Every house has a door’s “The Three Matadores”: A Dialogue
In early October, Jeremy M. Barker attended the New York premier of Every house has a door’s The Three Matadores at the Knockdown Center. Afterward, he wrote a draft critical response to the performance but found he had questions (and several concerns and criticisms). Matthew Goulish, co-founder, along with Lin Hixson, of Every house has a door, wrote him independently following the performance, and Barker shared a draft of his response to the show along with a set of questions. Goulish responded via email. The text of all three appears below.
Jeremy M. Barker’s Draft Response to the Performance*:
As I struggled with how to respond to the Chicago performance group Every House Has a Door’s The Three Matadores, which played a brief three-night at the Knockdown Center in Queens recently, I realized that there’s an odd similarity between the questions they ask creating the piece, and the questions I ask writing about it as a critic. Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish, the duo behind Every House Has a Door, are the sort of investigative artists who “perform their research” as the show, and are asking the big philosophical questions like, “Why is this a live performance?” as part of their process. Which results in a show that explains itself as its performance, leading the would-be critic back down the same trail of questions the creators themselves ask and present as theatrical material: Why did they do this? How did they deal with the problem they themselves posed? Was it successful in doing so? The Three Matadores is the sort of show that casts anyone interrogating it in the role of a dramaturg, and if you know anything about what it’s like to be a dramaturg in a serious investigative devising process, you know that’s a maddening place to be.
If one of the essential questions Hixson and Goulish bring to their process is, “Why is this a live performance?,” then The Three Matadores at least offers a very simple answer: Because it was written that way. The heart of the piece and its raison d’etre is a section, maybe a dozen pages long, of the poet Jay Wright’s 2008 book-length poem, The Presentable Art of Reading Absence, which is written out as a play script concerning – as the show’s title suggests – a trio of matadors. (And yes, at a certain point in considering the work and their approach, it occurred to me that I was investing way too much in wondering about why theater artists would perform a play script; Occam’s razor and all…dramaturgy hell.) But if “why?” is the first question, “how?” quickly follows, and makes up the majority of The Three Matadores itself.
The performance takes place (at least initially) in a square playing area marked out on the floor of the cavernous hall at the Knockdown Center, with the audience seated along two adjoining sides. The square itself is delineated by musical instruments. At each corner is a fairly large guitar amplifier, with an electric guitar on a stand next to it. The sides of the square consist of the cables connecting the guitars to the amps, which suggests to the attentive viewer that the guitars are not connected to the amp they’re closest to, but rather to another amp at some other point on the square.
The four performers start seated offstage and make their ways one by one into the square to perform the investigation into how to turn Wright’s poem into a performance. First, Sebastián Calderón Bentin enters and introduces himself as “Matador 1.” He briefly explains the conceit – about Wright’s poem, that they’ll perform it shortly, but that they have to explain some things about it to us first – and then educates the audience on the finer points of some references Wright makes to poems by Garcia Lorca. Next, Anna Martine Whitehead introduces herself as “Matador 2,” and reads a long piece from a 1983 interview in the journal Callaloo (available at JStor), where Wright tries to explain what, for him, a poem is or does. Then Stephen Fiehn, Matador 3, enters. Instead of speaking, he performs a movement bit as a matador taunting a bull, except instead of cape, he uses a red handheld wireless radio, tuned just off a station so that as he moves about the space, miming his deadly dance with the bull, we can hear the station go in and out of reception. Finally, the fourth performer, Tim Kinsella (who doesn’t get a name but I guess is the “Bull”) comes out and uses the guitars. Pacing the bullfighting ring they sketch out on the floor for him, he seems to randomly select a guitar and then gently swipe his fingers across the strings without bothering to even pick it, sending a spine-tingling cascade of sound roaring out of one or another amp, which rattles the rafters, reverberating dramatically about the space.
And then? Then they clear the stage, bring out a table, and, using microphones, read the poem-play from Wright’s book. The Bull reads the narrator’s portion, while the three matadors read their bits, and then, after each segment, get up to perform the actions they were just described doing. There’s some stuff with pre-recorded audio and sound cues, some movement and deconstructed physical comedy, but that is, in essence, the entirety of the show.
So what to make of it all? Fundamentally it’s easy to follow: If Wright has written a performance text (even if he never meant it to be performed), and if Every House Has a Door elects to present it as a performance (as they have), then how can they use what they know about Wright’s poem to apply his own ideas about “art” to creating a live performance, as interpreted through the diverse skills their artists bring to the table? Hixson, the director, and Goulish, the dramaturg, have nearly three decades’ experience creating investigative interdisciplinary performance work, and even went so far as to commission a book length critical essay on the poem by Will Daddario. They researched and presented Wright’s own thoughts on the matter. And they employed a quartet of artists all of whom brought their practices to the table: Fiehn, a long-time collaborator and co-founder of the company Cupola Bobber; Tim Kinsella, a fairly legendary indie rocker; Whitehead, a queer Black movement artist
artist of color*; and Calderón Bentin, a performance maker and academic in Performance Studies the drama department at NYU*. So The Three Matadores is what it is, or perhaps more specifically, it is what it says it is, a show that welcomes the audience into the process of figuring out how to do what it’s doing. And insofar as that’s the case, it’s successful, even if it left me feeling as though it didn’t seem to want to be more than the sum of its parts.
