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Judson Now Writer-in-Residence Danielle Goldman on Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day

On November 10, Danspace Project presented a four-hour Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day, a dance series at MoMA curated by Ralph Lemon with MoMA/PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka.
The following response essay is by Danielle Goldman, dancer, author and currently one of Danspace Project’s writers-in-residence for PLATFORM 2012: Judson Now.


Ralph Lemon, DD Dorvillier and luciana achugar at Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day. Photo (c) Ian Douglas

I recently took a group of undergraduate students from the New School to see Kevin Beasley’s MoMA performance, I Want My Spot Back, in which Beasley acted as a DJ, sampling slowed-down acapella recordings of deceased rappers, such as Tupac and Biggie Smalls, who died in the mid-nineties. Beasley, who sat with his turntables on a white “dance floor” in the center of MoMA’s atrium, mixed these tracks with additional rhythms and feedback, and amplified the sounds to extraordinary levels.  As Jenny Schlenzka, Associate Curator at MoMA PS1, noted:  “It shook the architecture.  You could hear the glass shaking.”[i]

When my students and I returned to the classroom a few weeks later—on the other side of a devastating hurricane and a contentious presidential election—we talked about Beasley’s work.  A few students noted its intense bodily qualities. Those who decided to sit on the white floor with Beasley, with speakers directed at them from the four corners of the space, had felt the sounds affecting their own physical states.  The few who decided to wander around the museum in order to experience the work from afar noted that the sounds coursed through the entire institution. Every work inside MoMA, it seemed, encountered Beasley’s sounds.

When pressed to talk about the unsettling qualities of I Want My Spot Back, a theater student described the sampled and slowed-down acapella tracks as a series of cries.  It was quite an observation. Hearing Beasley’s sounds as a series of cries asks one to consider the traces of bodies that one can discern even in sounds that have been recorded, mixed, and amplified through various technologies. It also asks one to think not just about the lyrics, or signification, but also about how it all sounded.  In that respect, the cries that shook MoMA’s very foundation were something like what performance theorist Fred Moten has described as “sound[s] figured as external both to music and to speech in black music and speech.”[ii]

It was not surprising, then, a few days later, to hear the choreographer Ralph Lemon explain that he had asked Beasley, along with each of the artists whom he had invited to perform as part of Some sweet day, a three-week performance series at MoMA, to grapple with notions of black music.  In “Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day,” a four-hour discussion held at Danspace Project this past weekend, Lemon explained that the artists chose whether or not to engage with race explicitly in their work.  Lemon recounted with a smile how Paxton resisted the proposition; yet Paxton wanted to perform Satisfyin’ Lover, a scored group work from 1967, which Lemon said was OK, because “satisfyin’” without the ‘g’ is black.  The French choreographer Jérôme Bel also said no.  But he proposed performing The Show Must Go On, a well-known work from 2001, which Lemon agreed to because it used lots of black music. The rest of the artists—Faustin Linyekula, Dean Moss, Kevin Beasley, Sarah Michelson, and Deborah Hay—said yes.

Later in the talk, Lemon explained that he actually gave each of the artists three prompts:

-       Engage the space

-       There’s going to be a pairing with another artist (to engage or not)

-       What is black music?

The choreographer Tere O’Connor asked Lemon whether audiences knew that the artists were asked to explore notions of black music. Spectators, after all, might not have viewed the works on racial terms.  To this, Thomas Lax, Assistant Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, noted that for some MoMA visitors “some sweet day,” which is in fact the title of an old gospel song, would have signaled race immediately.  Lemon responded that he felt it was important not to publicize the third prompt. Rather, according to Lemon, the question about black music served as a “charged internal mark.”

Lemon felt race had to be a part of the series. But he also noted another issue: “We’re dealing with power, right?  We made it into MoMA.” Lax then mentioned that he could only recall a handful of black artists who had officially “made their way into MoMA”: Martin Puryear, Kara Walker, and Kenya (Robinson).  Without missing a beat, Lax then added the daily performance of the museum’s black security guards. Faustin Linyekula, a Congolese dancer and choreographer who participated in the second week of the series, remarked in one of the scheduled conversations at MoMA:  “It’s not everyday that we have non-primitive Africans in this space…It’s like graffiti, it may get painted over tomorrow, but at least it was there.”

