Writer-in-residence Carl Paris on The Protagonists: Documents of Dance and Debate
February 15, 2012
PLATFORM 2012: Parallels, The Protagonists. Carl Paris on films curated by Will Rawls.
It is far-too-rare an occasion that we are able to gather in one place and view, discuss, and learn about past and present dance events and performances by black postmodern dance choreographers. On February 4th, Will Rawls masterfully provided such a forum with The Protagonists: Documents of Dance and Debate, as part of Danspace Project’s PLATFORM 2012: Parallels series, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones. It was the second event in the Platform, and the first of two film events curated by Rawls (the second film event, Coining: An Evening of On-Screen Performance is on Tuesday, March 27.)
Saturday’s event took place at Douglas Dunn’s studio in Soho. Dunn, a towering figure in postmodern dance and a founding member of the Grand Union, spared no effort to make the panelists and packed audience feel at home. Will Rawls, whose dancing I have long admired, emerged here as an excellent curator. About his choice to name the event “Protagonists,” Rawls writes:
In speaking through dance, they [black postmoderns] hovered between abstraction and individuality in an obsolescent relationship to representations of blackness. These works were protagonistic in nature but resisted the role of a protagonist, thus the process of identifying them or identifying with them, was confronted with the fiction of its own accuracy. (Rawls, PLATFORM 2012: Parallels Catalogue, 69)
The program consisted of two parts: the first part, screenings of work from the 1982 Parallels program by Blondell Cummings, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller; and the second part, excerpts of improvised solos by Steve Paxton and Bill T. Jones and their subsequent conversation about postmodern dance as research. This line-up represents various interfaces between black avant-garde and the broader 1980s postmodern dance scene, including autobiography, abstract virtuosity, and black/white difference.
For the first screening, Blondell Cummings joined Rawls and Houston-Jones to talk about her celebrated solo, Chicken Soup, which was a section of the evening-length work Food For Thought (1981-82). The piece reflects the turn in 1980s postmodern dance toward a new expressionism, which implicitly and explicitly drew on autobiographical material (e.g. gender, sexuality, culture). Cummings explained that she was exploring how women’s roles were changing in the 70s and 80s, and that she saw food and the preparation of it as a metaphor for exploring extensions of the Self within that context. The piece is set to a Brian Eno score and writing by Grace Paley and Pat Steir. Even on an old video (shown in two excerpts) the work maintains its power. The stark clarity of Cummings’ elegant frame moving powerfully in a long white dress and apron and her remarkable ability to transform simple every-day tasks, gestures and facial expressions into evocative and poignant imagery—including walking, folding clothes, carrying the shopping bag, scrubbing the floor and stopping in mid-motion with a frying pan in hand to give a shout out to an imagined neighbor—seems eerily still relevant. We still know this woman. She is our mother, our sister, or that hardworking gossipy woman down the street.
But, although Cummings’ intention was to address “basic but universal things,” and although she created from a non-narrative, postmodern dance perspective (Cummings, cited in Cooper-Albright 1997, 128 and 133), this very familiarity would also bring into focus a broader issue that Cummings did not necessarily intend. It was not hard to see “A Black Woman” toiling in the kitchen, perhaps, even, in a white person’s kitchen. I suggest that the specificity of her black body performing that theme both realized and sabotaged her attempt at transcendence, for, as Ann Cooper Albright maintains, specifically talking about the cultural inflection of the dancing body, “This double moment of dancing in front of an audience is one in which the dancer negotiates between objectivity and subjectivity, between seeing and being seen, experiencing and being experienced . . . “ (Cooper Albright 1997, 3). Therefore, it is in this double moment, that the audience and venue have a say about the meaning (Cooper-Albright 1997).
Now it is important to note that having grown up in Harlem, Cummings has always discussed her heritage as an integral part of her; and she has made works that explore this. But Chicken Soup’s socio-political implications really came home to her after performing at the “Black Dance America” series in 1983. “Doing Chicken Soup [there] was exciting . . . . To do nontraditional dance and have black people say ‘I understand’ was wonderful . . . I thought, ‘So this is what it’s all about . . .’” (Cummings, cited in Albright 1997, 133). In this sense, this bridging of the gap between black/white postmodernism and broader socio-cultural representations seemed to bring Cummings to a new understanding of her role as a black avant-garde choreographer. At the end of her talk, I was especially moved to see Ms. Cummings receive yet another round of cheers from her peers and admirers for her many contributions to dance making.
