Overlap, Intersections, and Emergence in Dance Performance

Photo: Brian Rogers

It is the evening after the presidential election, and Sam Kim is rehearsing with her dancers. When I walk into the Chocolate Factory, I find Tess Dworman, Amanda Hunt, and Katie Dean in medias res during a technical rehearsal. All the chairs are empty, except for the dancers’ stuff. It is cold in New York, and I see some jackets and scarves. Snacks and tupperware peek out from their bags. Tech rehearsals can be arduous, but this one seems to be going well. Sam’s lighting designer Madeline Best is in conversation with the choreographer about a transition from one aesthetic to another. Fluorescent lights that line the underbelly of two raised decks lining the stage jitter and buzz before they flash into life.

I take a seat at the far end of the space, but as their singular audience member I want to get closer. I watch Tess mark through a solo as Katie and Amanda shift their weight and pose as they stand on the wooden platforms. Though they wear full face masks, I experience the two dancers’ collective presence as if I can see their eyes staring down at me, in curiosity that alluded to freedom, but also confinement that suggested an invisible cage. I am in the middle of the long narrow space of the theatre, which is both longer and narrower than I remembered it. To toggle my attention from soloist (Tess) at eye level to the duo raised above, I have to physically move my head back and forth.

Today, in this space, everything is work. The pervasive post-election anxieties and the confusion of the outside world have no overt place in here, and it is a relief. Still, our socio-political reality lends an eeriness and an urgency to the space that amplifies the overall tone of Sam’s piece, which she titled Fear in Porcelain. As I watch the dancers rehearse for timing and spatial alignment, I imagine what this will feel like during the performance when there is an audience here to watch.

When I come back the next day to see the show, I accidentally sit in almost the same seat. I don’t mind it. It feels familiar, and as if this is where I belong. Next to me is a woman who is fully engrossed in the work. I hear her audibly processing the moments she finds most affecting and arresting as the piece unfolds, and again I do not mind. If anything, I appreciate it: to be reminded that I am a part of a community, that I am not witnessing alone.

The part of the dance that is the most arresting, and feels thoroughly explored, is the same solo I saw Tess marking with Sam’s guidance the day before. While yesterday Tess occupied the space, moving through it methodically for lighting cues, today she transforms it. Today I am hungry for meaning, which is a bit unusual for my performance-going tendencies. I can’t help but project onto Tess’s movement and various states of being the maelstrom of unfinished thought-feelings I have had over the past week, and I wonder whether others in the audience felt the same. I see her as a woken beast in the dead of winter. I see her as a beam of light streaming undeflected through a cave. I see her as a microclimate and the sea.

I ask Tess about her solo after the performance. What was your head space like as you burst onto the stage? She offers a generous follow up response in an email a few days later, where she elaborates on her and Sam’s lengthy improvisation process in rehearsal, and the various “anchors” Sam developed as a choreographed response. Tess writes about her experience when performing the solo, which opens the show: “I think about the space inside my body. I think about being other people, in other situations, but it’s not always a nameable person or place. My body becomes my environment. I’m in conversation with gravity. I’m also forever looking to my concept of ‘left field’ to surprise myself. This is how I contend with the fact that everything ever has already been done before. It’s your context that makes you original—how and when you make your choices.” I wonder about context in processes such as this one. Many dance works unfold over a year, or several, through different residencies, performance opportunities, and laboratory situations. How do dance artists create works to hold or respond to their context, given that these contexts are so varied? Or, will context shape the work whether the artist is willing or not? Contextual consideration is not for every work to address, but I feel this particular dance piece contending with these questions.

Important to Tess’s solo is the improvisation-dialogue that choreographer and dancer had together during its creation, and the decidedly ineffable situation that resulted. While the “anchors” are named—one is called “visitations”, another “torso talk”—the chemistry and alchemy of the movement remains unclassified. “A lot of my strategies in the piece are unspoken,” Tess explains. “That’s just the kind of dynamic we have. I’m also pretty unaware of Sam’s strategies (or if she would call them that.) I’ve familiarized myself with her movement and the world of this piece just by watching her.”

Tess’s description of her mental landscape, and the rehearsals that informed it, both diverge and align with some of Sam’s own priorities for deciding to make the work. On the phone, Sam speaks frankly with me about the way writing and talking about her dance can often miss the mark. Here are some of the salient terms I gathered from Sam in our conversation, which I feel speak to her intentions behind the dance and to the texture of the dance itself: conditions of the moment, openness to failure, simultaneous action, historic figures, liberation juxtaposed with restraint, monastic imagery, confrontation, and politics of space.

As an audience member, I had sensations of uncanny recognition, walking on eggshells, and female empowerment coursing through me as the piece unfolded. I ask Sam if she could speak to this, and also about her title. “All four of us are exposed, seen, and vulnerable. The two duets have their own gamuts of experience, and simultaneous actions occur within them, but they both occupy a venn diagram of fear.” Fear as the overlap, fear as a condition for action. From lighting choices to costumes, the performance feels subtly designed to heighten this condition. A strobe light punctuates the final scene, erratic and loud as the performers are silent and still. Katie and Amanda wear latex socks the color of their skin, and every step they take on their deck, raised several feet from the ground, sounds precarious but comes across as sure-footed and strong. Their movements are so slow and sustained we see their muscles shake. It feels inappropriate to breathe, and undesirable to sit back comfortably in my chair. I want to get up close to these masked figures and ask them to tell me about the future.

