Dance between performance and image

A Journal of Performance and Art 2014English
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art Vol. 36 No. 2 (May 2014): 116-124.

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I'm lying on my back on a black floor, backstage and behind the scrim in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Fishman Space, watching and listening to Bodycast: An Artist Lecture by Suzanne

Bocanegra starring Frances McDormand. It's not the usual critical vantage point: I'm waiting for an entrance. My cameo comes halfway through, after St. Agnes in Agony's story, during a section called "Little Dot," named after one of Suzanne's performance installations in which ballerinas in pointe shoes tapped out the dots of a George Seurat painting over a period of twelve hours. I pull myself up from the floor and prepare to enter when the title pops up on the screen which to me reads: "toD elttiL."

Singer Theo Bleckmann, the other guest artist, joins me quietly on my left. We watch the show backwards, sitting three feet from the projection screen, looking at the images flipped and significantly blown up in scale. We can't see Suzanne or Frances, but we can follow the rhythms of their exchange. Suzanne reads the lecture in a low murmur that is piped into a microphone in Frances's ear, and Frances in turn enlivens and complicates those words with her delivery. Under the direction of Paul Lazar, this game of Telephone animates language, giving Suzanne's reflections another layer of meaning through her self-remove.

Among other themes, Bodycast presents images of beauty, particularly female beauty in its pervasive and constricting forms across the ages, from the Venus de Milo to the Kilgore Rangerettes. The accompanying slides visualize an array of cultural references: Our Bodies Ourselves, UPS uniforms, homemade tartans, a Titian self-portrait, George Balanchine on the January 25, 1954 cover of Time, a young woman scraped and sculpted by Eastern European nurses into a body cast.

 As in Bodycast, the performances I witnessed this fall all responded to images-aesthetic and political, accompanying or embodied, often conflicting forming a cultural history of Fall 2013 as much personal as it is public.

In contrast to Bocanegra, French choreographer Boris Charmatz briskly skims still images of Merce Cunningham's choreography to create his piece Flip Book, which he presented at MoMA. Charmatz and his dancers embody the poses depicted in photographs from David Vaughn's Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (1997), giving new life to Cunningham's choreographic imagery, or so the reasoning went. The dancers, only one actually proficient in the Cunningham technique, move in and out of the the “pictures” in varying ways, sometimes walking, running, or rolling in a face-to-face coupling. A second position plié with a tilt turns into a collage of gyrating pelvises. The dancers nervously tick their way into another tableau, and then jazz their way out. One image dissolves into a group improvisation, none more gleefully danced than the choreographer, who tossed around as if momentarily freed from the constraints he had set for himself.

Unable to transcend its influences, Flip Book reads like a naive and hackneyed homage. Aside from the obvious postmodern dance strategies of appropriating still images and running the gamut from pedestrian activity to formal dance technique, the piece was indebted to Doris Humphrey's mid-twentieth-century theory of choreography, in which space, quality, and dynamic vary in predictably ordered ways. Of course, this knock-off approach to dance making is partly the point, for what Charmatz has invented-the innovation that got him to MoMA-is not new choreographic strategies but a context, the Musée de la danse. Under the conceit of his living dance museum manifesto, images take on greater meaning-not derivative, but instead living, re-embodied history, which in his MoMA run also comes across as a peculiar obsession Charmatz has with Americana.1 But creating a context

for reception, however original cannot always legitimize inexpert content.

Even Chinatown Prada eventually meets its maker. Earlier this past fall, I watched a studio showing of Merce Cunningham's 1984 dance Pictures, in which he choreographically mimics still photographs. The Cunningham Trust staged Pictures through its ongoing series of reconstruction workshops, for the benefit of young dancers, viewers lucky enough to see the showings, and the dance world alike.

In Pictures, Cunningham recreates the death inherent in a still image-its immutable, silent quality-in a living dance. The piece moves through tableaux of dancers in pairs, trios, or groups, into transitional steps, and back into Cunningham’s invented formations. While the ambiance remains placid, thanks to music by David Behrman, the images contain internal tension: a dancer lies on his back, legs pulled up into the air by another dancer, while a third pulls away and off to the side. The rigidity of the Cunningham body, which appears especially constrained in the current landscape of Gaga and Forsythe techniques, offers a way to think sculpturally. Pictures is an unusual Cunningham piece -a static negative, of sorts, to his other work, in that the plasticity of the dancers poses holds greater significance than any in-between steps, in contrast to the manifestos that he usually launches through motion.