The next screening was an excerpt from Ishmael Houston-Jones’s Part 2: Relatives. Danspace Project Executive Director Judy Hussie-Taylor describes Houston-Jones’s work as “urgent, intelligent, sly, and generous” (PLATFORM 2012: Parallels Catalogue, 9). Indeed, and I would add the notions “conceptual” and “inquisitive.” I am drawn to how Houston-Jones talks about his work in conceptual and exploratory terms: I paraphrase Houston-Jones, “I thought, well, what if I present myself this way? What am I saying with my body if I wear combat boots and no clothes? What if I put a dead carcass on stage to invoke the actual smell of death and AIDS?” According to Houston-Jones, Part 2 Relatives explores family and language, “where two things are going on at the same space,” not necessarily connected physically, yet obviously connected by relationship and context. On the surface, this would seem simple and straightforward enough, but what we do not appreciate from watching the film is that he has permeated the performance space with the smell of mothballs—as I noted, he is known for deploying such devices to engage senses that we do not usually associate with dance.
I see the piece as a kind of non-duet between Houston-Jones and his mother. The soundtrack of the clip is somewhat difficult to make out in places, but what we see on the screen is captivating. There is the opening moment when Houston-Jones approaches the side of the dance space, hoists his mother over his shoulder and carries her to a table bedecked with a family portrait and various kitchen items. As he carries his mother, her hands are neatly placed (seemingly by design) unevenly in the small of his back for stability. It is a subtle and beautiful moment in which roles seem to reverse: the strong son shoulders his mother. But she is strong too. She talks constantly, querying (improvising each time, according to Houston-Jones) telling stories about her son and the family, but first admonishing him not to drop her.
Watching Houston- Jones’ muscular meanderings, his stomping, recitation of names, and listening to his mother‘s folksy banter about dying eggs as she pours tea, conjures up for me a dialogue of junctures and distances. You understand that these two people are very close, but their worlds are also separated by age and purpose. “Give me a moment to get myself together,“ he says to his mother, as he puts her down. She quips “A moment to do what?” He does not answer. He just starts dancing and she starts talking. In reality, the piece does not hold to a specific story, but its open-ended conceptual framework allows for a million stories, moth balls and all.
The other two screenings from the original Parallels were excerpts from Ralph Lemon’s Wanda in the Awkward Age and Bebe Miller’s Vespers. These artists are similar in their sensual and introspective approach; and no wonder, Lemon and Miller are of similar age and dance training and had collaborated frequently before the Parallels event. Much of their early work focused on a virtuosic, multimedia, abstract expressionism that did not focus particularly on race, gender, or culture. Lemon’s beautifully proportioned body moved gracefully and authoritatively through space. His early works tended to combine probing texts, non-literal gestures, strong modern dance execution with a downtown pedestrianism, and almost always a certain intellectual inquietude. In conversation with Iris Fanger, Lemon states: “The works are all about me, extracting certain parts of my darker, scarier, more fearful curiosities” (Lemon interview in the Boston Herald 1991, 42). Such probing manifests itself as a certain I’m not-quite-comfortable-in-my-own-skin quality, which we see in his 1982 solo Wanda in the Awkward Age.
A little difficult to hear, the sound track is a mixture of minimalist saxophone music and a voiceover of two people talking insouciantly, among other things, about “mugging a homeless man,” according to Lemon. Filmed in black and white, the first part features two white women (Mary Goode and Simone Van den Ende) who move restively around each other in a nondescript room. In this part, Lemon emerges intermittently as a “shadowy interloper” (Rawls), but like the two women, he does not establish a physical connection with them. In the second part of the excerpt (in color), Lemon appears alone, with a bunch of bright red apples strewn throughout the space, with a bite taken out them. He is dressed in a simple pull over shirt and a long dowdy skirt—an Adam and Eve reference perhaps? There is no reference to sexuality or to the apples, though. The dance remains purposely unconnected in that respect, conveying a kind of questioning of the body and space, rising vertically to reach upward tentatively and then giving in to gravity, moving here and there swiftly, allowing us to inscribe what we want on the unencumbered abstractness of his movement. I get the overall sense that Lemon is flipping the “awkwardness” on to me; not that I actually feel awkward, but inviting me to contemplate my own enthralled dilemmas in piecing the images together. After the screening, Lemon noted that he created this solo at a time of personal journey, and a time of love lost. Whatever the sources, for me, it is precisely these dark probings that project a consistent sense of beauty and purposeful energy in all of his work.
