Dance Mongering: A Response to the 2019 Walking Distance Dance Festival
You know, we’re all mongers of one sort or another. Whatever we’re selling — fish or gossip or war or peace — it’s the imperative of determining our own future that seizes us. That’s why I make works that tell a story. It’s my way of mongering.
(Barak Marshall, L.A. Times, 2011)
The imperative of determining our own future, the claim to strike new ways of connecting and being in the world permeated the works presented at ODC’s 2019 Walking Distance Dance Festival. The works addressed and intersected themes of emancipation and responsibility to act against oppressive structures, whether these are witnessed or experienced (Monger, ELECTROGYNOUS, listening creates an opening), identity (listening creates an opening, ELECTROGYNOUS) and the search for genuine connection (ELECTROGYNOUS, Resonant Frequencies, Canine Comfort).
Monger and ELECTROGYNOUS tackled oppression and the possibility of constructing a reality that refuses and moves beyond inherited power structures. In the work by Los Angeles-based choreographer Barak Marshall, the lives of 10 house workers are at the mercy of the tyrannical Ms. Margaret, who commands, fires and abuses them ad nauseam. The piece alternates highly dynamic ensemble work with duets that take on a comical turn. In a vaudeville-like scene, two male dancers dress their adjacent leg and arm in a black dress, each adorning a foot with a bright red high heel, constructing a sexually abusive female character — probably Ms. Margaret — who sits in between them and continually harass them with thigh-grabbing attempts which are pushed away by the disgusted men. Monger culminates with the rebellion of the group. Marshall was the first house-choreographer at Batsheva Dance Company in Tel-Aviv and the high-powered, fast-paced, gestural and low-to-the-ground movements of Monger recall the physical language common to the Israeli contemporary dance vocabulary. “There is a lot of importance in the execution of the gestures in the piece because many of them come from Barak’s cultural background,” wrote dancer Ausia Jones via email. The performer from the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance explained that Marshall “emphasized the importance of clarity of the gestures [during rehearsals] to ensure the meaning of the piece was not lost.”
At the onset of ELECTROGYNOUS, Los Angeles-based choreographer d. Sabela grimes strides across a dark stage to start the sound and turn on a beam of light that he slowly sweeps across the audience back to the performers who are moving behind a backdrop screen, ghostlike. With a black dot in the middle, the lamp evokes an omniscient eye and gives the piece a mysterious tone. The three female performers gather in a circle and alternatively teach each other a set of movements, approving the other with a nod. Channeling warrior energy, they support each other in their learning.
ELECTROGYNOUS is a futuristic meditation on being Black: “To be Black… it’s really hard to try to explain to someone,” says the recorded voice, refusing to limit an identity to a set of recognizable or describable characteristics. Later grimes performs the many physical forms the Black body has taken in contemporary popular culture. Insisting that they are just “forms,” he shape-shifts from one persona to another smoothly, introducing each one with an adamant “this.” The images run so fluidly that it almost feels like one is watching a flipbook in motion, one whose last image is of grimes and performer Austyn Rich lying face down with their hands ‘cuffed’ behind their back — evoking the violence perpetrated by the police against Black bodies. The image echoed choreographer Kyle Abraham’s 2012 Pavement which explores the violence experienced by his community in the Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up. But here, grimes untangles his body and frees Rich, who runs for his life backstage. Later on, grimes inserts within his meditation another reference to the violence against Black bodies as he starts projecting his voice, increasing its volume in crescendo to the point where he is yelling at the top of his lungs and suddenly suffocating, until Eric Garner’s words “I can’t breathe” echo violently in the theater. But grimes refuses to let the narrative freeze on the image of a murdered Black man. He recovers his breathing, promoting the image of a liberated Black body.
In the last section, the silhouette of a space ship is projected on the backdrop, and dancers behind the screen motion toward it. The ship recalls the Holy Mothership, which is the space vehicle that Dr. Funkenstein, aka as musician George Clinton, used during his concerts as a symbol of funk deliverance. A voice calls out: “Make me a beautiful motherfucking planet!” as performers appear wearing strings of light around their neck and bodies. As they walk and dance through the darkening space, their form slowly subsides, and the eye can only distinguish dots of light, moving atoms of energy.
The image reoccurs in Bay Area Kinetech Arts’ Resonant Frequencies, which evolved from an inquiry into the role, vibrancy and rhythm of the heart. The audience sits onstage in the round, under a sculptural white fabric membrane, which evokes a chamber of the beating organ. A performer goes around, handing viewers a sealed box and asking: “Would you like to hold Hien’s heart?” The box, which has a certain weight, is connected to receptors on performer Hien Huynh’s chest, and pulsates at the rhythm of his heart. Holding the box is a metaphorical moment: it provides a sense of ultimate responsibility, connection and awe.
