"Who was that guy who had the dance with chalk boards?" Zoe asked as the cab lurched forward up Flatbush Avenue.
It was Friday night and we were running late to the show, stuck in traffic in Brooklyn twenty minutes to curtain on the Lower East Side. Every time the taxi jolted to a halt at yet another light, the Manhattan Bridge still nowhere to be seen, I was more and more convinced we were going to miss the show.
"Michael Klien," I told her. "With Steve Valk. It's called Choreography for Blackboards."
We were running late on account of Zoe, who'd only arrived in New York a couple hours before on a bus from Philadelphia. It was a mad-dash for her to get from Midtown to Park Slope, where she was staying near me, with a detour to Fort Greene to pick up the keys to the apartment. She was walking in for the first time to drop off her things as I was leaving my apartment to meet her by the subway. Needless to say it didn't work, and by half past seven I was waiting on a street corner for her, hoping it wouldn't take too long to grab a car.
"Should we get out and try to take the subway?" she asked me as we idled at the umpteenth light, the meter ticking up and up.
"Won't work," I told her. "We're past the stop we need and the train won't make it anyway." I paused. "Why do you ask?" I said, referring back to Klien and Valk.
"Well," she began, rolling down the window, "I was chatting with my brother-in-law today and I got to thinking. He's a sculptor, and we don't usually talk about art--we've never talked about my work before--but he wrote me and it got me thinking because he was asking about Trio A." She stopped. "Okay, I'll give you the short version."
The short version was not what I got, the telling lasting nearly twenty minutes until we were dashing across the street through traffic, two minutes to curtain in Manhattan.
Her brother-in-law, it turns out, is a sculptor who teaches at a college in Los Angeles, and he'd reached out to her because he was interested in using Yvonne Rainer's Trio A as a classroom exercise for his students, who were, I guess, supposed to learn something about objects in space by performing it. He was interested if Zoe knew of any documentation of the piece, and she suggested he rely on the video, which led to a discussion of how to determine where the piece should start in space.
Personally, I was fine with getting the long version because it delayed the inevitable conversation Zoe and I had to have: Namely, where was all the work I was supposed to be doing for No Ideas But In Things?
Every time I get something out for this project, it's always terribly self-conscious, all about how hard it is to write whatever this thing is that I'm calling "embedded criticism," which honestly makes for boring, boring reading (IMHO). But for some reason it feels impossible to actually properly say anything. After my last visit with the company, for their August tech residency at On the Boards in Seattle, I came home with notes and interview audio and all kinds of ideas and documentation to work with...and nothing came.
I reached out to colleagues for help. Maddy Costa, a critic for the Guardian and co-founder of "Welcome to Dialogue," with Jake Orr, made the good point that it's "vital to be clear from the outset whether you are to be a silent presence in the room or contributing in the moment, whether your potential dramaturgical effect is retrospective or immediate." Matt Trueman, another British critic who, frankly, has taken this idea further than I think anyone else, across several projects, told me: "I'm not sure 'criticism' is the right word in terms of process," which from experience I certainly concur with, though given the name we've all applied to this thing, that's not reassuring for the success of the project. I heartily second his assessment that, indeed, it's a bit of a bugger.
As Zoe was explaining her brother-in-law's idea for the exercise and the challenge it presented, which led down a rabbit-hole about notation and Laban and how no one does that anymore, I pointed out that Rainer, last I knew, was based in LA and he might as well justask her, mostly so I could make a bad joke. ("What's she going to do, say no?") But Zoe was already beyond that. As provocative as the idea of postmodern dance as sculpture exercise was, what had piqued her interest was the challenge of conveying some of her own ideas for BeginAgain--many studies for which have used plaster body casts as scenic elements--in a way that made sense to a sculptor. An exercise that, in turn, had got her thinking about the ideas she was struggling with. This was where we'd gotten about the time we reached the Manhattan end of the bridge.
The day before Zoe arrived, I'd been invited to be part of a symposium on criticism at CUNY, where Tom Sellar, the editor of Theater magazine, made a comment about "embedded criticism" and how to his mind what we really needed was more belles-lettristic writing on performance. He was seated next to Bonnie Maranca, the founder and editor of PAJ, who had several months before pressed me on what exactly "embedded criticism" was supposed to accomplish, and approvingly pointed to Hilton Als's long profile of Robert Wilson in the New Yorker, published shortly before Einstein on the Beach returned to NYC as part of BAM's 2012 Next Wave Festival. Needless to say this, this wasn't helping my ego, what with my ongoing failure to actually write any embedded criticism.
We got to the theater just in time to wait for the doors to open 15 minutes late, and Zoe found herself chatting with some acquaintances who were also seeing the show. I zoned out as I sometimes do in crowds and counted myself lucky I hadn't yet had to tackle the subject of No Ideas But in Things.
More than a year earlier, I remember chatting with Zoe about what I thought could work: a big, interactive website that treated ideas and concepts modularly, so that they could be curated in diverse ways. Imagine: You go to the homepage and there are a half dozen images, each based around a simple concept (I don't know..."Middle Space" or "Video Veil" or "Mapping" or whatever had emerged from my observation of the process). Click on any one and you enter the labyrinth of videos and images and writings and interviews and journal notes. Each choice puts you on a path through through content, and at any point where two paths intersect, you can change paths. I imagined it as an iterative process that could grow with time--by cataloging and responding, I would build a library of content that would allow ideas to emerge organically over time, much the same way the ideas of creating the piece itself did. Halfway through you might realize this one thing was emerging, and you could trace the evolution of the concept.
I think I described it by referencing Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, a novel in which the chapters can be read in various orders--or even B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, a marvelous novel that was published unbound, so it can be even more easily rearranged--to allow new meanings and ideas to surface. I use these as references because I'm so self-absorbed, I guess, that it didn't occur to me to point out it's like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, which is a reference people would actually get.
That was the original idea, but in the execution I was falling far short of any such goal, and, by November of 2013, I had lost all sense of what I was doing. It was only when I sat down to write this piece that I realized that Matt Trueman also had the same sense I originally had.
"I wonder whether embedded criticism can take an standard essay/article form," he wrote in an email to me. "Mine became much more fragmentary, even if they were through-written."
Anyway, I thought of all this much later. That night, I waited for the doors to open while Zoe chatted with Brian and Sheila from the Chocolate Factory, and counted myself lucky I hadn't yet been called out for not having written about the residency in Seattle four months earlier.
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