Making and Shaping Work as Artists and as a Cohort
On NYLA/Fresh Tracks: Auditioned Works with J. Bouey, Emma Rose Brown, Liana Conyers, and Collin Ranf
One version of the artist’s fantasy is to have complete creative control over the context of how a work is shared with a public – for dance, this could include the venue, date, time, audience engagement, pre-show music, etc.
With programs like New York Live Arts’ Fresh Tracks, a fair amount of these factors are chosen for the artists. In their own ways, the four (of five total) artists I spoke with are each considering what it means to be in a kind of community with each other over the course of their residency and within this evening.
I was disappointed by traveling/scheduling logistics to have missed Dolores “Lola” Sanchez/The Dolo Project’s piece The Work. Can’t make ‘em all. The second in the line-up on Fri, December 7 was J. Bouey, the only artist whose work I had seen before this evening.
I had previously seen a different iteration of the same work, a duet entitled The Space Between Words, performed this evening by Bouey with Stanley Gambucci. In a rehearsal the week of the show, Bouey talked about how the structure of the piece has more or less remained constant while the conversations and choreography threading throughout the work have changed to fit the relationship of this new collaboration.
Bouey and Gambucci begin talking and sharing each other’s weight, discussing last week’s new moon in Sagittarius and cheesecake, among other topics. Not every word makes it to the back of the house, but the intimacy is felt. They bring out two jars full of folds of paper and let them fall around the stage before dancing in unison. Bouey exits and takes a seat center stage (an image that will echo in different ways throughout the evening), and shares how they would normally talk about the darker feelings of depression and anxiety, but for tonight, they don’t feel the need to bring it into the space because they haven’t been feeling it as acutely.
Gambucci checks in on Bouey and they dance again, the themes and patterns created earlier continuing to evolve. Once more, they slow and begin speaking more declarative affirmations: “I feel supported by vulnerability.”
In that earlier rehearsal conversation, Bouey shared how the work aims to share healing practices. As Bouey and Gambucci dug deeper into topics they had discussed, how hugs and physical contact became a way to “desexualize the pelvis” and counter toxic masculinity. Gambucci stated that they’ve never been interested in the “teaching and reinforcing of toxic masculinity because it enacts that violence.”
Rather, of bringing an ethic of care into the process, as well as a new collaborator, Bouey stated, “I really had to know what [the work] is” in a way that “strengthened my relationship to the work.” Naturally, I could interpret this as work of building support for one another, of undoing corrective ways of feeling and relating to each other, and of course, the work we saw on stage.
Following Bouey’s work, audience members were invited to read the folds of paper scattered throughout the space during the intermission.
Emma Rose Brown’s What Family Photo featured another duet performed by the choreographer with Charles Gowin. Gowin methodically unfurls a roll of paper across the length of the stage, tracing absent figures in two chairs along the path.
In a series of interactions, Brown and Gowin tiptoe around each other, gallop around the stage in a simple but eerie kind of unison that highlights certain similarities in their physicalities.
In a phone interview following the show, Brown shared that she and Gowin are actually quite different – as movers, people, etc.
This idea surfaced in moments where they appeared to be fighting each other, but, even then, the tension was kept light by the theatricality of their playfighting. In the last section, they tear strips off the roll of paper Gowin had laid across the stage, stuff them in their mouths and spit them at each other, the slightest wink in their eyes.
Brown shared that, “Even though in some way, [the work] has a structural simplicity to it, it has a subtle complexity” with multiple narrative layers that could be read on top of the work. One theme shared was the hauntedness of a “lost generation, that has a wandering as a layer. It’s not a funny layer but is a funny layer at the same time.” Though laughter from an audience can make it sound like that’s the primary reaction to a work, I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer thinking about these contradictions.
Laughing in her own entrance, Liana Conyers begins Androids & Pearls on a an unlit stage as text from internet celebrities overlays with music by Chaka Khan. Informed by research collaging social media and more personal sound objects from her youth, she envisions this work having the possibility to be shown anywhere. On this stage, she dances, her movement and text refracting across spheres of pop culture, public discourse, and private rituals.
She stops and points out an audience member seated towards the front. “Hi, how you doin?” In timing that can only be spontaneous, the connection is mostly seen in the yards of space between Conyers and the audience member but ripples throughout the theater, as audio plays from an interview with Queen Janelle Monáe talking about freedom of thought. It momentarily sounds like a general comment, but in a Monáe kind of way, makes it clear where her consideration extends and ends.
The lights dim but the audience waits. Conyers sings the opening verse of “Have I Told You Lately,” her voice clear, projecting without affectation. As it turns out, she wears glasses and wasn’t experiencing the performance with 20/20 vision. But the gaps between what was discerned was a sensation I felt strongly.
She shared in a phone interview that tracing through the history of her birthdays has prompted reflections on “how to celebrate yourself when no one else is celebrating you.” By “incorporating words and affects” of Instagram celebrities like Rickey Thompson “who have allowed the world to enter into his home and everyday life,” making a lot of money simply by being himself. Within the dance, she reveals how the algorithms of social media are transformed into the communication between her and her sound designer Justin Vitello. Like the internet, it all sparkled seamlessly, floating from one series of images to another. Unlike the internet, Conyers’ work left a longer lasting impression than most items on my newsfeed.
To close out the evening, Collin Ranf’s solo ah, ah and then he poured the beer all over offered an entirely different commentary on other dimensions of communication. Frustrated with the patterns of speech that privilege comparisons and filler words over more explicit opinions, he generated a text filled with absurd metaphors that could sound like they’re saying something, but, as he shared in a phone interview after the show, really don’t tell us much. The sentence “it’s kind of difficult for me to articulate because it’s hard for me to articulate” appears early in the text.
Converted into robotic voice through a text-to-speech software, this confrontational monologue plays as Ranf lip-syncs, seated downstage center. As the text escalates, the robot’s voice remaining blithely calm as its words bring in more expletives, Ranf sheds the black blazer he sports to reveal patterned yoga pants and a tank top that reads “Namaste Bitches.” I think, ugh, really? He is also interested in how this is problematic.
He unfurls a mat in the back corner of the stage and works through a series of yoga poses at HIIT speed, bringing a manic pace to the practice intended to bring calm meditation. After a child’s pose, a light on stage left glares at him as he squints into it, slowly walking while hardly going anywhere.
Ranf later shared how he had gone through a 500-hour yoga certification but was “having a strange distaste for the new age yoga community in boutique studios on the Upper East Side.” To combat the expectations of being a “sexy, gay yoga teacher who makes people laugh and swears a lot,” he talked about how a dance practice lent itself well to exploring these topics and “deconstructing the façade.”
As the first public performance of this Fresh Tracks cohort, the artists I spoke to all expressed an appreciation for the lineage of this program. Brown shared, “As someone who feels very fresh,” the quality of production Live Arts commits to this program makes her feel like she’s really “being thrown in the fire.” Ranf shared how the space, time, and resources to really figure out what he wants to be doing have been invaluable but as for the community of artists, he acknowledged “it’s hard for people to come together in the city.” Looking ahead, Conyers wants to be more intentional about inviting feedback into her process over the months ahead.
Though each artist whose work I saw contends with different questions and methodologies, the considerations of how to communicate certain ideas, evoke abstract affects, and share stories explicitly offer possibilities for shared dialogue. If nothing else, I’m excited to see how these talented artists will continue to experiment with what dance can do; just seeing them perform alongside each other was riveting.
Benedict Nguyen is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate currently based in the South Bronx, NY. Their writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Dance Magazine, and Shondaland, among others.
Benedict is the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room.
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