Jenn Joy on Some Sweet Day
These are emotional times, turbulent on many fronts. Just to clarify my post was written after the first two weekends of Some Sweet Day (including performances by Jerome Bel/Steve Paxton, Faustin Linyekula/Dean Moss/Kevin Beasley) and before Sarah Michelson and Deborah Hay performed. There is much more writing and thinking to do about all of these performances and specifically to address questions of race, gender, and power dynamics raised by the last two performances. Tomorrow we will be speaking about the series at Conversations without Walls and more writing will follow. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. -Jenn Joy
My question about my work is in what way is it art? In what way is it possible to be an artist? I just made them and feel them deeply. —Steve Paxton (10.20.12)
Some Sweet Day…the title drips off your tongue…an alliterative anticipation of a different timing or geography. Thus far the five works and two conversations I have witnessed offer so many distinct images and shifting frames for thinking about choreography as translation, as occupation, and perhaps most intensely as conversation in the over-determined vacuum that is the MoMA atrium. For me that space will always be haunted by the opening juxtaposition of Claude Monet’s horizonless Water Lilies (1914-26) along the walls interrupted by the severe precision of Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1963) looming in the center. Newman wrote that “sculpture was the thing you back up into when looking at a painting” and the installation decisions seem to amplify, ironically, his concern as one is sucked into and seduced by the pastel deluge of water and petals only to be directly confronted by the dark balance of pointed steel.
There is an immense power of presence in the Atrium. For me, the decision to occupy this dramatic real estate with transitory works of dance and conversation speaks to the risky and radical proposition curated by Ralph Lemon with Jenny Schlenzka. Yes, dance in the museum has become its own kind of chic currency that invites (without actually delivering) a more emancipated spectatorship. Dance, becomes then, as Alain Badiou reminds us, a metaphor for thought, and one that allows a too easy elision of the facts of dance, dancing bodies, material labor in the space. If we remember the recent histories of dancing in museums—Maria Hassabi, Trajal Harrell, Tim Etchells, Yael Davids, Dawn Kasper, Kelly Nipper, La Ribot, to name just a few less cited iterations from an infinitely longer list—choreography transposed in the institution offers something much more subtle, complicated, difficult, unassimilated.
This past Saturday, as Faustin Linyekula, Dean Moss, Brent Hayes Edwards and Daphne A. Brooks sat together on the raised platform stage, we arrived at something quite sweet. A space and time not only to sit and watch, be entertained or moved or bored, but to listen to questions and responses, to hear a provisional reflection on the work extending out into the space not only as so many ghostly traces but as a theoretical, emotional, material, political provocation.
Asked by Brooks about the relation between silence and sound in his work, Linyekula responded:
Theater is a space for the there and now. The body learns to fly (he raises his arm). How do you fly with so much gravity weighing you down? … Kinshasa is one of the loudest cities in the word so how do you survive in constant noise? There is something of Kinshasa in this space (he looks down to the lobby). Writing is not entering into silence but speaking in a soft voice to a few. Sometimes you need the loudest music to get to some sort of silence. Silence is so fragile … how can that survive? To touch some silence, somewhere if it exists?
Inside the pauses—within the dance and within the conversation—the fragility of silence becomes so much weight for thought and association. So perhaps in watching the dance we learn how to watch; a pedagogy for flight that is as virtual as it is real. As Lemon reminds us on the first Saturday quoting Gilles Deleuze “a life contains only the virtual. Virtual not lacking reality but something in the process of actualization.” As we fly, so we must write, speak and dance. Sometimes in a quiet voice, a tremulous shivering of body, crawling then rising, as Linyekula begins What is Black Music Anyway…/Self-Portraits or sometimes in extreme volume as in performed in Dean Moss and Layla Ali’s Voluntaries as Moss lies on the floor and the four dancers surround him pummeling him with fabricated foam core mirrors. The weight of reflection, the man, John Brown, or Moss, or his father, or… subjects us to another vision of history one with no easy resolutions.
It is a history of learning to move in ordinary and less ordinary ways. As Steve Paxton describes:
I worked on walking, standing and later sitting from 1962-67. My body was doing Cunningham. I wanted to explore the body for ancient material, the material underneath … What is generated is a narration on the situation … a metaphor of crossing the space … It took from 1962 to 1967 to say something that simple.