The tableaux in Charmatz's Flip Book and in the studio showing I saw of Cunningham's Pictures both accentuate a gap between a master's work and its execution, but for different reasons and effect. In the Cunningham showing, the gap lay between the youthfulness of the dancers and the field of Merce's dance. A dance that is almost never staged and that is articulated by not yet fully articulate dancers may seem depressing to some-a fading referent, straining for form. But I felt far more hopeful about these softly sketched, almost-Cunningham images, which represented the long arm of Merce developing young dancers from the great beyond.

In their duet Night Stand, Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton also design images, which in this piece are truly thought-made- flesh. As artists who came of age in the '60s and '70s, respectively, pioneering entire aesthetic movements, Paxton and Nelson are expert, articulate performers. I had never seen Nelson dance, or Paxton perform anything other than solos. Presented by the Dia Art Foundation, the piece felt like an occasion piece in celebration of their artistic relationship.

Nelson and Paxton create characters through their interaction with objects. Nelson arrives upstage left with a long, curved tree branch, skinned to bare wood. She carries it like a divining rod, testing, dipping-slowly sensing her way on from upstage, faculties on high alert-as downstage on the ground, Paxton explores his spine. This may sound reductive, but it wasn't, for Paxton's tiniest movements realign planetary orbits.

Some of the most satisfying images derive from their connections and responses. Soon after Nelson's arrival, Paxton rises to his feet, and as Nelson moves around him, he shifts his focus to her, though she faces away from him. He pauses when she pauses, and continues when she continues. This delicate linkage undergirds the entire piece. The lighting design by Carol Mullins, and the scenic elements designed by Nelson and Paxton, consisting of two flats and a platform on wheels, further help to alter the nature of the stage space and the events evoked. In one moment, Paxton stands motionless in a pool of bright white light while Nelson casts herself onto the platform and rides it upstage into the shadows, like a shipwrecked victim hurled upon sea-soaked shores.

Understated humor runs through the piece, too. Paxton ties a tissue box to his head at a rakish angle, turning it into a headlamp. Later, Nelson turns the pillow balanced on her head into a purse by hooking its strap over her shoulder and struts off like a 1950s lady on Madison Avenue. Paxton wears a T- shirt and cotton pants until he disappears into an oversized fabric, churns around, and reappears looking like a Japanese warrior. As my fellow performance-goer, art critic Douglas Crimp, noted, "There was a good dose of the absurd in this piece..."

The collection of moving pictures in Night Stand can be understood as a symptom of the artists' long-term practice. Nelson and Paxton are both based in Vermont, and the piece reveals the kaleidoscopic work accomplishable in far-flung locales. Exactly what the New York City-centric dance world has difficulty imagining-the deep and multifaceted grooves of a de-centered practice. 

Whereas Night Stand invents a nonliteral fantasy world, Gregory Maqoma conjures a specific historical time and place through his imagery. In Exit/ Exist, Maqoma embodies his ancestor, a nineteenth-century Xhosa chief who fought on behalf of his people against British invasion and was imprisoned on Robben Island. Costuming assists in twenty-first-century Maqoma's transformation: he begins the piece dressed in a light gray suit-clearly indicating his ties to modernity-before changing into an animal hide sheath and plunging into the past. 

Projected supertitles support the storytelling, but the real narrative thrust comes from the changes in Maqoma's movement quality. Each new dance signals a new phase of the story, aided by live accompaniment from guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and the Complete Quartet, and the music of Simphiwe Dana. During one section when Chief Maqoma is at his peak, he performs a dance with raised, clenched fists, symbolizing strength. Often different rhythms within the feet delineate an episode. In another moment, Maqoma dances with a silver plate on his head. His feet scurry outward and back, largely contained in a small area underneath him. This celebratory dance ends when he tosses the plate to the ground and kneels before a pile of salt.

Maqoma's choreography bridges abstraction and narration. He synthesizes movement, stripping away certain signifiers, though very differently than Cunningham, in order to re-contextualize it within an alternative time and place. This near-minimalist distillation allows the varied textures of his dancing to bear the weight of the story and move it forward. It also permits him to use dance to make a political point. Exit/Exist is postcolonial commentary: Maqoma embodies a familial moment in South African colonial history in order to speak about the egregious and pillaging actions of colonial rule. 