Throughout the piece, the performers are in a listening and improvisational mode, responding to the sounds that are produced by their movements, which are being processed through the computers handled by co-founder of Kinetech Arts Weidong Yang in one corner of the stage. At one point the performers come back wearing transparent raincoats. Is it a form of protection? Kinetech Arts Artistic Director Daiane Lopes da Silva takes the mike: “What is it like to be an eagle?” Some dancers answer her questions. At some point, she offers: “Your body is your body, not anybody’s body,” a statement that seems inextricable from the current news, most specifically the recent anti-abortion bills in several states, including Alabama, Mississipi and Missouri. Several of these bills are called “heartbeat bills,” which makes abortions illegal as soon as the embryonic or fetal heartbeat can be detected.
In the last section, the dancers remove their plastic capsule, which lie on the floor like abandoned chrysalises — da Silva picks them up with reverence, and stacks them up on a bridge of fabric in one section of the hanging set. Huynh uncoils a luminous thread, in which a round nugget of colored light travels to da Silva at the other end at the rhythm of a heartbeat. They slowly walk back toward each other until they embrace.The performers, soon wearing similar lights around their neck, dance into the dark.
An ultimate connection between beings is also at play in ODC Associate Choreographer Kimi Okada’s Canine Comfort, which illustrates one of the most ancient companionship between man and animal. Archeologists discovered the footprint of a child accompanied by a wolf in the Chauvet Cave in France, dating back to over 30,000 years ago. According to naturalist and author Mark Derr, “the dog is a creation of wolves and humans, of two equal beings who came together at a certain time in history, and have been together ever since.” Canine Comfort is an illustration of Derr’s words in movement. On Saturday, the piece was relocated from the nearby park to Studio B because of rain. It features a cast of ODC/Dance performers, non-professional dancers and their dogs. Performer Natasha Adorlee Johnson walked on stage with an umbrella, her dog Howard trotting behind, as dancers of the company assembled in the background. A group of dog walkers followed suit and performed tricks. Dancers and dogs explored unison: one dog owner instructs their dog to do a turn, which is replicated in the background by two dancers.
With listening creates an opening, Bay Area dance artist Mary Armentrout had wanted to create a connection with ODC’s neighborhood community. Stretching the performance outside of the confines of the theater, the piece took viewers on a two and a half hour ambulatory performance in 6 acts that drew a loop within the immediate neighborhood of the theater and concluded with a call for action.
The first act happened at the Blackbird Guitar Shop on Folsom Street. Dressed in a black dress, Armentrout ran center stage with a white helmet on, in an attempt to listen to someone/something somewhere (behind the wall, on an imagery phone line, in the wooden frame of the restroom door…). The black dress acted as a time-traveling prop linking her to the Victorian era and to another white female American artist, none other than poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) whose line “If I can stop one heart from breaking I shall not live in vain” reoccurred throughout the piece.
Armentrout questioned Dickinson’s seemingly lack of political engagement at a time of dramatic civil turmoil and division (civil war, slavery and the fight for abolition), implying parallels with her own art making’s relationship to the current political situation. “Emily is a safe choice, a non political figure,” Armentrout claimed, looking for “the parts that [she] can still value.” Some scholars have questioned Dickinson’s legendary isolation and read more political engagement than those who wrote her story have generally granted her. Does considering a 19th century female artist’s work through the inevitable post-feminism 21st century prism risk bordering on anachronism? Although race and class complicate this question, didn’t Dickinson’s discreet and articulate voice represent a significant act of resistance at a time when women were silenced by the political and economical power of men? These questions run through my head as I participated in Armentrout’s experiential performance. The last section of the piece echoed Armentrout’s initial questions. Claiming that “now is the future” Armentrout urged viewers to “act.” Maybe Dickinson had a limited span of action in her time, but we do not, Armentrout seemed to argue.
Part 2 unfolded in the nearby In Chan Kaajal Park, where viewers were invited to lie down and listen to sounds. I wondered if hearing the leading performer continuously point to different sounds (“maybe you hear the sound of cars? of footsteps?…”) robbed viewers of the uninterrupted space needed for true listening. At ODC Theater for part 3, Armentrout referenced her process and questioned the construction of performance via theatricality. She argued that it doesn’t really matter what the performers offer, what matters is what the audience’s imagination does with it. I agree with Armentrout that viewing does require an active listening and participation from viewers but to me, what performers do is essential: unless there is a certain level of depth, humor, research, craft, strangeness, creativity, urgency, risk, engagement (you name it… those criteria are subjective) in a work, it might be impossible for viewers to do much with the art.
Media and performance artist Ian Winters had created a fantastic made-up theatrical sky under which viewers lay in part 4. It exposed the light influx data that were recorded over a year, and echoed the previously open sky witnessed in the park. After a short part 5 in the theater lobby where performers revisited Dickinson’s words, viewers were led back to the starting place, at the guitar shop. On the wall run a projection of the landscape captured in fast-motion from a camera installed on the third floor of the theater. It provided a visual image of time passing and an additional and literal perspective of the theater: a physical place, inside a city, with people walking by, buildings being torn down and the urban landscape changing rapidly — a place of constant life, change and movement.