A Litany of Questions, Observations, and a Fragment of Whitman
December 30, 2017
Responding to the premiere of fôr, a bi-city multidisciplinary collaborative exchange between slowdanger, a movement and sound duo based in Pittsburgh, and MICHIYAYA Dance based in New York. In December 2017 the work premiered at the Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater Alloy Studios in Pittsburgh. It was carried from the breath of the Atlantic across the shoulders of an ancient sea by these four beautiful bodies: Anna Thompson, Taylor Knight, Mitsuko Verdery, and Anya Clarke.
Whose mountains? (I have climbed them)
What bodies? (I have traced them)
How song? (I have heard her)
When beginning? (Deep Time)
We are invited into a slow dance.
This is not entertainment but ritual.
Ritual of recovering the many, many identities that form the self.
Ritual of rediscovering the many, many forms that once were body.
Upon entering you are told simply: “Go find your seat. It has already begun. This part is interactive.” A performance unfolds in sound and flesh. Seats full of witnesses. Small theater transformed with light: dim purple, pink overtones, afloat. Back wall transformed with line: mountain range in black tape provides depth, landscape, heart rate, vision, destination.
Can ritual become entertainment?
Ritual can become entertainment but that does not make it art.
Entertainment can become ritual but rarely becomes art.
Dancers are athletes training in ritual.
They arrive with their bodies and nowhere to hide.
Dancers are the most honest artists I know. What is the lie with nowhere to hide?
Athletes of the art world: I bow my brush and body to them.
Discipline of breath and bone: I bow this type and time to them.
We are in the theater where I premiered my own work a year earlier but it is nothing the same. Whatever my special memory conjures dissolves just as fast and I remain grounded in fôr. It is fresh, open, sensual, experimental. The hallmarks of both slowdanger and MICHIYAYA and together it becomes more than double.
The past and present wilt — I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
During the one-hour performance scenes are introduced through the various shifting identities of the four characters. There is a duality in this experience: the work is non-linear and yet there is a certain arc that builds on itself gradually and definitely throughout the night. Identity, which is the heart of the work, is constantly being questioned through an ongoing rearrangement
between the four characters. What is presented in one scene by Taylor gets exchanged and given to the Mitsuko in the next, and what Anya relates to us gets transferred, or translated, to Anna. Two fencing masks are worn or torn off while two mask-less faces are watching. This is the strength of the work. Everything layered in geological time. The next rock strata is the live and recorded audio that creates its own haunting and sublime environment. Anna is the lead vocalist for the evening, and creates melodies and songs that are performed with previous recordings. The result is a powerful and dynamic evening that is not soon forgotten, that lodges in your mind like the memory of a very strong, surreal, and important dream you wish never to forget and that you spend the rest of the day thinking about.
The beginning is like this: two bodies in sweaty, entangled motion. White male. Black female. Four arms. Four legs. Two heads. Two hearts. Twenty fingers. Four hundred and twelve bones. The binary is broken — this is all interwoven story. Apologies if your preference is boxes. The pulse of multiplicity. Limitless genders, colors, and levels of intensity and syncopation.
Diverse spectrum between just two. Who once, sometimes, are called Taylor and Anya. slowdanger and MICHIYAYA. Her him. Queer straight. Who what why. Sound carries Anna, on a microphone, crawling on the floor. She performs with her voice as a mirror to movement. I know Mitsuko is near, and connected to the mountain line. That comforts me, and I follow her.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Look at her face which is covered in mask. She fenced and was fenced. Your fence, your division. Nothing can be seen. I am all dark, all light. Her head draped in fencing, mask. The other, he was wild-eyed. Where had he had escaped from? What containment? Although I felt an early grace in all this movement, I was concerned. Tension building…something happening was not right. (Trump was elected president of the United States of America on November 9, 2017). We move in shorthand because how do we have language for this. We do not. We do not know. We do not. NO. NO. We Resist This Tyrannical System.
And art. Art is anything felt as translation from something else. In art we are free.