The piece winds its way surprisingly down to Chief Maqoma's defeat. As the supertitle explains, the villagers looked on in disbelief as this formerly proud warrior trudged vanquished toward the sea. He paused to listen to the seagulls, and "looked at this place of humiliation." This phrase stayed with me, for it signals Maqoma's originality in presenting a story that does not end in triumph. Instead, he concludes with an image of self-reflection and recognition, completed as Maqoma the dancer coats his body in oil. His self-reflexivity offers a way to trip the circumstance, to overturn the oppressor, for what cannot be taken is the mind.

Maqoma studied in Africa and Europe, and draws on a cosmopolitan toolkit in crafting his work. But while his time at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's school P.A.R.T.S. undoubtedly left its traces, his choices share more in common with the work I have seen of Souleymane Badolo, Lacina Coulibaly, Opiyo Okach, and Faustin Linyekula, among other African artists who are developing a contemporary aesthetic as forceful, relational, and unique as that of American or European postmodern dance. While their work is highly individual, the aesthetic shares certain recurring motifs, including episodic structures; symbolic materiality such as flour, grain, salt, or oil, often coating the body; costumes that move between business suits and traditional garb; and the presence of ancestors, channeled and embodied. Stage space is often conceived of temporally, meaning different spaces on the stage demarcate different moments in time.

This time-bound use of space, among other things, is not part of the Western postmodern dance legacy, which remains notably averse to overt signage, or the idea that movement might carry emotional, religious, or political symbolism. The differences can lead to the inability of audiences and critics to connect with the work. I found it telling, if unsettling, that the afternoon performance I attended of Charmatz's work at MoMA was packed to overflowing, while Maqoma's performance, presented in Brooklyn, had much less than a full house. Charmatz showed American audiences our own familiar culture, slightly French-ified, tapping into spectatorship's most narcissistic dimension. Maqoma told an arguably local story of South African colonial history, with resonances that should be global. Maqoma's work inspires a much-needed reevaluation on the home front of what concert dance is and can do - how about curating Maqoma at MoMA?

Maqoma's work stands in contrast to the bitter end of the evolution of American postmodern dance aesthetics -the point at which it has 11 exhausted itself, closed back on itself, and perpetuates itself solely by consuming its own tail," to repurpose Yvonne Rainer's late'60s diatribe against classic modern dance. We've reached that nihilistic moment, driven there by lesser artists, in which "movement for movement's sake" actually can mean nothing at all.2

I want to return to Charmatz, because he presented one remarkable piece during his three-part MoMA residency, Levées des conflits extended, that did transcend its influences, and did say something. On arrival, I did not think much of it-it looked like dancey-dance, as if the dancers were simply riffing on a set of gestures with no form aside from the freedom to choose. Like a number of dance works I had seen there before, I suspected the monumental MoMA atrium would crush it.

But then part of the score gradually came into focus: the dancers ran to "stations," performed set movements there for a while and then, with some unseen cue, moved to another station. The dancer who arrived directly in front of me kneeled, rotated, and pressed her right hand to the ground between her legs, and moved her wrist in a small circular motion. Another dancer arrived and faced her, leaned back on his hands and rolled his shoulders, feet, and ankles. From where I stood, it looked like seasickness until paired with the kneeling dancer and then all that undulating looked like a kind of virtual sex, particularly when they locked eyes. Nearby, another dancer hauled an imaginary anvil in an arc over his head and back to the earth. Twenty-five gestures in total cycled through the group of twenty-four dancers, with one gesture not performed at any given moment, though the rationale of how the movements passed through remained elusive.

Eventually, the dancers spiraled slowly into a whirlpool. As this circle formed, I started to feel that the dance was holding its own, surpassing the walls of the museum by generating " excess" in every sense-the excessive energy of human beings in continuous action, and excessive sound, designed by Olivier Renouf, which became increasingly thunderous. The dancers were so focused, energized and absorbing to watch engage with their tasks and with each other that I bought it all. Even managing to transcend his predecessors (for example, Twyla Tharp's Torelli, 1971), Charmatz's entire premise sublimated into a frenzied encounter with humanity.

But the part I enjoyed the most, I saw after I had left the space and returned, when I happened upon Charmatz's absorbing solo improvisation. The atrium had cleared. A mere ten other people and I watched attentively. Only after about five minutes did I realize that he knew the road map. One by one, thetwenty-five gestures appeared, looking as if he had carved them spontaneously, just as Rodin sculpted movement from raw marble. After standing there for a period of time, I began to feel that the museum context and our rapt gazes were unduly fetishizing his forty-year old body, and I left before he was done. While the performances I have described thus far managed to speak with minimal production values, the one mega-production I saw was Akram Khan's 2011 solo work Desh, presented by Lincoln Center's White Light Festival. While the movie-strength production quality of Desh sometimes feels overwhelming, one quickly tunes back in anytime Khan moves, which in Desh was constantly.