In addition to particular bodies making their way into MoMA, there also was the matter of dance making its way into MoMA. One could argue that this has been going on for a while now:  MoMA’s Performance Department was founded in 2007, and seeing dance in galleries and museums seems very much in vogue in 2012.  Still, museums typically present performance as a supplement to prominent visual art exhibitions.  For example, in January 2011, when Lemon performed a duet in MoMA’s atrium with Okwui Okpokwasili, he did so as part of a performance series meant to correspond with the group exhibition On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century.  Discussing how this particular performing experience informed Some sweet day, Lemon explained: “I did a duet with Okwui and it kind of blew my mind.  I wasn’t able to negotiate my presence, my material work, my compositional work, and the audience…  And I thought that I’d like others in my community to have that experience.”

Ralph Lemon, Katherine Profeta, Jenn Joy, Jenny Schlenzka and Thomas Lax at Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day. Photo (c) Ian Douglas

With Some sweet day, dance at MoMA became primary rather than auxilary.  This is important, but it is also fraught. How might dance, foregrounded within a museum, challenge conventional modes of spectatorship, notions of narrative, and ways of ascribing or resisting meaning? At several points in Saturday’s Conversation Without Walls, speakers grappled with the potential force of dance, not only within a powerful institution such as MoMA, but also in relation to choreography, understood as that which is organized and possibly written down in some fashion. In the first panel, which focused on Paxton and Bel, the dance scholar Noémie Solomon asked whether there might be something gained in trying to prioritize dancing over choreography, as the French choreographer Boris Charmatz did when he proposed a museum of dance rather than a national choreographic center.  Following Solomon’s lead, the moderator, Jenn Joy, asked:  “Might dance have the potential to erupt out of choreography?”  With these remarks, it became clear that the quiet question about black music that Lemon posed to a group of choreographers managed to provoke an important public discussion about the fugitivity of dance.

Still, perhaps as a sign of this very fugitivity, there was very little talk about actual dancing in the four-hour Conversation Without Walls. There were a few important exceptions.  When discussing Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #3, the choreographer DD Dorvillier mentioned a moment when the primary dancer, Nicole Mannarino, seemed, even if within tight parameters, empowered to determine the precise moment to enter the dance space. Dorvillier admitted to not knowing how exactly Michelson had structured the dance; nevertheless, Dorvillier read the heightened moment of temporal decision-making on the dancer’s part as a moment of improvisation that she hadn’t recognized previously in Michelson’s work.  Dorvillier then pointed out that improvisation has been an important part of black music and history, but also an important part of the Judson Dance Theater, even if it was a strategy employed primarily in the studio rather than in performance situations.

So, Mannarino’s entrance into the space of dancing asks us to consider the dancer and her choices.  What does it mean to dance in a space with seemingly very few options? What’s at stake when a dancer submits to a series of choreographic commands?  André Lepecki poses this question in Exhausting Dance:  “What does it mean…to follow a choreographic demand as an inescapable program?”[iii] Lepecki admits that one could read this pessimistically as a total act of submission.  And yet, there’s another way of understanding the situation.  Referring to Jean-Charles Massera’s essay, “Dance with the Law,” Lepecki explains that perhaps acceding to choreographic demands is “not a passive submission, a blind obedience, but the purposeful activation of a will, of a power: ‘the law is a cadence, a rhythm that circulates through bodies.  The more your drives are synchronized with the rhythm of the law, the easier the execution of the task.’”[iv]

When continuing to think about Mannarino’s relation to both choreography and choreographer, Thomas Lax underscored an intense triangulation between power, desire, and coercion in Michelson’s recent devotion studies. Referencing depictions of S&M in Isaac Julien’s film, The Attendant, Lax suggested that a willingness to partake in coercion is not necessarily a bad thing.  One can own one’s objecthood, or even take pleasure in it in certain circumstances. With this, Dorvillier noted the devotion to work that seems to exist among dancers.  The challenge, then, seems to be to reckon with this labor, inextricable from power relations, without eliding the possibility of beauty and reward within it.

