Review: ‘Apart From Me’ Engages the Audience on Its Own Terms

Wearable fabric sculptures meet interactive sound

Photographs by Renee Rosensteel, courtesy of the New Hazlett Theater.

Picking up where The Glassblock left off last year and as part of a Recital sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2017–2018 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Apart From Me by H. Gene Thompson and Arvid Tomayko, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelists Maree ReMalia and Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.

By David Bernabo

Through the activation of wearable fabric sculptures, an atypical structure, and direct interaction between movement and the resulting sound, H. Gene Thompson and Arvid Tomayko’s Apart From Me, a collaboration with Ru Emmons and Anna Azizzy, requires the audience to engage with the work on its own terms.

This evening-length performance is an example of world building — a world filled with large, colorful, wearable fabric sculptures activated by performers — complete with its own set of characters, rules, and limits. To that end, the rules of dance or theater or gallery-bound installation art do not apply and shouldn’t be forced upon the work. Instead, the audience needs to see where the performers take the piece and then reflect on that journey.

Fading in from darkness, the performance starts with Emmons, centerstage in a stitched-together sleeveless jumpsuit, overseeing two moving mounds of fabric, animated by Azizzy and Thompson. On a back wall platform, composer and musician Tomayko is positioned about ten feet off the ground, stationed behind a table of computers and instruments, receiving and processing data sent from sensors strapped to the movers and from cameras stationed around the stage, turning that real-time data into music. As Azizzy and Thompson explore their new fabric shells, the audience begins to understand how this world works.

Movement feeds into the sound world, which then propels the movers, which then feeds back into the sound world. This closed-loop defines the context for the sound world and dictates the tone — often atmospheric, ambient, slightly melancholic — of each interaction in the larger stage world.

The fabric sculptures are not merely costumes, but act as the medium to plot progression. Over time, the performers unearth new layers and pockets of fabric, often revealing bright, bold colors. In the opening sequence, the two dark blue mounds of fabric give way to a squared-figure 8 shape, if flipped on its side, bright white with sparse blue stripes. Each transformation is like watching a butterfly emerge from a caterpillar. It’s gorgeous, and you can’t take your eyes off it.

There are precedents in the wearable sculptures of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla, the slightly immobile wearables from Louise Bourgeois, Nick Cave’s phenomenal Soundsuits, or in Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés. The Bauhaus school’s Oskar Schlemmer created some of the most radical costumes, transforming bodies into architectural forms. More closely, in the dance world, choreographer Martha Graham’s Lamentations (1930) placed the soloist in a long, purple fabric tube. Speaking of this piece, Graham stated, “I wear a long tube of material to indicate the tragedy that obsesses the body, the ability to stretch inside your own skin, to witness and test the perimeters and boundaries of grief.”

Like Graham, there is a specificity to the pairing of Thompson’s sculptures and the resulting movement. The wearable sculpture is the genesis for each of the 10 or so scenes. The internal dimensions of the elastic fabric drive the actions of and interactions between performers. Once the fabric is explored fully, the scene ends, the performers leave the stage, and they re-enter with a new sculpture to begin the process again.

Apart From Me is certainly not Fellini-esque in many ways, but there is something to the episodic structure and playful nature that recalls the rolling, carnival-esque non-plot of Amarcord or many of the Italian director’s post-8 ½ films.

This structure sidesteps the favored three-act setup of narrative fiction. And there is no hero’s journey here. Instead, we are treated to a series of vignettes where three amorphous characters investigate, play games, and interact. Sometimes they act independently, but more often, the trio is working together to achieve a goal. This structure risks leaving the performance flat, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but wisely, the performers switch up the flow at the ⅓ and ⅔ marks.

After two fabric sculptures are investigated at the beginning of the piece, Thompson, Emmons, and Azizzy bring out fabric covered plastic bags and attempt to blow them up. In one of the few times where an outside object with its own contextual history is injected into the piece, Azizzy brings a shop vac onto the stage and one-ups the other performers with the speed and loud grace of a shop vac-filled plastic bag. Clear narrative is at the forefront in this scene — sort of like a Spy vs. Spy cartoon filtered through a Sesame Street animation. Later on, all three performers affix springs (like a Slinky) to the theater’s support beam and rattle them. It’s the most dramatic moment of the performance, aided greatly by the escalating sound of contact microphones relaying the spring sounds through Tomayko’s music station.

Similar to how Graham defines the tube sculpture as a stand-in for the spectrum of grief, the supplemental text and the post-show Q&A for Apart From Me speak to the imperfection of modern communication, “the masks that people wear,” and (from the Q&A) capitalism. While it can be argued that every form of art made under the individual-stomping, profit-maximizing world of capitalism can be described as being “about capitalism,” as a panel, we thought that these intended narrative themes were subtle, if present at all.

It is easier to get wrapped up in the expertly executed manipulation of fabric, the tasteful lighting enhancing the fabric, and the perfectly composed and designed sound world — situated somewhere between detuned 80s synths, the Japanese Wave Notation music series, arrhythmic collage, and minimalist composition.

The review panel was curious about the role of the characters and the role of the body. Throughout the piece, the performers appeared to be in service of the sculptures. In the opening sequence, it was surprising to see Azizzy and Thompson emerge from the sculptures. Initially, the sculptures appeared to be alive, objects with consciousness. The reveal of performers powering the sculptures questioned the existence of the sculpture and opened the audience to a wider range of interpretations. Is this a transformation from sculpture to human? Are performers merely acting out scenarios, aware of their costumes? Without a body, the sculptures lie flat on the floor, dormant. The rules of this world imply a symbiotic and dependent relationship between performer and sculpture.

Having seen some of the earlier duos between Thompson and Tomayko, Apart From Me is a major leap in terms of the physical construction of sculptures, collaborating with new performers, and filling a large theater with an exciting and boundary-pushing performance. The New Hazlett CSA performance series offers the opportunity to expand one’s performance, and this quartet of performers certainly rose to the occasion.

Panelist Bios:

Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Maree ReMalia is a choreographer, performer, and teacher. Born in South Korea, and raised in the Midwest, her work celebrates diversity by opening possibilities for who dancers are, what they look like, how they move, and how they train. merrygogo is her platform for creating project-based performance works with communities of shifting collaborators. Through her choreography and teaching, she draws from improvisational methods across disciplines and the Gaga movement language to build community and make space for people to make new discoveries in playful and inquisitive ways.