SIGHTLINES: Amanda Hameline and Wendell Gray II

In the spirit of the works performed in the May 19th program of the SIGHTLINES residency showing, allow me to tell you three things that happened to me the day of the performance:

  1. I was bitten by a dog
  2. A woman on my block attempted to gift me an entire frozen turkey
  3. I drank an elderflower cocktail

What do these bizarre and seemingly unrelated (though, in this case, all true) facts about my day have to do with a dance performance? Both works in the program had as their primary concern the way real life can uncomfortably intrude upon the artifice of performance.

SIGHTLINES, a residency in its first year and hosted at the converted warehouse Coffey Street Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn from May 19-25, had four inaugural resident artists. The evening I attended featured two: Amanda Hameline, co-curator of the residency with Hollis Bartlett, also one of the resident artists, and Wendell Gray II.

Hameline’s How much time do we have left? begins with the flirtatious selection of The Audience Member. Hameline, Anna Hull, and Jace Weyant bop around the stage making eyes at the audience, looking like single partygoers trying to lock eyes with the cutie across the room. Eventually they settle on an audience member. This evening, his name is Matteo. Matteo gets put in a special chair and told that the whole show is for him. The rest of us are also there in service of Matteo, and we get put to work. We are told to set a timer for 30 minutes on our smartphones. The artists don’t want Matteo to get bored, and 30 minutes seems like a reasonable amount of time. When the alarms go off, they will stop performing no matter what is happening.

The proceeding episodes alternate between genuine, almost too serious dancing and ridiculous dialogue which interrupts the movement to remind us that this isn’t just a dance performance, it’s a dance performance about dance performance. A prime example is an early moment when the garage-style door located behind the audience begins to loudly and slowly rise and a fourth dancer, Sierra Hendrix, makes an incredibly dramatic entrance, silhouetted in the doorway and then entering with a distorted, self-serious, and virtuosic solo. At the end, Hameline introduces her: “That’s Sierra. She’s a little much.”

Each of the dancers gets the chance to introduce themselves (to only Matteo, of course), through various spoken interludes. When they first meet Matteo, they share obscure and irreverent bits about themselves into a microphone: Weyant: “my blood type is AB-”; Hull: “I’m afraid of birds”; Bridget Haile, a vocalist who accompanies the piece live: “I think some dogs are very ugly.” Hameline, noticeably wearing a smart watch throughout the first minutes of the piece, proceeds to share her vitals: current heart rate: 88bpm, resting: 53 bpm, variation: 58bpm. They then do a dance reportedly designed using these numbers. It’s impossible to tell how, but the movement is compelling and geometric. The dancers seem to be trying to point to every corner of the large, industrial space with each surface of their body.

Less successful is a projection on a screen upstage offering yet more viewpoints on performativity. Between the plentiful activity on stage and an inconveniently placed pillar which blocked my view, the projection went largely unnoticed.

The moment the timers go off, a cacophony of various boilerplate beeps and boops, is pretty miraculous. Though presumably it comes at a different juncture each night, during this show Weyant has just calmly recited what they claimed to be their Social Security Number into the microphone — the perfect moment of ironically detached overshare to go out on.

Wendell Gray II’s The People Show also goes “inside baseball” on the artifice of the stage, but from a different angle. The trio, danced by Bria Bacon, Dominica Greene, and Rachel Gill with periodic interruptions and redirections by Gray dressed as a stage manager, is about pre-performance. In the dances very first moments, Greene enters looking queasy, about to vomit, then morphs through a range of other emotions. Joined by Bacon and Gill, they smile, grimace, and eventually break out into a jazzy routine of rhythmic lunges and head banging.

Sudden shifts come one after the other — the routine stops and the performers move to a ladder placed upstage and draped with clothing and fabric. They change out of their long, sparkly dresses and into the uniform of contemporary dance rehearsals (e.g, Adidas pants, baggy tops). The episodes in The People Show rely less upon any stated ironic premise, as in the previous work, and more on showing the joints and sinews of the creative process. The soundscore is often full of clunky, distorted noises, giving the already industrial space the cacophonous air of creation.

In the work’s movement-based episodes, the choreography strikes a difficult balance between beautiful, precisely rehearsed unison and the sort of shakes, stretches, and arbitrary noodling that one might use to warm up pre-show. In one section, the three dancers face each other and link hands, creating a small circle inside of which they slowly hoist their legs higher and higher, each seemingly trying to beat the others to the highest extension. They proceed to break apart, regroup, and utter a quiet “5,6,7,8” before charging back into movement.

In contrast to Hameline’s direct, transparent audience address, Gray’s text is symbolic. Bacon and Gill go back and forth with a series of simple spoken phrases which they repeat with different stresses and intonations: “What’s real anyway?” “I don’t like that.” “This is the year.” “I look good.” They seem to be both figuring out their lines, what they mean and how to deliver them, as well as musing obliquely about the experience of being a performer.

Beyond their thematic connections, the two works are linked by particulars. Both:

  • Feature costume changes from formal dresses into dance or athletic clothes to mark the transition from “performance” to “performance about performance.”
  • Include dialogue between the performers that is inaudible or difficult to parse from the audience.
  • End through direct interventions by their directors, Hameline through instructing the audience to set their timers and Gray through a verbal “black out.”
  • Poke fun at the idea of honest vulnerability on stage: in How much time do we have left? the performers each walk Matteo through their incredibly virtuous morning routines featuring 6am wakeups, ridiculously healthy oatmeal, and perfect roommate synergy, only to immediately admit that these were lies or distortions of their much more human tendencies. In The People Show, Greene and Gill act out a scene in which two actors auditioning for roles discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations as performers. While they nonchalantly trade compliments and insecurities, they melt backwards into their chairs, arms and upper back splayed out in a high release, and gradually melt to the floor.

There is something of a “have your cake and eat it too” approach to making dances like these. The choreographers get to show off the physical ability of their dancers and their skill at crafting impressive ensemble choreography full of high legs, explosive jumps, and nimble gestural work. At the same time, they get to show that they don’t genuinely subscribe to traditional notions of beauty, artifice, and the performer/audience divide. It’s a clever way to be both avant-garde enough for the experimentally inclined audience and pleasurable enough for the traditionalist or newcomer. Given that Hameline co-curated the residency, it’s unsurprising she was drawn to an artist who shares these instincts. While one could easily argue a need for more aesthetic diversity, in this case the similarities between the two works illuminated different sides of the surreal world of the stage, made ever more strange by artists who push its limits.

Photos by Elyse Mertz. IDs:
How much time: Jace Weyant (in yellow), Sierra Hendrix (green), Anna Hull (brown), Amanda Hameline (tan)
The People Show: Bria Bacon (back left), Dominica Greene (front center), and Rachel Gill (back right).

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