On Monday the nineteenth of August I caught an evening flight from New York to Seattle. Heading west, it hardly classifies as a red-eye; I arrived early enough that I was able to swing by Solo Bar in Lower Queen Anne, about halfway between where I was staying on my friend Christina’s couch and where Zoe and Juniper were two weeks into their tech residency at On the Boards, a bar owned by a good old friend of mine with whom I had a drink before heading back to the apartment for a night of furtive, jet-lagged sleep.
The next morning, bright and early, I got up and headed over to the theater. The place was a mess of cables and lights and rolls of plastic and all the kind of crap that I really haven’t dealt with since I used to work as a tech director a decade ago. I found a place with the designers, who had a few tables set up right in the middle of the audience, and started taking notes.
The tables were set up on two rows. I was seated at the lower table, with Juniper—hunched over a pair of Macbooks, operating the video—and the company manager or costume designer or whoever in general came in or out during the day. In the row above, the lighting and sound designers were working. I spread out my stuff—an iPad, a Moleskine notebook, my iPhone. I waited and I watched.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t clearly recall a number of things about the art, the design, the choreography from the three days I spent in a dark theater while Seattle basked outside in a lazy summer. I do, and I have my notes to push me further than memory alone. But honestly, when I think back on the residency in Seattle, I don’t think of any of the arty stuff. I think of how pragmatic and nuts-and-bolts the whole thing seemed to be.
The tech residency was mostly given over to wholly practical concerns: how to transition between this and that, when the screen bisecting the stage should come down, how to get a dancer to enter up-right moments after he exited down-left. Three some-time performance collaborators and interns were the only performers Zoe brought in for tech—they mostly there to aim lights lights at, cast shadows, move across the stage. That sort of thing. And watching and listening to it and having to personally comment on it occasionally (“Does that sequence work, or did you prefer the one before?”) was truly bizarre, because it’s the least artsy conversation about art I’ve had in a long time.
None of it should have surprised me. I used to be a tech director. I’ve been in tech before, and I knew long before I got to Seattle that tech is “about as interesting as watching grass grow,” as a producer friend of mine put it. But that said, when I worked in the theater, I was working in very conventional forms. There was a script to tell us what followed what and so on. Which of course is exactly the sort of text-centric theater I ran away from into the world of contemporary performance.
So yes, it was actually somewhat shocking to find myself in a tech residency for a contemporary dance company that seemed, if possible, even more beholden to purely practical concerns than I was when I was designing a low-budget version of A Winter’s Tale.
Back in the spring, when I joined the company at Velocity Dance Center, the chamber study was explicitly framed as an experiment in how bodies relate in space. It was workshoppy, with Zoe breaking the action whenever she saw fit to have the dancers change from one phrase to another. That made sense; the point wasn’t what the dancers were doing but the circumstances in which they were doing it. I didn’t give it a second thought.
But watching Zoe and Juniper play with rough cuts of choreography in a more theatrical space, I found myself surprised at how little the order seemed to matter to them. The sequence of phrases could be rearranged to account for, say, the fact that the opening required the entire theater to be flooded with haze, which requires time to clear. The idea that the work was concretely ordered, structured with a mind to developing a clear emotional arc, that one movement should clearly follow another, wasn't there. It was like watching them put together a jigsaw puzzle, sorting out which movement phrase worked with which design scheme, and how best to transition on the next.
As a critic, I usually look at a work holistically, treat it as though it can be taken as a conscious art-act in its entirety. But that’s not quite true—any production is a matter of practicality and compromise, a series of episodes strung together with as much art as possible, which art in turn is beholden to all kinds of concerns and limitations in terms of space, time, effect, etc., etc.This is exactly what visual artists making performance hate about theater, too. More than once I’ve criticized visual art performance for its lack of rigor and formal accomplishment, which they embrace in the name of some sort of “authenticity” I find suspect, anyway. But sitting through tech, I began to see the point: Why not just say “screw it” to convention and compromise and do it however you damn well please, and accept the risk that something won’t work out exactly as planned? I remember chatting once with Tobaron Waxman, a visual and performance artist. In one of his pieces, Tashlich (2009) he waded into a stream till he was neck-deep in the water, then proceeded to shave his head with a wireless electric razor. I asked what his back-up was should he get the clipper wet and it not work. He gave me a look that was partly quizzical and a bit condescending, before replying something to the effect that, "This isn't theater."
That’s not a vague sort of conceptual authenticity, that’s just an actual representation of the original idea, undiluted by bending to the demands of artfulness. Zoe and Juniper are performance makers, and they start with the perspective that in the end, the work will be shaped by just these sorts of demands. But as a critic looking in on the process, I realized that my own perspective, which I assumed was fairly well developed and insightful, was actually quite naïve.
Anyway, that was the main thing I spent my time thinking about during the residency in August. That, and that everything seemed really dark.