Which is not necessarily bad. I could quibble about how devices were introduced and only used once (such as the guitars), which prevented any real sense of theatrical world-building onstage, but of course I think that was the point. And there’s worse ways to spend and an hour-and-a-half than getting into the weeds with this group of artists as they try to suss out how to honor Wright’s ideas and values in bringing his words to life on stage, and finding points of departure with their own practices. But taking a step back from all the engagement with process – with the getting from Point A to Point B, which is what the show is – I couldn’t help but feel that that Wright’s work, and the ideas he put forward even in abbreviated form in the 1983 interview, intersect problematically with and are only incompletely addressed in the show, mostly around the issue of race or, perhaps more specifically, histories – not only in terms of how histories and experiences (racial and otherwise) are represented in terms of content, but also in terms of how the forms employed themselves have histories, which is where, I think, I found The Three Matadores most questionable.
Wright is an African-American poet who’s been publishing work at least since 1967, and the question of race and poetry lies at the heart of his comments during that 1983 interview. Asked what, for him, constitutes a poem, he notes, “I’ve begun by asking whether or not it’s true that poetry is what a particular literary community at a particular time says it is. The literary histories available to us suggest this is so, up to a point.” He then proceeds to offer a sort of distillation of what poetry does which distinguishes itself, the particulars of form or practice or convention taking a back seat to this more essential function. He even offers a sort of process-based analysis of how poetry works that seems to support the investigative aspect of what Every House Has a Door might employ in making work. Noting that poetry is polysemous – capable of containing multiple meanings at once – it is nevertheless not abstract. “Abstraction begins with a real thing and derives a concept,” he explains, whereas the nature of poetry demands interpretation. “[I]nterpretation begins with an empty concept and then tries to find some real thing to embody it. You must notice the importance of an operation here, an act of fitting.”
As he definitively puts it, “Every perception requires explication and interpretation.”
All of which is fine for our purposes, up to a point. Indeed, this distillation of poetry as the construction of a problem which requires both the interpretive power of the poet (in creating it) and the reader (in reading it), fits nicely into the practice of Every House Has a Door. It suggests the poetry – or “art” more broadly, to incorporate Every House Has a Door’s practices – is both an attempt to interpret experiences, at the same time it creates a new sort of experience that demands interpretation. But it is only part of what Wright’s talking about. A poem has a community that, as he noted, has a history, and set of shared experiences. True, he proposes that this community can be expanded to accommodate those who are readers of the poem, but he never rejects a sense of historical association. Quite the opposite, it’s the source of his expansive definition: “I must finish by insisting,” he says, “that my theory accommodates poetry that is not written like mine. That’s why I’ve said very little about form. Black African-American poetry can, should and will encompass any number of various paradigms. What remains common to all of them is the urge to express within them the claims of history, vision and spirit.”
So where does that leave us in performance? The problem, I think, lies less in whether or not the artists have permission to act as “readers” enacting the work, than it does with tangling with the knot of history and experience, which in this case is necessarily one of race.
It’s not that race isn’t addressed. Calderón Bentin tackles the Lorca verses for just this reason: Lorca, a Spaniard employing Spanish verse, is looking at the African diaspora in the new world. Lorca’s verse is a lens Wright employs in the text to shift our perspective, and through its explication by a New York-based Latinx Panamanian/Peruvian* artist (Calderón Bentin) we enjoy yet another lens, a means of looking or considering racial histories. And so too with Whitehead, an artist of color Black artist* employed to perform the voice of Wright himself, to convey Wright’s own complex associations between the expressive act and the community surrounding it. So it’s not the case that the show doesn’t attempt to grapple with it. Rather, it’s that in its aesthetic approach, it all too often seems to employ approaches and devices from our long history of experimental performance, which propose a sort of neutrality even as they are, in essence, a fundamentally “white” approach to art.
Uninflected speech. Pedestrian movement. A refusal to directly address race as embodied experience in the performers themselves, rather than a topic to be addressed. Trying to untangle the performances and their relationship to Wright’s text and ideas, the result – The Three Matadores itself – felt much more like an interpretive gesture, an attempt to join a speech community, as Wright puts it, which is inherently the invitation poetry makes. But just as Wright himself doesn’t discount the weight of history, or shared experiences, and their relation to the work, so too do the practices and aesthetics employed in the performance have their own histories. And this is where I grapple with The Three Matadores most fundamentally. The work seems to accept part of Wright’s “theory of poetry” while failing to fully address the rest of its consequences…
Inquiry from Jeremy M. Barker to Matthew Goulish:
Thank you for reaching out. I have been working on a response to the piece basically since I saw it, and apologize for the delay. Ironically I recently returned to Culturebot as editor and put in place a much more stringent requirement for timeliness of reviews that I myself have now violated. In part that’s because Three Matadores came with no small amount of homework! But I did mostly complete a response which I’ve held off publishing, vacillating on some questions I had, and perhaps rather than just “pass judgment” we could do a brief dialogue via email. I’m attaching the draft I prepared which sort of cuts off at the end, where I couldn’t quite figure out where to go. You can read if you like or not, but where it leaves off – and where I wonder if a dialogue couldn’t help further discussion more than just my own thoughts – is with regard to racial histories and art.