As with Maqoma, Khan's movement evokes not only story, but also subaltern perspective. In one scene, Khan tells his niece, a British-accented child who appears mainly as a voiceover, 11 If you want to hear the rest of the story you'll need to learn Bangla. Because the password is in Bangla." With that, he takes her imaginary hand in his and begins the gentle rhythms of khathak, the dance form he was originally trained in, and yet which appears only in pointillist fashion in Desh. The khathak transforms into a scene of adolescent Akram practicing steps that range from classical Indian dance to Michael Jackson moves. His father interrupts, conjured by Khan using the top of his bald head for a face; suddenly a gangly old Indian man emerges, stooped and expressive, complaining repeatedly, "Akram, are you even listening to me?"

British-Bangladeshi Khan is the quintessential global subject, with the talent and wherewithal to press the conflicting nature of multicultural identity onto the international stage. That Khan crafts his niece and father out of his own body suggests that they are in him, and he in them. But this virtuosic duality also captures the impossible synthesis of multiculturalism. In one section, he fluttered across the stage -Akram the dancer bent over and staring at the floor, the painted-on face of the hunched father staring straight front, his arms flapping dramatically in flight. We see both at once. There is no clear quest in the piece except for resolution between Khan and his father, which can never be accomplished, coming from a place and not being any longer part of that place. "Come with me to Bangladesh... " the father says. Khan ends up there, with challenged telecommunications, speaking to a twelve-year-old operator in Chittagong. "The monsoon, did you say?" he asks of the bad connection, and once he gets through: "I've got a problem with my iPhone . . ."

The spectacular elements of Desh make Khan's cultural commentary unquestionably legible to Lincoln Center's elite audiences. With collaborators Tim Yip on visual design, Michal Hulls on lighting, and composer Jocelyn Pook, additional production components included an impressively done Where the Wild Things Are-like animation sequence, a descending lighting grid, and a vast curtain of white silks. My qualm about Desh's production value is the fear that it sets such a high bar for what makes an audience listen to stories of postcoloniality that it makes it more difficult for an artist like Maqoma -whose supertitles were awkwardly translated-to be heard.

Suzanne Bocanegra's Bodycast illustrates the complexity possible with more minimal means. My cameo is brief and curious to do. I come out, sit on a small raised platform, put on red pointe shoes, and after Frances explains the installation "Little Dot," I perform an excerpt - six hundred and sixty-four bourrées in place, visibly counting as I go. The platform is amplified and at a certain point the volume increases, filling the space with the sound of me driving my pointe shoes hard into the floor, much harder than is technically correct. The image offers an antidote to the Maria Taglioni fairies that appear later. After I'm done, I lower back down, take my shoes off, and leave the stage. If I am to read the image I participate in making from myopic proximity (surely folly to attempt, doomed to failure), the ballerina alludes to an idealized female beauty, while challenging that ideal by performing ballet vocabulary in oddly incongruous ways. I'm a postmodern ballerina, grumpily self-reflexive even as I produce the form.

In her lecture, Suzanne eventually describes the two-year period of her adolescence that she spent in a body cast to correct for scoliosis. The impersonal medical images of young women constrained in plaster casts before measuring boards become more and more painful to behold by the night-even viewed backward from behind the scrim. Avantgarde filmmaker Maya Deren wrote in 1946 that an "individual moment or image is valuable only insofar as its ripples spread outward ... "3 She stressed the independence of images that are not symbolic of concepts outside of themselves, but that instead are intrinsically provocative, inciting an emotion, experience or idea-action caused by specificity of detail and arrangement. If I have one final observation on the performances I saw this fall, it is that effective images act by insisting that the viewer reflects on his or her own perspective. And in their most thought-provoking juxtaposition, these images force you to confront what you do not understand. 


1. Boris Charmatz, "Manifesto for the Dancing Museum," Museum of Modern Art website, accessed January 3, 2013, http://

2. Yvonne Rainer, "A Quasi Survey of Some 'Minimalist' Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Amidst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A," in A Woman Who-: essays, interviews, scripts. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 30-37.

3. Maya Deren, "An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film," in Bruce R. McPherson, ed., Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005), 69.