Three’s a Crowd

Mia Pixley performs Simone Bailey’s Sway, Clench, Release (Requiem No. 415) at the 16th St. Plaza in the Mission on February 24, 2018. Photo: Hillary Goidell.

Mia Pixley performs Simone Bailey’s Sway, Clench, Release (Requiem No. 415) at the 16th St. Plaza in the Mission on February 24, 2018. Photo: Hillary Goidell.

Simone Bailey’s Sway, Clench, Release (Requiem No. 415)

Who gets to stand here?

Standing at the corner of 16th and Mission as the day moved from sunset to evening, I saw what one might expect to see — hipsters on their night out; men in baseball caps hanging out on the plaza steps; the disheveled wanderers. And something else — a row of people waiting for something to begin.

There she was — a cellist (Mia Pixley), dressed in black, setting up her delay pedals and a small amp. After a short consultation with a colleague (Simone Bailey, I assumed), who played with a hand-held work light (unnecessary, decided against), she tied on a blindfold, and began, unfurling layer upon layer of sound: persistent beats, plucked strings, sliding tones, knocks on the body of the cello, mournful melodies. Hypnotic and insistent, the effect slowly merged with the environment, until the moment when I couldn’t tell if a sound was coming from the cello, or the screech of MUNI tires, or the winds picking up. Passersby reacted in their different ways: moving out of the lookers’ line of sight on their way to the station; stopping just long enough to take a photo (gotta post it) or to ask what was going on. A young (I think) Latino man in a wool poncho enthusiastically yelled in Pixley’s direction “I play too!” When no one responded, he rambled for a bit, eventually yelled “Hail Satan!” and went on his way.

Performance in public space reframes the environment and jolts it into a different meaning. Within the time frame of the performance (and after) the looker is invited to see more intently, to take in the complexity of the images and human interchanges within the frame. It can also elicit a reciprocal performativity: In Back to Back’s small metal objects, an audience placed on a seating bank in a busy space listens to a drama unfolding through their headphones, slowly uncovering the two protagonists among the crowd. Passersby in return confront the audience, asking questions, blowing kisses, giving the finger, doing a moonwalk. Much of the experience is about making space for the audience to take in the urban environment, including the narratives within the crowd. (Is it you who is speaking?) Back to Back’s ensemble is made up of actors with intellectual disabilities, and in rendering the performers hard to detect among the hectic crowd, the show also augments the sense of the invisibility of the marginalized in everyday life.

Towards the end of Pixley’s performance, an older man who had been sitting with his group walked towards her. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. After searching for the nonexistent donation jar, he left the money anyway and walked away. Simultaneous frames of vulnerability:  a supplicant to a Lady Justice (instead of scales and a sword, she was holding a bow and instrument); and a blindfolded Black woman with someone standing over her.

In Requiem, Simone Bailey asks what “it means for current socio-economic conditions to force Black Americans back to the South, a hundred years since the beginning of The Great Migration.” Standing on 16th and Mission, I started to think of all the people who have been on this corner.

Who had the right to be here? People from the city? The people who can afford it? People who can’t but have occupied it? People who are from that neighborhood? If so, people who have been living there for more than ten years? Twenty years? How many generations? People who have been there from the very beginning? What is the beginning? And I started seeing all past and future inhabitants streaming in and out of the frame.

From left to right: Indiia Wilmott, Gendell Hernández, Phil Wong, and Jeri Lynn Cohen in "Don't think." from Word for Word's Lucia Berlin: Stories. Video Art: Naomie Kremer. Photo: Julie Schuchard.

From left to right: Indiia Wilmott, Gendell Hernández, Phil Wong, and Jeri Lynn Cohen in “Don’t think.” from Word for Word’s Lucia Berlin: Stories. Video Art: Naomie Kremer. Photo: Julie Schuchard.

Word for Word’s Lucia Berlin: Stories

Whose text does this belong to?

Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) was an author who found her national fame posthumously with the publication of A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her previously published short stories. In the book’s foreword, Lydia Davis writes: “Berlin is unflinching, pulls no punches, and yet the brutality of life is always tempered by her compassion for human frailty, the wit and intelligence of that narrating voice, and her gentle humor.”

Word for Word’s production draws five stories from that same collection, arranged loosely in an arc so that it tracks an “Everywoman” moving from alcoholism to sobriety, based on Berlin’s eventful life and the people she encountered. The afternoon I saw it, an effervescent ensemble of eight actors played everyone from ER nurses to convicts to police officers to neighborhood ne’er-do-wells. They provided quick pops of character, moving from story to story with great efficiency and scrupulously honoring Berlin’s vivid, keen observations of life, including the dubious humor of her time (“I needed to right the ‘wong’ I did him,” a character says of a Chinese police officer in her neighborhood).

The strict adherence to non-dramatic text as a performance strategy is a full and long tradition: Interviews (Anna Deavere Smith, Tectonic Theater, The Civilians), found text based on letters by an activist (Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner’s My Name is Rachel Corrie), Supreme Court oral arguments (Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo), a film of a 1971 debate on Women’s Liberation (Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair). In the ten-part epic Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma adapted phone recordings of a woman recalling her life in minute detail, from her first memory to the present, using every “um,” “errr,” and “hmm” and staging it through opera, animated film, and even an illustrated medieval manuscript.  It was verbatim theater through the fun-house mirror.

How does one stage anything that wasn’t meant or written to be staged? Why do it? What does it yield that the original doesn’t? Can we just steal if for our own purposes and not the author’s? This production of Berlin’s Stories was rooted in animating and enacting the text (for which there was clear reverence) but I found myself wishing for more counterpoints, where the dissonance between the text and action would reveal something further in the text — perhaps what it brings up for the contemporary moment.

In Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, a theater production in which the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is spoken, a worker arrives at his dingy office, finds a tattered copy of the book, and starts reading. What unfolds over the next eight hours is the story of Great Gatsby slowly being inscribed upon the physical world. As the man keeps reading his co-workers subtly merge with the novel’s characters; the office becomes the site where we see in our mind’s eye the hotel room in New York, the estate on Long Island; the reader becomes the narrator of the novel. No significant physical changes are made to the set, and yet the two realities rest like photo negatives on top on each other in the same frame.  We see a woman on stage holding her face, and we wonder about the odd gesture. It is followed with the narrator saying, “Daisy took her face in her hands as if feeling its lovely shape.” The audience is tasked with operating in different states — one of seeing theater and one of reading a book — which combine to create a third state. This layering of frames transforms a singular experience into something else.

Daniel Kishik and Netta Yerushalmy in Paramodernities #1, February 23–24, 2018 at ODC Theater.

Daniel Kishik and Netta Yerushalmy in Paramodernities #1, February 23–24, 2018 at ODC Theater.

Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities #1, #4, #3

This is all stolen. It is important to remember that this is all stolen material.

That line about stolen material was uttered halfway through Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities by one of the performers. And it stuck with me. The piece is described as “series of lecture-performances, or dance-experiments, generated through deconstructions of landmark modern choreographies, performed alongside contributions by scholars and writers who situate these iconic works and artists within the larger project of Modernism.” As you entered the space, two questions were projected on the wall: “What does it mean to repeat choreography? Can choreographic form shock us into thought?”

Paramodernities wrestles with the political, ideological, and physical tensions of engaging with the legacies of the iconic choreographers. In the ODC Theater program, three dance experiments based on Vaslav Nijinsky (The Rite of Spring, 1913), Merce Cunningham (various, 1968-1991) and Alvin Ailey (Revelations, 1960) were rounded out by a group discussion/response. What does it mean to wrest the icons from their pedestals into our contemporary, or present, reality? What does it mean to dance work not meant for particular bodies? Who does a legacy belong to? Who and what determines a canon? How is that power accrued? How is it perpetuated? What can we steal from these legacies and what have these legacies stolen from us? What is revealed in placing them side by side and seeing them as relational instead of as a linear progression?

The choreography is learned through film: gestures and phrases are copied, re-ordered, and remixed to create a (new?) choreography. The pairing of these dance texts with spoken texts makes for an intensely bifurcated viewing experience, like trying to read in one language while listening to a song in another.

In #1, Daniel Kishik is seated onstage, operating a slide projector and a tape recorder that plays his lecture, voiced by another speaker. Meanwhile Yerushalmy, in white tank and shorts, moves across the stage, all angles and stomps. We experience the work and labor of the dance (Nijinsky’s choreography turns the feet in instead of out, trudges instead of trying to fly.) We are asked: Who is the choreographer? Who is the sovereign of this land? Kiksik draws the connection between the politics of ballet and the structure of modern dance companies with the history of modern politics — power and knowledge are being inscribed onto the body, literally by the choreographer into his dancers, and by the sovereign leader into the body politic.

How do you re-think Cunningham’s process of indeterminacy and creating presence? In #4, performed by Brittany Engel-Adams and Marc Crousillat, the same strategies of re-order and remix are utilized. Each iteration of #4 invites different writers to respond to his legacy, with some of the text spoken for the first and only time each night, giving the performance a counterpoint and a new context. “We’re in this together until we’re not / The ocean is wild tonight”; the image of John Cage and Merce Cunningham moving together in public “accruing cache under the cloak of collaboration.” In the second half, the dancers tell us that they catalogued various Cunningham movements, grouping and executing them in order. They loop a physical phrase and start a conversation with each other. Who is cute in the audience? No one. And opening up the conversation to the audience: Does this look hard? Who is in the owner of the choreography?

During #3, as the audience moved to the perimeter of the stage, more questions were projected: “How many modernities are there? Are they always white? Is a legacy public? What can I legitimately do to it?” I felt the effective tension of what a white presenting female choreographer/dancer from Israel could “do” with the legacy of Alvin Ailey, the only non-white choreographer in the series.  As four Black dancers (Oluwadanmilare Ayorinde, Stanley Gambucci, Nicholas Leichter, and Engel-Adams again) and Yerushalmy moved through gestures and movements both ecstatic and everyday, Thomas F. DeFrantz moved freely among them, reading from his laptop, and speaking of how the project of modernity, progress, and global economy can never be separated from slavery and coercion of the body. What other kinds of modernity are there? How can we reclaim the space of critical theory — and by extension, modernity — that has always been identified as white?

I had not seen any of the choreographies live (save for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell show at the Park Avenue Armory in 2011), and yet they all felt instantly recognizable, familiar. Is that what it means to be part of the canon, a legacy, where the idea and not the embodied form is enough to permeate consciousness?  In looking up the etymology of the word “para,” these came up. From the Greek: beside, from, contrary, against. From the Latin: to shield, defend.

The project subverts and disrupts the acknowledged canon, but legacies get strengthened with every performance, transmission, adaptation, parody, and subversion. What if the question of different modernities includes looking not just outside the white perspective, but outside the Western tradition? How do you structure the question of modernity so different traditions and cultures can be defined on their own terms? To borrow one of Yerushalmy’s terms, how do you make a horizontal legacy across geography, cultures, and time?

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