How to look when there are so many options: Julie Mayo’s “Bluefire Sleepwalking”
Shortly after I saw Julie Mayo’s evening-length dance work Bluefire Sleepwalking, we discussed the possibility of my writing about it. The piece, which had a three-night run at Brooklyn’s Roulette in late June 2023, featured performers Justin Cabrillos, Ursula Eagly, Mia Martelli, EmmaGrace Skove-Epes, Teddy Tedholm, and Mayo herself. I’ve seen—relished—others of Mayo’s works, such as Terrific Freight (2018) and Novatia Tryer (2016). While each distinct, Bluefire Sleepwalking continues Mayo’s improvisation-based interventions upon the communicative capacities of bodies in performance. Performers are feverishly busy in physical and verbal practices unraveling before us like series of non-sequiturs. Squarely un-square. To decipher what the work means is, of course, already beside the point. But I’m writing this to articulate something about how Mayo’s work—and this most recent piece in particular—does its interrogating.
I’m re-watching a video of Bluefire Sleepwalking. It’s all so different but not. I see the dancing closer up now. The multiple cameras pan slower and more smoothly than my eyes. The shifts in Ben Demarest’s perceptive lighting design are starker now. I hear the sounds from the video—both the guttural, jerky vocalizations of the performers and the music by Winston Cook-Wilson—as a composite. Everything emanates from one center, my laptop. The thing about Julie’s work when it’s live is that it’s unyieldingly poly-centric. Both aleatory and alien. The screen smooths things out. But I don’t mean this as a screed against screens, because the funny thing is, Bluefire Sleepwalking features screens.
Each performer has a laptop or tablet. The devices differ in terms of casing, adornments, and degree of wear. They are carried in and out of the space on pedestals, such as wooden stools and black metal music stands. Performers gaze at their screen-on-legs and dance, perhaps responding to movement from rehearsal footage. Everyone—including the digital avatars—is a conductor, in both senses of the word: a vessel for electrical currents, and a maestro of their own corporeal symphony. The screens here seem to be just one of the many tools in an array of improvisational scores that motor this performance practice. It’s a rare instance where we see part of the apparatus structuring the performers’ attention.
Rare, I say, because more of the work happens without screens. Movement and voice are primary. The work begins with Martelli dancing alone. Her limbs flit and swat, and these truncated joint-folding explorations skitter her about. Eagly enters, cutting linear pathways across space. Fitful, symmetrical arm movements and lunging legs shift her from standing to crouching and back again. She issues deep, bellowing bursts of sound into the room. If Martelli’s energy is a fast-trickling stream, Eagly’s is foreboding and urchin-like. Other performers accumulate slowly, bringing divergent energetic textures: wind, genie, sun-soaked leather, toucan. Cook-Wilson’s nervy soundscape grows and shrinks, intermittently. It’s a punctuated aural field that spatializes things with a sense of vastness. There is so much we do not see.
Mayo’s practices invite reflexive responses that toggle internal and external stimulus. Each of the performers is deeply skilled in funneling multiple foci. Steeping in their own movement idiosyncrasies, the dancing becomes more inquisitive than declarative. The mundane is coaxed and mined for the strange. Cabrillos, for example, moves his spine viscously, as if to brace himself. And yet, the effect in this case is the reverse, sending him faltering through small catching steps. At another moment, Tedholm gestures with his arms in ways regal and authoritative, as a walk on relevé suddenly becomes a whimsical side-moving step. It’s like a flipbook-flash of character dances spanning from monarch to jester.
There is an un-preciousness here that characterizes a downtown release- and improvisation-based aesthetic. But there is also a dramatic heat that reminds me of action-theater—an improvisation-based form of physical theater generated by Ruth Zaporah. I’ve previously encountered action-theater in the solo performances of Heather Lundy, who trained with Zaporah. From my memory, it was like the ore of movement and language were melted down and re-formulated such that the body became an expressive lightning rod.
Mayo’s practices reconfigure bodies too. And as logics of moving the body are scrambled, so are ways of reading them. We must suspend and attend to the quietly agitated frisson of it all. Movement erupts and veers like bubbles in soda. It’s an unruly slipperiness from which to craft a composition. Some clear relations emerge, including an extended encounter between Skove-Epes, Eagly, a square pool of light, and a wordless rock ballad. Even when the two performers share a movement vocabulary and unison dancing, the same sensibility is at work: a constellation of individuals, provisionally tethered. The practices don’t unify but they do cohere. Something like disaggregate togetherness. (Everyone is moving all the time, which is true of the world as well as this dance. And it’s hard to maintain a grip on something moving.)
One of my favorite aspects of Julie’s work is her own performing, which evidences deeply practiced tilts of attention. This includes the way she sets language askew. In Bluefire Sleepwalking, the most prominent speaking part goes to Skove-Epes, whose handling of text is notably deft. “I was wondering how I might look at you,” Skove-Epes says aloud early in the work, while standing and looking at us. It’s a delightful utterance that both points to and enacts the liveness of liveness. “I was wondering how I might look at you, because there are so many options,” she continues. To hear the reflection-cum-assertion is to immediately reflect upon my own looking and reminds me: 1) this is an exchange, and 2) I have options too.
I realize now it’s a tidy distillation of what Mayo’s work does more generally. It unfixes me to rove. It makes me become like my gaze, a promiscuous saccade. I am jostled and stilled. I’m curled around the strange heat of my own body, a feverish REM cycle. Like the performers, I’m inside out.
All photos by: Rainey Scarborough