*

A performance that creates an aesthetic of overlap, as opposed to a binary this-versus-that situation, is one that is honest to this moment in history. In Fear in Porcelain I saw a plurality of perspectives. Although I drew my own meanings from the performance, I was cognizant of Sam’s commitment to not tell me how to think. The materials—performative, physical, temporal—coalesced to form a generative offering. It left me wanting to write as much as talk as much as move.

Like Sam, I believe that openness to failure is a generative principle to when making work that is unique, compelling, and bold. As a writer, a maker, and a member of this dance community, I am trying to put forth into the world more of what I feel the world should be. I am trying to witness my peers, and engage in dialogue whenever possible about the before’s, the during’s, and the after’s of what we do. As makers of culture, our stakes for personal integrity and interpersonal support are high. Spaces that fiercely do their best to resist the “transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” in favor of inclusive tolerant pluralistic intersectional questioning practice are the spaces toward which I gravitate. Whether that space material as a friend’s living room, or ephemeral as that held within a dance, I am thirsty for it. This latter space, the performative one with edges that are difficult to define, contains infinite possibilities. Though they may not (yet) be supported by our social, political, or economic infrastructures, their inner worlds are a joy to witness.

When a dance applies criticism to the status quo and/or exposes uncomfortable biases, though, the work is not always easy to watch. They bring us a different kind of joy: one of divergent thought, new understandings, and deepening awareness of ourselves. Uncomfortable biases, along with the abject and complicated spectacle, are Elena Rose Light’s bread and butter. Two days after I saw Sam’s work at the Chocolate Factory in Queens, I attended a shared evening at Center for Performance Research (C.P.R.) in Brooklyn. Elena created and performed the last work of the night, which she titled UNCANNILILY. Dressed in a leotard the color of her skin, Elena began the piece by lying on the floor touching the back wall. C.P.R. is a large space, so the audience seated at the other end of the room felt removed, like we were peering down on (and judging? spectating? condemning?) Elena’s slow-motion journey of one. One of the tech people of C.P.R. had rolled out a four-foot wide sheet of mylar before the performance. It bisected the space, reflecting light in every direction. The mylar formed a sort of catwalk which seemed (correctly) to be luring Elena toward its sheen, and at the end closest to us was a tub of yogurt, a carton of soy milk, and a container of oats. The sound was loud and droning, and never let up until the last ten seconds of the piece, and Elena locked eyes with us the entire time. Her movements were micro, and as she edged ever closer to both audience and mylar, the vibe grew increasingly sinister. There were times when I stifled a laugh because Elena moved in such a way that I was always unsure if I would be laughing at some unnamed yet ever-present oppressor. At the end of the piece, with the same slow motion intensity, Elena ripped into each item of food one by one, never breaking her gaze with us as yogurt globs went dripping down her chin and thigh.

After the show, a group of Elena’s peers approached started to ask her questions, and share our impressions of the work. She said that the piece felt more humorous the night before: “Or at least, the audience laughed more.” Oh, but it was funny. Very funny. We just would not let ourselves be heard as the ones who were laughing.

*

A stifled reaction feels appropriate to work like Elena’s, which focuses on the why’s behind our default mode for moving through the world. The intersection between the comic and the horrible is blurred, because both rely on an emotional experience which is not always rational. It is a “know it when you see it” kind of performance that dives into the strange (uncanny) sensation of feeling conflicting emotions and thinking conflicting thoughts all at once, and it creates a space that feels liminal, as though it is tapped into very different protocols and ways of life. Last week, in a peer showing with Chez Bushwick’s artists in residence, another “know if when you see it” moment occurred as I watched Lorene Bouboushian share her work. Her solo began with a simple question, which we hear often in small talk, but which proved almost impossible for Lorene to articulate, and which took her three full minutes to finally say: “How did you get here today?” Her solo emerged—from the floor, from her throat, from her personal and historical histories. It kept mushrooming outward, and pulling her witnesses in. At one point she lay on her back, near one of the viewers, and put her hands on their knees. She explained to them, and us, what seemed like the end of a long saga concerning her family’s home in Beirut. Speaking throughout her solo, movement would inform speaking quality and vice versa. One flinch from her torso would cease speaking all together; one crawl forward would unleash a flow of words that tumbled out much easier than the words she tried to speak before. The whole air around Lorene felt transformed. I felt implicated by her words, and like at the same time I was responsible for her safety. I wonder about starts and ends to a piece like that. At what point does such an intuitive, deep listening practice (to the external world and within), ever really “start”, and how do you decide that it is time to “end”? It felt more natural and human sitting in Lorene’s space than it does to go to work (mechanical), or to scroll through the news (dehumanized), or to have a chat about the weather. These habits of ours are mechanical at best, dehumanized at worst, and they are in total opposition to the analytic and visceral intention that informs performance work, and they are best taken as a supplement pill. Whereas performance, when it speaks, is the whole sweet and savory meal.

  1. When I comment on how much space Sam gave to the duet on the raised decks, which barely travels at all, Sam’s response is: “It felt important to give them ‘too much’ space.”
  2. Sam soon joins Tess after her solo, and they occupy the ground-level space for the duration of the piece.
  3. bell hooks’ Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000).

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