Perhaps then dance might begin to speak to the densities of experience as Jérôme Bell explains in relation to the ballerina girls that cannot do ballet. And importantly, this version in The Show Must Go On was the first time a man performed in ballerina girl—and Trajal Harrell was stunning.
Speaking to the impulse behind some of the pairings, Lemon evokes Paxton’s response to the invitation that he was playing out a fantasy by placing these works together. It seems part of this extended fantasy asks questions of what constitutes an approach to critical thought, what it means for an institution to open space for conversation around the conflicted container of theater and dance.
This is of course, a kind of privilege, as Linyekula reminds us, not only his, but certainly ours as well. He continues:
My work is nothing but an attempt to remember my name. If you’re serious, it cannot collapse into self … It is all about relationships… Just say my name in this space …Reality can crush you and you lose faith … Work creates a space for possibility of faith. The house is collapsing but we want to find ways of making a livable home… To contaminate others, to get contagious, the virus will spread even if it only lasts for 25 minutes.
[To perform] in the Congo is about clearing a space of rubble and not only physical rubble. Then the colonial heritage of the proscenium theater is a blessing. The possibility of clearing space here is the opposite. The space is cleared already … Oh no, even in the white box you have rubble. I come in with my own obsessions and build from there… invent them… The work is the same story over and over. Robert Ashley writes that you must tell a story many times to get it right, until the story eventually becomes your friend.
Across the opening series of works, there seems an attention to naming or maybe individuating, as the dancers walk slowly alone, then pause, then join, then stand together in Paxton’s Satisfyn Lover and State. Or stand with headphones singing at dissonant intervals “I’m still standing” … “I walk the line” … ”I’m so excited” … “I’m sexy and I know it!” … in The Show Must Go On. As singer Hlengiwe Lushaba raises her arms, voice quivers to crescendo, she breaks the silence and then shares it with the luscious feedback of Flamme Kapaya’s guitar as Linyekula trespassing across the stage to the back wall, his body multiplied in shadows on the wall in What is Black Music Anyway…/Self-Portraits.
At some moment in the conversation, Edwards says that the problem is acoustic. Unfortunately I cannot remember exactly what this was in reference to, yet it seems a generative way to think these works (and the conversations that follow) as so many audial intrusions into the murmuring white noise and dominant architecture of the atrium.
Here sound becomes language becomes sonic rupture. Kevin Beasley’s I Want My Spot Back invites you onto the platform to sit, to vibrate, under the influence of his focused turntable virtuosics. As voices howl over rap over feedback, the elliptical saturation becomes physical, emotional, and conceptual. I can’t take this shit…I want my spot back…innocent…all to fall… So many fragments rendered almost illegible in the calculated onslaught of acoustic texture. This is one of the many exquisite powers of choreography, to place violence and speech and class and race and orientation as so many contingent subtle complexities that we must sit with and negotiate, be with, in order to imagine other critical conscious sweet days ahead.
Brooks ends with an invocation of Ralph Ellison on the complexities of blackness and whiteness, moments that often in Invisible Man correspond visually to scenes including the color blue. A premonition, perhaps, of the performances to come next week: Deborah Hay, Blues and Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #3.
Remembering one final scene: Lemon’s dance performed in the same atrium for the On Line exhibition with Okwui Okpokwasili a piece that opens with Okwui lying on the floor dressed in a white bunny suit reading a journal and weeping. Her tears bleed onto the page. I watch her absorbed in grief or sadness and then I move closer to the seating area. As people begin to fill the space, to watch, to witness what they expect to be the main event, Okwui continues to weep on the periphery. And then a guard graciously comes over to ask a woman if she has permission to photograph the performance. A white middle-aged female curator rudely cuts him off. Witnessing this encounter haunts me as deeply as Okwui’s weeping, as powerfully as the gorgeously devastating dance with Ralph and Okwui that follows.
Have we learned nothing from dance? I want choreography to generate consciousness: the ability to be human, to enact a space of being with that is critical and intimate and generous and provocative. And sadly this still requires much work.
To be continued…
(Note: All transcriptions in italics are taken from my almost illegible notes taken during the events.)