We are free?
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Even if dance is the most authentic language we have, it is still a fiction — fabricated towards our own desires and embellishments. Even made manifest by the artist-athletes who are disciplines of distant memory recalled as movement — it is still forgotten dream. And everything is fragment. Where for truth then? What for truth then? Science? The emotion of the earth is evident in all life. Suddenly the fencing mask transforms into the helmet of Virtual Reality, and slowdanger’s last solo project was recalled, and everything is continuum. Anna Henson, the artist they collaborated with on that earlier project, was seated in front of me. Everything in continuum.
The original two bodies in dialogue have now blossomed fully into four. Four heartbeats. Eight arms. Eight hundred twenty four bones. Earth people. Lines of bodies in ecstatic disharmony and agony are gorgeous. Earth dance people. But suddenly, now, we see the bodies as they might be on Mars. Orange and naked. Empty and strange life. My interpretation is that the story being told is a historical account of this exact political and ecological moment. And on earth, right now, we are being poisoned. We are being poisoned. By our government. We are being poisoned. I watch their four bodies explode in orange light and I have no words for any of it except the frantic scrawl in my notebook, over and over: On earth we are being poisoned. On earth we are
The rareness of it, these performances. They reference our oldest bodies, our farthest futures. Fragile and powerful, they vanish into thin air — a magic trick. What remains: the photograph, video, stray notes in a book. These fragments act like fossils from an extinct species that roamed for one “evening-length” moment on earth as if saying — I have seen all of this before
because I have been through all this already. Now my responsibility is to create this dance. This rareness leads to my certain desire to turn staged choreographic dance works into unique, inspired short 16mm films. To cement them as translation into something equally beautiful — a thin, colorful container — as worthy as this original breath. Then the filming itself becomes
another ritual. This is future work with groundwork laid and tests already completed — these intentions to be realized in the coming years.
(Wild Clarity, J.Meridian, 2015–2017, series of cinematic videos with major performances by slowdanger, Jasmine Hearn, Gia T, and
One way to review contemporary art is to understand that all cultural production, in particular what we call “art”, can be read as a historical document. It is challenging to consider this present moment as already archived in history, but if you take the long view and step back, it works. December 2017: New York City and Pittsburgh. Two states in the United Divided States of Amerikkka — all that is happening politically, ecologically, micro/macro. Four bodies explode and disappear together, pink to black to orange, horizontal to vertical, lullaby voice to alarm sirens and a wall is kicked in. Circles and circles and screams. I am seated there as witness both paralyzed and electrified before this fleeting, throbbing scene, and if I had to translate this work into words to describe and express this historical moment it would be this:
We are bodies. Aching to sing. Aching to sing. We stretch ourselves in every imaginable way, our animal molecules once lived underwater. There is heartbreak, and masks, and masquerades. What is felt is seen, what is touched is shared. What world are we inheriting from the older generation? Let us pause to consider that. What identity are we inheriting from the older generation? Let us pause to consider that. Once fully understood, let us shake loose these old ideas (racism, sexism, bigotry, the poisoned extractive demands on our natural environment) and bring forth new ways of seeing ourselves, land, bodies. We reject what you have given us because it is as toxic as every world war and all the ones to follow. We reject your hatred, segregation, your violence. We reject your poisoned lands, water, air. We stand as witnesses and warriors. We will not go gently down. We will dance as we fight. We will fight as dance. This is ritualistic and an urgent call to action. Therefore, this is a historical account of a flashing rare species called fôr as seen on the night of December 15, 2017 in Pittsburgh PA under the auspicious names of slowdanger and MICHIYAYA Dance.
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?
All fragments of poem, in italics throughout the essay, come from:
Whitman, Walt, “Song of Myself,” Section 51, Leaves of Grass, 1892
Artist and Observer of Human Behavior, Collaborator and Wanderer, Human Being trying her best to Be Humane. Currently based in an ancient sea bed known affectionately as Pittsburgh, PA, USA.