In late May, I travelled to Seattle to join zoe | juniper for their open performances at Velocity Dance Center, the fourth in a series of “chamber studies” the company has been producing to explore ideas that will coalesce in their newest evening length work. I spent two days with the company in the studio, sitting through twelve of the eighteen 30-minute performances for an audience of ten at a time, and returned to New York to begin the process of writing and responding to the piece.
And now it’s two months and change later.
There are a variety of reasons something didn’t come more quickly, but in the main it’s because, when I sat down to write, I found myself writing what felt like a “review,” which wasn’t the point of course and which I didn’t like but couldn’t kick somehow. The entire point of this experiment in embedded criticism was to reframe my own relationship to the work. Yet having dispensed with one frame, I found I had no other and kept slipping back into doing something I didn’t find compelling. And it was a downward spiral from there.
An acquaintance of mine, Maddy Costa, a theater critic for the Guardian and a co-founder of a project similar to this one, called Welcome to Dialogue, offered me some advice when I told her about what I was doing: “[D]on't write a word without giving yourself time to think. Time to think allows you to differentiate what's particular to this process from what might be typical to any process.”
I could have saved myself some stress had I taken that to heart earlier. But with eight weeks’ reflection, discussion, and false starts, I suppose that I’ve inadvertently given myself that chance.
When I originally set out to write about the experience, what I found was that I was grappling with how to treat the central experiment. Basically, the idea was to see what effect a drastic shift in audience perspective would have on the experience of the work. In this case, Scofield and Shuey placed the audience on the floor. They were laid in V-shaped pairs, head-to-foot, on lines taped out on the floor and with a small pillow for the head. Scofield ran her dancers through various combinations of sequences the company had been working on, so that no two performances were the same. (In fact, it was very workshoppy in that Scofield would stop during each showing to offer direction or feedback.) Design-wise, the company suspended a series of plaster casts of dancers’ bodies (created during a previous study, at the Frye) over the audience, and ran video projections on the ceiling.
In the talkback Friday evening, the strongest responses from audience members tended to center on two things: first, the visceral experience of feeling the dancers’ movements through the floor, and second, the experience of being in such close proximity to the dancers but the fact that the dancers (usually) didn’t make eye contact, performing as though you weren’t right there.
Both are fair points and led to an interesting discussion, but when I sat down to write about all this, I found myself grappling with how exactly to get at what was making it interesting to me. I mean, let’s be blunt—I’ve written all this out in a nice compelling way, but if you parse it (and I was parsing the hell out of what I was writing) you can also come to the conclusion that all Scofield and Shuey had done was to lay the audience on the floor and make them look up at same exact work they were already doing, work that wasn’t reconfigured to take advantage of the possibilities offered up by such intense proximity between dancer and spectator.
Scofield’s response to that would be (I suspect), Yes, you can see the choices as minor or even gimmicky if you want to, whatever; this is an experiment. First, to see what these particular choices revealed about the elements we have been working with. And second, to see what we can learn about this particular sort of artist-spectator relationship, which learnings can be applied to a future iteration of such a piece.
All of which is absolutely true, of course. But I found dealing with that to be tricky. Again, this experiment—the idea of critical engagement and response over time, rather than something like dramaturgy (which I’m not doing)—places me in a very different relationship to the work. In a way, it wasn’t until I became part of the process of the work’s creation that I realized to what degree I was being merely responsive to the art I write about it. Now, I was being asked to look at an experiment and, along with the artists, to try to see what could be learned from it, not to respond to the sum of the spectacle but to think along the same lines as being a creator involved in a process. And even as I write this I still find it somewhat bizarre.
Reading my own notes on the audience’s responses during the discussion we hosted, what I find myself thinking about is how much of what I was hearing was dancing (just gonna let that unintentional pun slide...) around the idea of dance-as-labor. That is, after all, what’s actually interesting when you feel the percussive waves from the dancers’ feet while you’re lying on the floor. You know, rationally, that this is always present—you can hear the sound of feet on the boards in most performance spaces. But lying on the floor with them all around you, it’s clear evidence of the physical labor that goes into the movement, along with the sounds of heavy breathing, the sweat smearing the body paint, the jiggle of muscles with a heavy step.
The result of such close proximity to the performer reveals the labor that goes into performing. And that, I think, is why so many people also commented on the lack of eye contact (which to be clear wasn’t consistent; some dancers made eye contact sometimes—again, zoe | juniper were experimenting). The sort of vague discomfort that arose from being so close to someone but without being actively acknowledged comes from the spectator’s own sense of exposure. Normally, we’re too far away to actually make eye with the performers we’re watching, which is sort of voyeuristic. But being so close, we come to want that acknowledgement, the permission to look and to watch, since we know the performers can see us looking at them just fine.