To try to summarize briefly:
The questions I was left with, both in terms of what was performed onstage as well as the readings (Daddario’s essay, Wright’s book, and Wright’s ’83 interview) concern histories – to use Wright’s term – and in particular, racial histories, not just in terms of experiences but in terms of their relationship to aesthetic practices and forms. My brief reading of the performance is that it presents its research into the question of how Wright’s poem-play text could/should be performed live. By examining his own thoughts on how poetry functions, we not only enjoy context for the text itself, but also understand how the practices of you and your collaborators can enter into dialogue with it: If poetry, as Wright argues, is a distillation of experience, an act of “interpretation,” which the reader of the poem must also interpret in order for the poem to become a new experience for them, then the artists creating the live performance are likewise positioned as interpreters/creators of new experiences for the audience. But despite that being core to Wright’s argument, he never discounts the idea of histories. In fact, he shifts the weight of history from the form or appearance of art to the notion of how it informs the creation of art; as he puts it, for instance, he doesn’t expect most black American poets to create work similar to his, despite their shared histories. And this is what left me with so many questions, because of the sort of devices employed in realizing the live performance. Whether it’s the affectless delivery/cold reading of text, or pedestrian/highly idiosyncratic movement styles, the performance employs devices that generally rely on some sort of “neutrality” on the part of the performers. In part, this is purely practical: The matadors sit at the table reading through microphones to distinguish these moments from when they stand and “enact” them; it’s a distancing effect rejecting collapse into a compelling fiction. The performers never “become” characters in a fiction, rather they are agents presenting information on stage. Yet their own histories, their own identities, in this show, never seem to be directly addressed, leaving these performers inhabiting a much more historically fraught position of embodied neutrality onstage. Or to put it another way, I’ve seen many artists of color use these tactics in performance, yet there’s always a knowing awareness that the performers are, themselves, people of color, and therefore signaling some sort of racial experience. Only white artists can presume embodied neutrality onstage, which of course is not true – that’s a form of privileging the assumption of white subjectivity – and that’s one of the ways in which these performance aesthetics have a problematic history that I didn’t see being addressed in performance. Which is not to say that this piece assumed that privileged neutrality, but the tensions between the bodies onstage and what was addressed directly seemed only to muddy the waters. As I was writing my initial draft, I found myself wondering whether Sebastian was Latinx or Spanish. I realized I presumed a Spanish identity solely because he was called upon to interpret Lorca’s own (Spanish) poetic representation of the experience of blacks in the Western Hemisphere. And then there was some of the movement work itself: during one of the movement sequences, Whitehead – the only apparent artist of color – did a bit of floor work. As my guest, a choreographer, noted, it seemed like a problematic stage image even as we both presumed that it was purely coincidental. Since Whitehead is the artist with a most formal identification as a movement artist, it shouldn’t be surprising that her personal movement vocabulary was more diverse than the other performers; but seen as a choreography in relation to other moving bodies onstage, it seemed to place the female colored body in a very stereotypical relationship to male white bodies: on all fours among standing men.
I hope this isn’t too tangential and makes some sense. I don’t mean to seem reductive in asking questions about race in relation to a work that explicitly presents itself as a consideration/exploration of a poet’s art; it would be unfair of me to do Wright. But in terms of presenting material onstage, which itself necessarily invites questions of bodies, experiences, forms and race/gender/sex, I couldn’t help but feel as though the performance itself struggled to present these histories as directly as did Wright himself in The Presentable Art of Reading Absence. And indeed, perhaps the title of the original work itself suggests some reasons for the choices to address or not to address certain things in live performance. In any event, I’m curious to hear your thoughts, and I apologize for the length of my reply.
Matthew Goulish’s Response:
I’m old enough to remember the unrecordable grain of the voices of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and to recall the effect those voices had on the world and on me. They always understood how progress toward social justice needs to be made in symbolic as well as concrete avenues, in imagery and economies at once. They grasped the intertwinement of the streams but they never confused them with one another. I think every day about those voices. I hold the old-fashioned belief that all individuals exceed every socially constructed category to which they belong. But into what action does this belief translate for me, every day, other than the action of paying attention, and of trying to cultivate, to use Jean Genet’s phrase, “delicacy of heart”? How can those actions constitute more than a start? How can they possibly suffice, when conversations about race and difference have grown urgent in the shadow of the current administration?