If Mannarino’s entrance into the space was one moment of dance that received attention in Conversation Without Walls, niv Acosta’s self-described “booty bump” to a member of the “white cast” in Deborah Hay’s Blues was another. Hay danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1964 and was a founding participant in the Judson Dance Theater before moving to Vermont, and then to Austin, in order to develop her own hugely influential performance practices.  For Blues, Hay divided her cast into two parts according to skin color:  the “blue whites” and the “blue blacks.”  Rehearsal for the work took place largely via e-mail, over the course of eight months.  Hay gave the dancers directives, which they practiced on their own.  Kathy Wasik, one of the dancers in the white cast, explains, “The blue whites were instructed to practice in quietude, a process of meditative observation in which the dancer is ‘served by how she sees rather than by what she sees.’”[v] According to Rashaun Mitchell, a member of the black cast, the blue blacks “were supposed to be practicing on our own, in our everyday lives: what if we were served by everything that we see?  And also, to turn our fucking head.”  They also were supposed to practice a song developed by Hay. In performance, the blue whites (dressed in black leotards and tights) stood still as a self-contained group.  The blue blacks (dressed in colorful street clothes), had greater mobility, and individuals had the opportunity to move apart from their cast.

niv Acosta, DD Dorvillier, Rashaun Mitchell, Jenn Joy, luciana achugar and Thomas Lax at Conversation Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day. Photo (c) Ian Douglas

In Saturday’s conversation at Danspace Project, dancers from both casts—Rashaun Mitchell, Margaret Paek, niv Acosta, and Kathy Wasik—talked about their experiences, which were clearly complicated and quite painful.  They all seemed to agree that Hay had failed to answer their questions about the complex situation she had set in motion by segregating her cast according to color lines.

Why did the dancers participate in Blues?  At least one motivation is easy to understand.  As Mitchell explained,  “When Ralph Lemon and Deborah Hay invite you to perform at MoMA, you say yes.”  The trickier question discussed by the dancers had to do with their decisions to continue with the project once they learned what it was. As one would expect, the dancers, not all of whom were present at the panel discussion, coped in varied ways.  Mitchell turned to dance itself.  “I felt it was important to attempt to answer the questions through my dancing.”

niv Acosta also turned to dance in order to question a score that was rife with violence.  When breaking what he understood to be the boundaries of Hay’s score by bumping a member of the opposing cast, Acosta made an artistic choice that he continues to stand by.  The moment was exciting, he explained, not only because it was a moment of decision-making for himself, but also for the other dancer, Maggie Jones, who chose to support Acosta’s head later in the dance, forging a kind of partnership in spite of the separation that structured the work.

This moment of subtle partnership, both fleeting and improbable, continues to resonate— much like Kevin Beasley’s sound. In particular, it resonates with a series of questions posed by Lemon, which seem to exist at the heart of dance artistry:  “What am I capable of doing?  And where?  And can I do all that by myself, or do I need assistance?”  When considering the various conventions of spectatorship that exist in both theaters and museums, it seems appropriate, perhaps even necessary, to also ask what kinds of assistance might come from viewers of dance, to consider whether it’s possible to resist outmoded choreographies of seeing.  Toward the end of Saturday’s discussion, the choreographer luciana achugar noted that, while watching Blues, she felt a complicated desire to move with the dancers, to do something. If one receives the work in Some sweet day as a series of calls, what are the varied ways in which one might continue to respond?

[i] All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day.  November 10, 2012.  Danspace Project, New York, NY.

[ii] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 6.

[iii] André Lepecki, Exhausting Dance (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 25.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kathy Wasik.  “Skin Deep,” The Performance Club founded by Claudia La Rocco.

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