Of similar sensitivity and technical brilliance, Bebe Miller’s Vespers represents a more straight-forward approach.The Gregorian chant (sung by Linda Gibbs) and the austere St. Marks Church space provided a stark but welcoming frame for Miller’s sensuous exploration of body and spirit. I was particularly drawn to how Miller uses her arms. Their floating, stopping quality and her overall formidable execution seem to talk about tensions between action and reverie. In this, I agree with Rawls, who writes, “This performance is a congregation of many dualities, austere, archaic and sensual, airborne and grounded, still and kinetic, vocal and physical, archaic and contemporary” (Parallels Catalogue). Such tensions play out for example in Miller’s relationship with the singer who remains almost soldier-like at attention as Miller moves around the space fluidly; and only goes close to the singer near the end, at which time (apparently by coincidence) we hear church bells. Whether intentional or not, the unexpected moment adds surprise and spiritual power to this particular version.
Part 2 consisted of excerpts of a conversation between Steve Paxton who is white (the then leading proponent of contact improvisation) and Bill T. Jones, a then emergent, but already powerfully charismatic black postmodern choreographer. The event occurred in 1983, one year after the Parallels program, as a Movement Research Studies Project, an ongoing series “in which topics in dance were taken up by choreographers and dancers and processed communally through lectures, performances, and discussions” (Rawls, Parallels Catalogue). As Houston-Jones and Rawls explained before rolling the clip, this historical event implicitly and explicitly brought into sharp focus the twin issue of blacks entering the postmodern scene and dance as research in the 1980s.
In the first clip, Paxton improvises a solo, which reflects his philosophy of a self-referential, from-the-inside approach to the body that attempts to be strictly about itself, without reference to any outside quotations of meaning or technique. In his solo, Bill T. Jones improvises an eclectic array of gestures, expansive dance movements (for example, an arabesque) and spoken text. There could not have been a greater contrast in approaches. When the two men sat together in a discussion moderated by Mary Overlie, they talked about what they did as it related to research in dance. With two strong wills, the exchange quickly became rather heated, as they clashed over their respective approaches. For example, Paxton comments on the notion of “authenticity” (translate, pure movement), suggesting that true research should be a kind of “unlearning” what one is taught. Thus, he could not see how [Jones] performing an arabesque or expressing meaning could be called research. Jones responds that research does not cease to be, simply because one performs an arabesque in the middle of an improvised phrase when for him performing an arabesque at that moment was an expression of feeling and what he brings to his [emphasis mine] creative process. Debates about authenticity aside, I found the exchange interesting and instructive because it inferred a more pressing dialectic: what African Americans brought to the white-dominated postmodern dance that challenged or disrupted an assumed kind of acultural and apolitical ideology, as well as the ways in which black choreographers assimilated that ideology, and how blacks and whites (including critics, programmers, and performers) responded to these differentials. Jones touched on this briefly in the clip. He talked about the tensions between experimentalism and the fiduciary realities of having to maintain one’s work as a black postmodern choreographer. He hints (rightly I think) that white postmodern choreographers could avail themselves of a presumed “pure” experimentalist approach much more readily than the emerging black postmodern choreographers because different things were expected of each group. As a cultural theorist, I draw attention to these kinds of issues not to rehearse or rehash racial tensions per se, but to underscore what I see as a need to better understand ways in which individual artistic agency and the dancing body interface with the politics of identity and socio-cultural.
Commenting on the significance of the event for those who attended in 1983, Rawls writes that it had “a salient quality of history in the making.” I think the same was true for us on Saturday. The final part of the event consisted of about a half an hour with the many dancers, writers, critics, and curators expressing their thoughts on issues that came up in the films. Happily for me, most of the comments centered on individual ideas about authenticity and the role of one’s identity in one’s work, giving me plenty to think about.
Cooper-Albright, Ann. 1997. Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance. Hanover, NH. Wesleyan University Press.