The mission of Every house has a door includes assembling diverse teams of intergenerational specialists, and keeping difference in play during a project. We strive for an ethical structure of shared making in a sustainable process. Lin and I have found we need a point of focus equidistant from all participants, to which none of us have sole or expert or proprietary access. For The Three Matadores Jay Wright’s poetry constituted that focal point, and we set out to study it together. This fulfilled another aspect of the Every house mission: to bring attention to under-recognized work such as Jay’s immense contribution. He so assiduously differentiates and defines his terms – history, experience, community. He problematizes all three of them, as well as representation. I am drawn to the difficulty of his work for its aspiration, its invitation, its risk. Yet for all those challenges, his poetry is always beautiful and his language deeply resonant, original, and grounded in the world.
Your invitation to respond to your critique, while respectful, puts me in an awkward position of arguing within terms you have set, of accepting or rejecting those terms. I despise argument. In high school I strenuously avoided the debate team. I believe I was born after the time for argument had passed. Now I find myself needing to contend with the generalized terms “pedestrian movement” and “uninflected speech,” describing devices that I do not see at work in The Three Matadores. Do I try to make certain points to set the record straight, as they say? For example, I understand the history of task-based choreography always already including practitioners of varied backgrounds and races. To say otherwise is to rewrite history.
Every description interprets. Because of that I need to get into some detailed descriptions of our performance. Those descriptions may be uninteresting or even incomprehensible to people who have not seen the work. They risk revealing my own obsessiveness. But how am I to respond to sequences that we crafted for over two years described as “some stuff with pre-recorded audio and sound cues, some movement and deconstructed physical comedy”? Such descriptions are how we come to apprehend community, history, and representation, at least in the work that performance attempts, work of consciousness and social justice (symbolic and concrete) on its admittedly small scale.
All of this is to offer a measured thanks for affording me the opportunity to compose a response to your email and review draft. I have attempted to divide your objections into three categories, and will address them each in turn: 1. uninflected speech, 2. pedestrian movement, and 3. floor work. I will conclude with some notes on the neutral. Forgive me. This demanded an essay. As I tell my writing students, respect means “look again.” I appreciate the respect inherent in your hesitation.
- uninflected speech
I will start by quoting from your email.
Whether it’s the affectless delivery/cold reading of text, or pedestrian/highly idiosyncratic movement styles, the performance employs devices that generally rely on some sort of “neutrality” on the part of the performers. In part, this is purely practical: The matadors sit at the table reading through microphones to distinguish these moments from when they stand and “enact” them; it’s a distancing effect rejecting collapse into a compelling fiction. The performers never “become” characters in a fiction, rather they are agents presenting information on stage. Yet their own histories, their own identities, in this show, never seem to be directly addressed, leaving these performers inhabiting a much more historically fraught position of embodied neutrality onstage.
I want to focus first on that first item regarding speech, summarized in your review draft as follows:
And then? Then they clear the stage, bring out a table, and, using microphones, read the poem-play from Wright’s book. The Bull reads the narrator’s portion, while the three matadors read their bits, and then, after each segment, get up to perform the actions they were just described doing. There’s some stuff with pre-recorded audio and sound cues, some movement and deconstructed physical comedy, but that is, in essence, the entirety of the show.
In this sketchy description, from the draft of your review, of the second half of our performance, I find it difficult to tell which part you consider the uninflected, affectless speech. In your email you seem to be referring not to the texts in the introductory solos (Sebastián reading Lorca in Spanish and his own English translation, and Martine reading an edited version of Jay’s response to an interview question) but the texts engaged at the long table.
I believe I understand “affectless speech,” but I don’t know what you mean by “cold reading.” My understanding of the term “cold reading” is unrehearsed, unless you mean cold to suggest emotionless, which you are placing on a spectrum alongside affectless.
In any case I need to point out some inaccuracies in these descriptions, and I want to offer some of the logic behind our decisions. We tried to stage Jay’s writing in a way that it could be received. This meant finding performance analogies for what might go on in silence and in private between the reader and the page. This led Lin to the decision that the words written as stage directions are also poetry, poetry that situates within the convention of the stage direction. Yet they function as stage directions, constituting a polysemous event in the text. Our performance needs to reflect their doubleness. The audience must hear as well as see them. With that in mind, which performer will best read them?
Tim reads the poetry passages interspersed through the play, and his reading breaks down according to its own logic. For example, he reads live on his microphone all declarative sentences, but plays his own pre-recorded voice into the same microphone for all questions. Questions then present a different sonic texture, and a different remove, a different history, than statements. I don’t think you consider his reading affectless.
We decided to have the three matadore performers read their own stage directions, and to distinguish those from their lines of dialogue. They sit at a table on three stools, with one microphone at the end of that table. The performer seated nearest the microphone reads that passage’s stage directions. All three perform their dialogue off the microphone, often shouting as if to be heard over the noise of the bullring. They do not always shout. Sometimes they speak conversationally to one another. In three cases they perform the dialogue away from the table. In one of those cases they perform it first at the table, then again out in the open area. In two others they perform it on the stage per se and not at the table – for the dialogue in darkness M1 stands on what I will call the stage and addresses M2 and M3 who sit at the table, and again for the litany of cities when all three perform the dialogue standing on the tar paper strip. In these dialogues they are “in character” to the extent that Jay’s writing allows for character in subtle ways.
