BREAKTIME at ARTS ALIVE
BREAKTIME at ARTS ALIVE (Arts on Site)
Created and performed by Holly Sass and Jonathan Matthews / BREAKTIME
October 24, 2020
Sound: The Magnetic Fields, “Three-Way,” Elizabeth Cotten and Brenda Evans, “Jesus Lifted Me,” The Incredible String Band, “The Circle Is Unbroken,” Joanna Newsom, “On a Good Day,” (arranged for two voices and sung live by Jonathan Matthews and Holly Sass), Laura Nyro, “And When I Die” (edited by Jonathan Matthews)
Costumes: dresses and masks designed and executed by Maddie Schimmel; harnesses executed by Holly Sass and Jonathan Matthews, with guidance from Ben Gould and Gabriella Lacza; consultation on pole strapping by Dave Glista
BREAKTIME premiered 6’ at Arts on Site for the COVID-safe series ARTS ALIVE. I caught up with Holly Sass and Jonathan Matthews in a well-ventilated studio during a tech rehearsal and watched the real! live! show! the following evening. We laughed a lot behind our masks.
They sang, they danced; they observed a safe distance from each other and from me! 6’ is a classic BREAKTIME piece, featuring visual puns, unwieldy props, audience participation, and frantically physical dancing. What’s BREAKTIME, you ask? Well, right now, it’s two people holding a 6-foot pole. You might also have seen these two people teaching step aerobics class (Good Luck!), putting their feet on a table in a dark room (delicates), and/or wearing white dresses and practicing growing old together (Utensils).
You know, BREAKTIME—as in, time for a break! As in, a pause for a joke or a nap; as in a rupture in the fabric of normal, as in a song-and-dance, as in the snap and clatter of tap shoes.
Hanging on the wall behind Holly and Jonathan were harnesses handmade for pole hooking, with grandpa suspenders on top and bondage chains on the bottom. H and J wiggled into their getup and turned to face 16 chairs set 6 feet apart. The click of carabiners clipping, plus gospel music, accompanied quick pivots, tight twirls, and fancy footwork. They were a pair of square-dance repellers, strapped together by the mutual responsibility for holding space between their bodies. Later, the poles multiplied, with the help of the audience—big ones, skinny ones, and short ones ended up wedged and teetering on hips, elbows, noses, and knees. Something here about small steps: a tiny groove in H’s hips sent the pole balanced on J’s head bouncing to the floor and they had to start over. One never-ending equation: how far can we go before we reset? Do we really go all the way back to the beginning?
It’s impossible, they said when I asked them, to make work that isn’t about what’s going on right now. All art is COVID art when the conditions for art-making are carved out in measurements of cleanliness and safety. All art is inflected by the shouts of protesters and the pleas for social justice—but then it’s time for a tap number and you have to put on your sparkly skirts and forget the world for a minute.
H and J put on their sparkly skirts (pink, with clock numbers on the bottom) and did a tap number (yes, a rousing tap number). They shimmied, swept their arms wide, and clicked their heels. There was at least one actual leap!
It’s not what it looks like, though. H and J don’t perform duets. Instead, they doodle adjacencies. They met at NYU Tisch Dance in 2011, graduated in the class of 2014, and formed BREAKTIME in 2017. They have been making choices together ever since. Sometimes these choices are funny; sometimes these choices involve hard hats or unexpectedly heavy emotional content. Often, the process starts in H and J’s shared background in musical theater and formal dance training. Exploring these remnants of muscle memory allows H and J to recontextualize movement vocabularies in service of their loopy, off-kilter narratives. They think less about dance and more about blocking, motivation, and character—investigating the how and why of an action. Pop-culture references from movies and TV add momentum: they approach scenes with particular film tropes in mind and use those frameworks to craft the narratives further. Spongebob is a big inspiration.
A pole (surprise!), bent like a rainbow, connected J and H’s bellies. Hey hey hey, the end is near/On a good day, you can see the end from here, they harmonized, in a stirring choral rendition of Joanna Newsom’s “On A Good Day.” But I won’t turn back now though the way is clear/I will stay for the remainder. And we stayed, all 16 of us, masks on and eyes wide in anticipation, waiting for the next plot twist. Or pole twist.
BREAKTIME is a container for terrible ideas. H and J practice intense commitment to those terrible ideas and tend to find themselves in places they didn’t expect, needing things like pole-holding harnesses or tap shoes or pink sparkle skirts. Something about being ready for surprises, or expecting the unexpected. They claim to show up to rehearsal with nothing—absolutely nothing—and start from there. What better way to approach the current cultural situation?