Notes and Odes: MR Spring Fest & Vanessa Anspaugh

Monday, June 6. It’s the final Monday night of Movement Research at Judson Church for the season. It’s also the opening night of MR’s Spring Festival Hand Written Notes. Curated by Aretha Aoki, Elliott Jenetopulos, Eleanor Smith and Tara Aisha Willis, the week’s events are focused on healing, self-care and the actions in the margins. The scribbles and undercurrents that feed lasting actions. I include bits of writing from last week, but can feel my entire recollecting of sentiments from that past as already ripped and stained by the violence and hatred gripping our lives in the daily blasts of various media streams in the wake of the shooting at Pulse.  To have found affirming spaces, queer and queered spaces, colored and conscious spaces. To have believed in, as the curators state, attending to history so as to effect lasting action. To have inhabited the “power through tenderness” in a mandate for indominance set forth from the festival. To have witnessed and participated and been changed by the work of the week. To find the “utterance or growl” that will puncture convention and allow us to grieve, to heal and to act. For these things, I am grateful. There is work to be done.

Lily Bo Shapiro and Randy Reyes start “The Present Place: An Improvisation for Lasting Action.” Alex Escalante’s children sit on the floor close to my feet and the smaller one’s “ha ha” sets a tone of delight, with honest and genuine interest in the unfolding improvisational scores. She laughs and Randy smiles. We’re all here…now. Anna Adams Stark and Marguerite Hemmings enter like scouts. Stopping behind a seated audience member to assess the environs. Marguerite dances at/with composer Julia Santoli taking us out of the postmodern void and into a momentary expository dialogue of dancer and musician. The little sisters on the floor are snuggling as Marguerite’s head rests into Anna’s lap. Justin Cabrillos slices through the space in a skipping run and I wonder about how each performer gauges their joining, the tone of entering, the on-stage/off-stage energy shift as Anna Carapetyan and Ayano Elson arrive into the space. Julia’s soundscape has taken on a cooing quality and I start to ponder the framing ideas of healing and self care, and how those intersect with ‘being versus doing.’ Justin keeps a tone of play. A light skip and a bit of a casual seeking out of engagement. The energy signatures feel preciously wrought, the lines of connection are gentle. I draw corollaries from action to action, fancy upon relationships, constructing ties among the bodies in and out of the stage space. I wonder at the level of attending each participant is engaging to the present place to the moment. What is the resting state for each artist inside the light? Sarah Maxfield is sitting cross-legged and surveying the space with her eyes. Beer caps pop and jingle behind us. BASHIR DAVIID NAIM buries their head in her lap, spreads their legs in her face. Bold choices, sonic thrum, physical contact in the lap of the audience. Being. Doing. Performing. Researching. Experimenting. Seeking or Holding Space. Many other efforts. Sarah pulls out a tit and wags her feet. I watch big sister wander through a forest of legs to find her dad and baby sis.  No artifice. No construction. Simple directive. Find dad. Michael Mahalchick and Marissa Perel find each other. A ritual follows. Why ritual? Pace, duration or intention? Why call it that? Action occurs. In articulating, I name the action, define it and in describing, confined it to solemnity despite the bits of whimsy inside their exchange. All the artists found each other and action followed. Perhaps with religious significance, perhaps not. The real ritual was our gathering. Our watching. Sacred attention. Bear witness.

Another ritual, the long goodbye. Levi Gonzalez is leaving MR, leaving NYC.  The curators thank him for years of support and down the stairs file Juliette Mapp, Donna Uchizono, luciana achugar, Kayvon Pourazar and Natalie Green. They wrap him in a blanket and each of them dance for him and then the entire group dances with him. Friends. Red eyes. Some sobs. In service of an artist who as been in service to so much art and to so many artists. In the margins of this evening there has been a constant hum of us, attending and attending. Being present to the unfolding. Levi has been such a pervasive presence. What will his absence feel like. What is a safe space? One where pain is open? Loss. How deeply will this cut to our community be? Will Levi’s departure leave a wound or a scar? The dances were so lovely and the tears were so true. A toast. A toast.