I am taking the time for this description because you left it all out. Perhaps you consider all the other strategies at work inconsequential. The “problematic” device has been identified, and it thus eclipses all else. We may have deployed it for “purely practical” reasons and overlooked its fraught history in relation to the identities of the performers. I’m paraphrasing your formulation, which distinguishes between pragmatics and symbolism, a distinction I reject.
In any case, I believe you consider the affectless speech that of the one performer who, in each sequence, reads the stage directions. What you call their affectlessness asserts itself when they read as themselves (Sebastián, Stephen, Martine) rather than as the matadores. I wonder where exactly in this device the neutral dwells? In the tone of voice? In the use of a microphone? In the separation of words and actions, resisting “collapse into a compelling fiction”? In the intention of non-acting? Do all three performers approach the task the same way?
The performers, it seems to me, are most themselves when speaking the stage directions on the microphone, so it’s peculiar that you read that as neutral. But reading stage directions does not “directly address” their own identities. I wonder what would, and how we would recognize it as such, and to what extent it is their, or our, responsibility to directly address our identities to your, or anyone’s satisfaction, and how we would know that we had accomplished that. I wonder whether the indirect address of our identities might have its own affect, effectiveness and magnetism, its own theatricality. But I will return to those questions later.
I confess I am fond of the device to which you object. Consider the magician at work. “I will now pull a rabbit out of this hat.” Then the rabbit appears. The spoken words suggest to the audience what is about to happen. The event bifurcates into its description and its action. What happens when there’s no magic? “I will now walk across the room and sit in that chair.” Then the performer walks across the room and sits. “I will now perform a concerto by Bach.” It’s a form of hospitality, of inviting the audience to watch in a certain way, and then the audience, who accepts the invitation, is prepared, and observes the differences between description, expectation, and extraverbal performance. The performance circulates in the orbit of the verbal. We are in the province of poetry, after all. I understand it as a strategy of immersion and recoil, reflective of the oscillations in Jay’s text. As performers, we are like docents in a museum. We say in a sense that we are not the art, but we are pointing to it, and offering some invitations in how to receive it. And all the aesthetic and formal choices we made trace their roots back to Jay’s complex writing.
- pedestrian movement
You invoke the term “pedestrian” movement, and propose the problem, if I understand correctly, of such movement as one of several “devices that generally rely on some sort of ‘neutrality’ on the part of the performers.” You go on to argue, “Only white artists can presume embodied neutrality onstage, which of course is not true – that’s a form of privileging the assumption of white subjectivity – and that’s one of the ways in which these performance aesthetics have a problematic history that I didn’t see being addressed in performance. Which is not to say that this piece assumed that privileged neutrality, but the tensions between the bodies onstage and what was addressed directly seemed only to muddy the waters.”
I suppose one person’s muddied water is another person’s nuance. But once again I am confused about which of our movements, or movement sequences, you consider “pedestrian,” since you don’t detail them either in your email or the draft of your review. You quickly describe Stephen’s solo as drawn from matador maneuvers, and Martine’s work, which presented itself to you as apparently from “the artist with a most formal identification as a movement artist.” Neither of these descriptions strikes me as “pedestrian,” but maybe I’m confused because at one point you write, “pedestrian/highly idiosyncratic movement styles.” Are these two the same in your mind, interchangeable, or inextricably intertwined? If so, I wonder what lies outside of the category of “pedestrian/highly idiosyncratic.” Would that be movement of a recognizable technique, or with a fixed, accepted vocabulary, demonstrable expressivity, visible basis in visible identity?
One of the many complex ideas I understand issuing from the wellspring of revolutionary iconoclasm of Yvonne Rainer and dancers moving mattresses and a seated Rudy Perez smoking a cigarette, both as dance in the early to mid-1960s, involves the invitation to build dance out of materials not immediately associated with dance in any technical sense. Such building commences from recognizable acts and proceeds through structural strategies to unfold those acts into choreography. The apparent literalization of task-based endeavors arises as a byproduct of this approach, and this byproduct I suspect has given us the term “pedestrian,” as a way of leveling the field of complex choreographic acts that do not at a glance look like somebody’s idea of dancing. But the artists I mentioned, like Jay Wright in building his poetic, understand that “There are no givens … not even your feelings.” The acts involve constructing and fitting, and structure pressurizes the materials with a torque that transforms the performer in every case from the person they are when not performing into something far stranger and more intensified. The dancers dance themselves and dance the selves they are becoming, in their moment-to-moment approach to the task of their material. Identity becomes unfixed in every instance.
