1. Rennie McDougall says:

      Thanks for your response Karol, I have been thinking a lot about writing as performance as well, and how the reading experience can be a live one. Great to hear your ideas and questions. Rennie

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