Thursday, June 9. Anxious. Tired. Weary. Wary. The last words in my notebook prior to Ni’Ja Whitson’s Being A Body Out Loud: Trans-Indigenous and Political Practices for Artists and Activists Seeking Radical Moves in Their Work, Art, Lives workshop at La Mama’s Great Jones studios during the Healing Action day of the Festival. Ni’Ja had been a colleague in the Hunter College Dance Program. I am present because I want to be in a space with them. And, because I told Aretha I’d be writing. So, despite overwhelming fear-based inertia, I have brought myself to attend. After announcing names and preferred gender pronouns, answer to why: What did you move through in order to say “Yes.” The perfect question. I moved my body to get through my brain. Despite many mental forms of resistance my body had kept moving through space to simply show up. Too often just showing up has been the best or most we can do, but after this workshop and mayfield brooks’ Rupture: Improvising in the Break, I was renewed and mobilized, as well as joyfully ripe with nausea and a headache. Cellularly and spiritually changed indeed.  Getting there included moving through fear and history and opening up as to ancestors with Ni’Ja. And, after mayfield led us through substantial destabilizing to get off center and an uproarious session of glossolalia and belly laughing, I eventually dropped anchor and found myself steeped in connections and a community I hadn’t been able to express an overwhelming desire for.

Ni’Ja’s work serves as a conduit to action. In service of hosting the histories and complexities of both warrior and healer, they engaged exercises from resistance-based physical practices and creative cosmologies to move beyond sorrow, rage, grief and, for me, inaction. In a variation of Deidre Sklar’s 5th premise, there are things only the body knows and once the body can find itself activated, the spirit can find its power. I arrived weary and wary, would have called myself weakened and worn down from extensive engagement in the very specific hierarchies and oppressions of public higher education in NYC. But, after the group circled and rocked and rubbed and crawled and sweated, I found deep in the body my pelvic floor and from that floor, my voice. And, from that voice, my loud.  And, from my loud, action.  In vocally getting loud, I realized that my earlier inclination for quiet had been from a need to protect the self.  So, for me, I couldn’t know what I know or remember what I knew until my body could remember that it knew how to act. A fellow attendee pointed out that it wasn’t just physical practice that activated the power centers, but intention. With that final ingredient, I realized there is still much work to be done, to be loud for those who are not listened to. And, to remember, that the quiet is good when it is practiced with an intention to observe, but not hide, and the loud is required when my intention is to serve.

mayfield’s work on Improvising While Black informed the later afternoon workshop, though it was only mentioned briefly in the beginning and at the end. We were asked to share with the group something that we really, really wanted. Some wanted ginger tea. Someone wanted real healing. I wanted clarity. We were also asked to share with a partner what it was we hoped to rupture or disrupt. In the moment, I expressed that I wanted to disrupt my behaviors of obligation (perhaps, obedience) of behaving responsibly and appropriately. My partner didn’t have a word for it, but “white female performance art” collected some of the ideas and systems, ze were negotiating with. After lengthening, condensing and releasing our heads with our partners, we spent a lot of time letting our heads guide us in and out of the space. We’d cross the floor or circle in and out and sometimes rupture the improvisation of another by connecting with their hips and following the rotation of their hips or redirecting it ourselves. We built up tremors in the body, faced each other, began speaking in tongues and found ourselves in rousing bouts of laughter. There was a regular stream of bodies laying on the resting place mats in the corner and some of us gathered bits of our work into short “rupturings” that we shared. I shook and gurlged and kept my head off center and spun and teetered til I dropped and found in the pocket of sunlight my answer. In the bright, I found the clear. When the group gathered and shared last thoughts, my first partner spoke of the power of improvising in a room filled with people of color. I welled up and realized, I had not gotten as loud as I’d thought after Ni’Ja’s workshop, because I hadn’t even dared to express that want so explicitly to myself or the group. But, thanks to the festival’s curators, the safe and supportive space that Ni’Ja and mayfield established and the strong and present work of my fellow participants, I found myself well.

Days later though, I must quote Ni’Ja’s words on Facebook as I too “am holding both love and rage real, real close. Both keep me fiercely present to the fact that outdated and irresponsible gun laws combined with a societal culture of hate is the conversation. Not Islam. Hate is hate’s teacher. Islamophobia does not heal anti-gay violence. My attention, my heart is on the heavy loss.” The symbiosis of healer and warrior becomes evident. It is not enough to seek personal wellness, better work must be done for all, whether through indominance or ruptures. We are going to need to find our way to fierce love, to ferocious compassion and to right action.