The only truly pedestrian moment in our performance may have come when Tim walked between his stationary guitars in his solo. It was pedestrian in that he was walking, with his highly idiosyncratic walk. Throughout the performance, his demeanor – his facial expressions, his behavioral tics, his slouching posture, his attentiveness, his vocal inflections, even the worn outline of his cell phone visible in the pocket of his jeans – all stand in contrast to the stark minimalism of the matadores’ presence, and their charged visibility. (Sky Cubacub designed their clothing with her “radical visibility” aesthetic as a warped response to the traditional suit of lights.) Are they his hallucination? One may reasonably supply that narrative. He sits at the far end of the table facing both the audience and the matadores from the side. In a musical sense, he works in counterpoint to them.
Once again, for the record, nearly all of the choreography in The Three Matadores derived from extensive study of specific matadores at work in the bullring. The precision, intricacies, and ritualized actions of the bullfight present themselves in a limited series of maneuvers. Those limitations allow the variations between individuals to make themselves apparent. I would in no instance refer to the choreography that the bullfight produces as pedestrian or highly idiosyncratic. It is the opposite of both. I can concede that it might not look like dance, but it is certainly material for a vocabulary of choreography, just as its language offers a vocabulary for poetry.
- floor work
I will try to respond to this passage from your email.
… during one of the movement sequences, Whitehead – the only apparent artist of color – did a bit of floor work. As my guest, a choreographer, noted, it seemed like a problematic stage image even as we both presumed that it was purely coincidental. Since Whitehead is the artist with a most formal identification as a movement artist, it shouldn’t be surprising that her personal movement vocabulary was more diverse than the other performers; but seen as a choreography in relation to other moving bodies onstage, it seemed to place the female colored body in a very stereotypical relationship to male white bodies: on all fours among standing men.
Martine as M2 works on the floor twice. The first time she performs a farol, the maneuver that takes its name from the Spanish word for lighthouse, in which the matador twirls the capote (the second cape) around her or his head while avoiding the bull’s charge. A particularly dangerous version of this maneuver involves performing it on one’s knees. In an early sequence, Martine as M2 performs three versions of a farol, one of them on her knees, while M1 and M3 in the far background perform a sequence of passes with their capotes, both of them performing the same sequence at a time delay in a kind of canon. M2 is literally in the foreground, and M1 and M3 in the background, while their repetition of the same passes further backgrounds them.
Martine as M2 works on the floor a second time during a complex choreographic sequence that begins with Sebastián as M1 performing in the far upstage area an extended series of passes with his third cape, the muleta. Sebastián and Lin worked closely together on this long sequence by studying the video of a retired, senior citizen matador practicing by himself. At a certain point in this sequence, Tim, seated at the end of the table as usual, cues up a music track on his smart phone and plays it into his microphone. Martine as M2 leaves the table and reprises a floor movement that Stephen’s solo introduced in the first half of the performance. This movement suggests some kind of animal struggling to stand or navigate the floor. Lin worked with both Stephen and Martine closely to develop this movement, studying videos of unlikely animals (dog, buffalo) trying to walk on a trampoline. Martine as M2 then stands and rotates slowly in a matadore pass. After that she performs a very athletic backwards jump several times. taisha paggett devised this jump when she performed the role of M2, before she had to leave the project for personal reasons. It remains as a trace of her choreography. Stephen as M3 then leaves his seat at the table and joins Martine in this jump. He then commences a sequence that repeats, at an accelerated pace, some of the matadore choreography of his solo, as well as his return to the floor/animal movement. Martine’s floor movement at this point begins to whirl at the edge of control. Stephen as M3 then performs a jump that Sebastián devised in the same rehearsal in which taisha devised her jump, in response to Lin’s directive: “Devise a jump.” As the music fades, Martine and Stephen return to their seats. Sebastián as M1 concludes his long, slow background solo in silence, at one point dropping to one knee. At no point in this sequence would I describe Martine as “on all fours among standing men.” Beyond that rebuttal, I offer this description as a demonstration of the complex authorship at work in our collaborative processes. Martine, in post-show conversations, has spoken of that moment as conjuring a third being, between human and animal, in an act of destabilizing the anthropocentrism of the bullfight’s ritual. Lin introduced the concept of this floor movement for precisely that reason. This third form of movement fractures the anthropocentrism of the choreography, and conjures the animal very directly. In the second sequence that I describe, both Martine as M2 and Stephen as M3 (whose work with the same floor movement you dismissed through omission) work the floor in the animalistic movement and a moment later stand with the upright arched spine of the matadore – the two movements paired in time and in dialogue with one another.
A question in a different register presents itself in your reading of this passage – the attribution of a form of non-authorship to women, and to women of color; that is to say, the criticism of “on all fours among standing men” as a signification of levels of status or dominance, discounts Martine’s own agency in devising that movement by offering the possibility that she has placed herself “coincidentally” in a “stereotypical” relation to men, and further that it is the critic’s task to point this out to Lin, the woman director of the group, who also may not have recognized it, the attribution of ignorance of this potential reading of choreographic content a ghosted form of the attribution of a lack of intentionality, or of non-authorship.