These sorts of tensions are deeply embedded in Scofield’s work. It comes close to vulgar biographism to point it out, but Scofield came up through the ballet, which presents a very different aesthetic proposition than contemporary dance. The ballet dancer is much more objectified, idealized and (in a crucial sense) de-personalized, through exacting movement, costuming, hairdo ("bunheads"), and so on. The demands of such uniformity are intense, and I think that Scofield emerged with a fascination about the way in which the performer is presented to the spectator. Her work still bears hallmarks of her balletic training, and not just in how physically exacting it is. Academic forms pop up in a couple of the segments she was working with at Velocity, but like dark parody—mechanical, repetitive, almost absurd. The way in which the dancers inhabit the space changes drastically between such segments, and based on that changing sense of their behavior, I think the audience becomes more and more aware of how they’re being presented to us, and making me at least reconsider the way in which I at them.
Of course it would be reductive to suggest that this is the core concern of the work, and I don’t mean to suggest it is. But this is what I’ve found myself, left to my own devices, thinking about and processing, as much for what I saw as what I heard from other audience members. I could go on and on about it, I’m sure, and I’ve found myself looking at documentation—video, photographs—of all four of the studies so far and began seeing ways that these tensions I’m describing are playing out in diverse spaces with different scenographies.
In a recent conversation with Scofield, she agreed that one of her central concerns in the piece was "looking," exploring the way in which audiences apprehend the performers, which serves as a thematic through-line through the diverse scenic elements and their various configurations across the chamber studies. Previous chamber studies explored this through scenic elements that suggested both presence and absence simultaneously. Plaster casts produced during the Frye Art Museum residency most clearly elucidate this point, serving as a concrete document of physical absence. But the video in all its iterations toys with this concept, too. At ArtsCrush, where the work was staged as an installation in a house, video components included rips of older home movies, likewise a glimpse of absence (in this case, the past, memory being an ongoing concern of the company's work). Other video effects further this, such as Shuey's grayscale videos in which the dancers only emerge from the undifferentiated field as motion, thus capturing ephemeral movement as distinct from the body itself, which otherwise disappears.
At Velocity, the reconfiguration of the audience in relation to these scenic elements, in exploratory form, moved the work towards questioning how to navigate this issue of "looking" at actual physical bodies, which cannot be made absent through videographic trick or the mere creation of physical documents of ephemeral moments. Scenographically--and this is my own reading--the company seems to grappling with how to deal with presence in performance, since the absenting of bodies has so heavily figured into other elements of the work. At previous chamber studies, with a more traditional audience perspective, this was most clearly explored through the placement of a semi-transparent projecting screen in the middle of the performance space, so that dancers could move behind it, either disappearing entirely behind a video projection, or--more frequently--existing in ambiguous relation to the video, such that the immediate presence of the dancer is reduced.
Seen this way, the experiment at Velocity used the spectator's proximity to challenge the gaze. With the sculptural elements suspended in the middle-space overhead and the ceiling transformed into a cinematic projection surface, the spectator has a clearly established visual interplay directly in their line-of-sight from the floor, through which the dancers move occasionally. Of course the spectator can choose to ignore, at least temporarily, the spectacle overhead and turn to watch the dancers as they move around them, but still, in contrast to the more traditional perspective the previous studies offered, the fourth iteration at Velocity denied the audience a horizon-style view of the piece. The spectators were forced to choose, and thus implicated by their choices--made self-aware, as previously mentioned, of how they chose to look. Yet the physical proximity--the material experience of the dancers' closeness, through the floor, through sound, and so on--prevented them from becoming fully absent. The spectacle moves toward becoming all-encompassing, surrounding the spectator but denying a God-like perspective, the ability to "take it all in at once."
What I'm waiting to see still is how all this gels together in BeginAgain. The broad themes the company is exploring share similarities with previous works. They're less a description of the material that will become BeginAgain in March 2014 as they are areas of fascination and exploration that, with several years' knowledge of the company's work, continue to be refined. They also describe A Crack in Everything in a general sense. But that work had a distinct core, as well, which BeginAgain sure will, too. I just haven't really located it (my direct experience being, admittedly, limited). That's what I suppose I'll be looking at carefully this month when I travel to Seattle again to join them during their tech residency at On the Boards.