Thursday, June 9, later. Sitting onstage in Abrons Art Center at Henry St. Settlement. A historic building and personal site. Several years ago Vanessa Anspaugh, Aretha Aoki and I sat onstage, behind the closed curtain for Miguel Gutierrez’s Everyone. Now, I’m sitting next to a very pregnant Aretha, watching Vanessa hold her new son, Ocean, as her work The End of Men; An Ode to Ocean prepares to unfold. Once upon a time, I spent so much time in their company, I couldn’t imagine a creative life without their input and perspectives. Perhaps, the last real (break-ups and breakdowns and late-night, kitchen-table, bourbon-fueled art talk) friends I made before significant acquaintanceships became the relationship de rigueur, but grad school ended and, suddenly, it was years between shared space and time.


Photo by Ian Douglas

We enter walking past Vanessa, cradling Ocean in her arms, while a bevy of beautiful boys (some with their penises dangling) lounge on the stage. This may be a feminist work constructed by a lesbian choreographer who, according to her interview with Lydia, has never needed much from a man, but she’s not oblivious to the aesthetically endowed cast she’s gathered. Lovely as they are, and yeah I am consciously objectifying them, it turns out they have nice personalities too. Or, at least, nice stage personalities. Massimiliana Balduzzi, Lacina Coulibaly, Tristan Koepke, Gilbert Reyes, Simon Thomas-Train, and Jesse Zarritt are each genuinely appealing in their various individualities. In their capacity to represent some aspect of their individuality the work becomes a humanistic effort. In some sense, all I’ve wanted from feminism, from womanism, from multiculturalism, or pluralism and diversity initiatives, or (call-it-by-its-true-name) anti-racism efforts was to have my individual humanity and that of my fellow members of the marginalized communities to be seen as profoundly different from mainstream representations. To be more than a demographic or a stereotype. To see ourselves as capable of any out of every possible pathway through life. My 12-year daughter redefined feminism for me to include cis men. She has pointed out that her brother is as enclosed in expected behaviors as she is.  So, I watched this work as a mother to a son and was moved to tears and delighted into laughing out loud at the unfolding antics.

Photo by Ian Douglas

Lacina Coulibaly cradled by Tristan Koepke, Gilbert Reyes, and Jesse Zarritt. Photo by Ian Douglas.

After dressing one another, an act familiar to many a caregiver, the group went through a series of cradled lifts amidst the dangling lights of Kathy Couch’s evocative design. Thomas-Train (a PBS parental throwback name, if there ever was one) was the first to be lifted and the effect was stunning. I felt stopped and held in time as he was lifted so carefully and looked out with eyes so open and observant. There was a quiet in the way he allowed himself to be held that I’ve only encountered when holding an infant, that magic moment when the squirming, crying mass settles and stares. Calms the entire storm of life and receives. It isn’t the rest of sleep, but the acceptance of embrace. I imagined it could/must be a therapeutic exercise both for the holders and the held. Not in a contact improv-y give-your-weight way, but in a physicalized kindness that few of us experience beyond our earliest months and that men, especially, are rarely in receipt of.  Even lovers do not hold, cannot hold us, as such. It took a team of 5 to effect the ease of cradle and the gentle laying down to rest for Thomas-Train who maintained that very specific kind of stillness of body and openness of gaze that worked as a kind of historic reset to adult male role play. As other members of the group where held, by decreasing numbers of cradlers, the labor increased. But, at first, yeah, men are babies.


Photo by Ian Douglas

Later when they they’re in an extended sequence of wild aggressions and lifts, there’s a trying on of another kind of experience.  It’s a compositionally stunning feat of organized chaos that hints at testosterone flushed systems and resulting behaviors.  It allowed the performers to inhabit various energy states in compelling and virtuosic efforts. The sound design by Ryan MacDonald brought Sacred Harp Choir sources into a rousing, exhaustive sonic landscape full of persistent surges and ecstatic release.  While heartened by an expansive vision of maleness, the constant reminders that mass killers are predominantly cis men, the anti-queer queries about the Pulse shooter’s closeted hatred of seeing men kissing, and the predominantly hateful rhetoric in the presidential campaigns are only a few of the assaulting signposts that the real end of men is rending the world. We will need the fierce kindness of the opening stophe of this ode to bring the healers alongside the warriors and compassion instead of conquest into our dominant ideology.


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