- the neutral
Here are the concluding two paragraphs of your review draft.
It’s not that race isn’t addressed. Calderón Bentin tackles the Lorca verses for just this reason: Lorca, a Spaniard employing Spanish verse, is looking at the African diaspora in the new world. Lorca’s verse is a lens Wright employs in the text to shift our perspective, and through its explication by a New York-based
LatinxPanamanian/Peruvian artist (Calderón Bentin) we enjoy yet another lens, a means of looking or considering racial histories. And so too with Whitehead, an artist of colorBlack artist employed to perform the voice of Wright himself, to convey Wright’s own complex associations between the expressive act and the community surrounding it. So it’s not the case that the show doesn’t attempt to grapple with it. Rather, it’s that in its aesthetic approach, it all too often seems to employ approaches and devices from our long history of experimental performance, which propose a sort of neutrality even as they are, in essence, a fundamentally “white” approach to art.
Uninflected speech. Pedestrian movement. A refusal to directly address race as embodied experience in the performers themselves, rather than a topic to be addressed. Trying to untangle the performances and their relationship to Wright’s text and ideas, the result – The Three Matadores itself – felt much more like an interpretive gesture, an attempt to join a speech community, as Wright puts it, which is inherently the invitation poetry makes. But just as Wright himself doesn’t discount the weight of history, or shared experiences, and their relation to the work, so too do the practices and aesthetics employed in the performance have their own histories. And this is where I grapple with The Three Matadores most fundamentally. The work seems to accept part of Wright’s “theory of poetry” while failing to fully address the rest of its consequences.
In 1978 Roland Barthes taught a lecture course on “The Neutral” at the Collège de France, and Columbia University Press published his teaching notes. At the outset Barthes offers a provisional definition. “I define the neutral as that which outplays the paradigm, or rather I call Neutral everything that baffles the paradigm. For I am not trying to define a word; I am trying to name a thing: I gather under a name, which here is the Neutral.” The translators Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier note that Richard Howard has elsewhere translated the verb déjoue as “baffle,” and “fake,” as in “fake out,” and that “outwit,” “thwart,” and “outplay” also work. Barthes repeatedly speaks of his desire for the neutral, and the pursuit of such desire as a potential escape from the dictatorship of language. “My perspective, throughout the whole of this course, is that of desire, not of law.” He tries to bring many subcategories of the neutral to recognition, including the concept of restraint. He offers this quote from The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. “In terms of general stage deportment, no matter how slight a bodily action, if the motion is more restrained than the emotion behind it, the emotion will become the Substance and the movements of the body its Function, thus moving the audience.”
In this project, our restraint took many forms, including that of limiting the sources from which we drew in devising the performance. I say this as dramaturg: we circumscribed the choreography of this work to the vocabulary of the bullfight, with only brief moments of departure from that strict vocabulary, and the minimal inclusion of outside ingredients. We held ourselves as responsible to the histories of poetry, mathematics, and bullfighting with its colonial connotations as to, as you phrase it the “long history of experimental performance.” We did not see these as contradictory, and we welcomed the ways they resisted one another. We accepted the limit and tried to find the infinite potential unfoldings within it. Even at this scale we embrace, I believe, the tea ceremony’s equation between restrained performer motion producing amplified audience emotion.
I often think about spectralism, in the musical sense of the word, when I consider the intricate complexity of Jay Wright’s rendering of identity. I understand spectralism as the technique of differentiating the multiple subtones at work within each single tone, then magnifying, interconnecting, and transforming those spectral features, those subtones, into a new composition. Jay might say less interconnecting than revealing how they are already interconnected. Our work approaches “Black African-American” (as Jay says) poetry that expresses itself bilingually in English and Spanish, and relies extensively on numbers theory. We tried to separate and even stand in for those spectral elements with the presence of corporeality. I want to avoid the word “embody,” with its implication that those elements exist in a non-embodied state. Do they exist in the abstract, outside of the event of their realization?
It is curious I think that you characterize our aesthetic as a refusal of something, or set of things, when I see it rather as an acceptance. What have we refused? “To directly address race as embodied experience in the performers themselves,” is how you phrase it. Maybe this performance is how we do that. Restraint may render the address more indirect than you would prefer, making it look like “a topic to be addressed.” Still, I often encounter a reception of performance as if it proposes an unmediated art form; as if structures of time and space do not mediate the presence of the human body; as if the body, that the performer as “phenotype” (Sebastián’s word), must first and foremost appear available to the audience as primary content. By phenotype I think he means those self-evident, visible elements of identity. You suggest that our selected material, “necessarily invites questions of bodies, experiences, forms and race/gender/sex,” the very questions that you claim we refuse. Yet Jay has said, in a passage quoted by Martine, “A simple report of experience, if you could make such a thing, isn’t good enough. The whole process of making leads to transformation, the radical creation, of experience, the making of a new body and new heart.” We seek the creation of experience, not its report.
If to address race as “embodied” and “experienced” means addressing it as it has been addressed before, following the well-trodden recognized paths of expression, how will dynamic advancement, novelty and progress, arise? There must be some advance toward the unknown and the unknowing, some recourse to those avenues of the mind that harbor mystery. The relation between our work and the politics of the moment necessarily involves a retreat, or a recoil – into a domain that puts forward a bid for freedom, in which we might recharge before rejoining the struggles of the waking world. Jeremy, I believe one of the many traps we set for ourselves in this impossible historical moment involves thinking any performed behavior that we do not recognize as black must be white. As I wrote this it came back to me that another great Black African-American poet, Ed Roberson, attended a work-in-progress performance of The Three Matadores at The Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Afterwards he approached me, and speaking so softly I had to lean in to hear him, said, “I think this work is very American.”
I understand creativity as freedom founded on proliferations of similarity and pattern. It has very little to do with power, predicated on domination. Maybe we can draw a parallel between my sense of creativity and Barthes’s desire. In what do we invest our time and energy?
In Every house, we aspire to work that presents a reduced surface with near infinite depth. Our work does not demand an intellectual, dramaturgical audience. On the contrary, the work starts from the simplest of ordinary meeting places, and builds gradually into its world. Thus the direct audience address of the first two solos, and the increasing theatricality of the solos as they progress. We begin with the idea that nothing – no clothing, no tone of voice, no facial expression, no vernacular – is neutral. Conversely, no recognizable device or vernacular carries de facto cultural currency. In saying that we make reference to a set of conventions of theater to which I think you also refer, that positions blankness as neutrality in a way that presumes the non-neutral as demonstrative, character-based, expressive, perhaps even presuming to some internal emotional state, some “feeling,” which you in turn relate to identity, to the extent that identity is observable and self-evident, deployed as content, as “embodied experience in the performers themselves.” Curiously, your critique suggests that these non-neutral states may have arisen had we not frustrated the “collapse into a compelling fiction.” One must resist the temptation to view everything within the totalizing confines of these polarities. They lean on a well-worn vocabulary of theater tropes, that presume a fairly fixed way in which a performer on stage engages one’s own race and gender and preferences as content, and that engaging those characteristics in some less expected way, through indirection or by proxy, as narrowly fictionalized or slightly displaced, presents itself as not engaging them at all. Restrained speech becomes uninflected speech; restrained movement becomes pedestrian movement. It’s the old philosophical problem of confusing more with less. In this way ideas can obstruct and obscure rather than enlighten what one sees. We may view a work of art with a specific belief system in tow and despite a genuine attempt to grapple with what we see, allow that belief system to mold and shape the work’s complexity into a familiar and recognizable set of questions and determinations. This type of viewing process relies on a pre-formed epistemological language to cognize artistic affect. It furthermore presents an impulse to locate the essential identitarian category of each performer, establishing how as a spectator to read them before, or as a way of, attempting to read the work. This perspective demands that identity be fixed (this “or” that) and self-evident (I can “see” it), and demonstrates, I believe, profound anxieties about categorization and legibility regarding self and other. It runs counter to the mind’s most novel instincts, as well as to my understanding of Jay’s commentary in the interview that we quoted, in which he queries how precisely we come to know whether or not something is poetry. One of his points, I think, is that any given community’s own set of beliefs will determine whether or not something belongs to the thing known as poetry. Furthermore, and more importantly, this community has the obligation to expand continuously poetry’s province in order to live and to grow – to enlarge both the definition of poetry, or in our case performance, and the soul of the community. This growth involves two valences: the intellectual (what Jay refers to when he mentions “theory”), and the physical (the “bones” of the community). This ethos extends a welcome invitation to begin always again, to keep definitions dynamic and expansive, and when necessary to explore by means of a different channel of discovery.
* Editor’s Note: By its nature, this article consists of an uncorrected, incomplete draft criticism of a performance work, and an email dialogue between the critic and one of the show’s creators about that draft. However, prior to the publication of the entire article, Matthew Goulish provided the text to the company for approval, which led to a couple additional clarification requests to be made to the original draft criticism. In order both to honor the request for changes, as well as to provide readers context for some of Goulish’s response (which may be affected by these corrections), we wish to explain the following changes made to Barker’s draft criticism. First, after the initial reference to his name, Sebastián Calderón Bentin was referred to by surname only. However, this incorrectly stated his surname as “Bentin” rather than “Calderón Bentin.” This change has been made throughout with no further denotation. Second, Calderón Bentin clarified that he teaches in the drama department, rather than performance studies, at NYU; this has been denoted by striking through the incorrect text and underlining the corrected text. Third, Calderón Bentin clarified that his background is more formally “Panamanian/Peruvian” than “Latinx”; this change is also denoted with strikethroughs and underscores. Fourth, Anna Martine Whitehead preferred “Black artist” to “artist of color.” This is denoted by strikethrough/underscore. These changes have furthermore been represented in the text quoted by Matthew Goulish; these represent the only changes made to his response aside from formatting for the web.