Life in Performance

Dressing up, ballet, music videos and mutant dance

 

Mina Herscovici, my grandmother, is an aesthete. When I was young, she would often take care of me, and our after-school sessions featured a tight schedule of learning how to cook, mending holes in our clothes, listening to Julio Iglesias, hearing stories of her far-flung travels and watching her flick through the pages of Vogue. A Polish Jew who emigrated to New Zealand just before the war, she would pepper her conversation with heavily accented phrases such as, ‘On the continent, we did it like this …’ Before I was born, she ran a business with my great uncle selling fur coats in her adopted home and, by the time I came along, her wardrobe was littered with mink trophies. Amongst my first forays into choreography were the amateur routines that my sister, Talia, and I would perform to animate the various looks we found in her boudoir closet.

As a pre-teen in the early 1990s, my cultural education was sourced from an intravenous line of music videos flowing from Rage and mtv. The sheer abundance and variety of these three-to-four-minute audio-visual fantasies kept me enthralled for hours. I can still recall the hazy, yellowish glow of the video for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991), the giddy rewind of The Pharcyde’s Drop (1995) and the costumes from George Michael’s Too Funky (1992), including a corset modelled on motorcycle parts. For better or worse, images and moves from this time have lodged themselves in my visual vernacular; while working on a new piece with dancer Justin Kennedy, we found ourselves eagerly trying to channel the percussive limb-snapping of Janet Jackson, circa her 1989 video Rhythm Nation.

For a time, ballet was a big part of my life; I committed to it at about 13 years old and we separated when I turned 21. During performances, we young corps-de- ballet ducklings got to watch the starry luminaries from makeshift front row seats in the wings. Sylvie Guillem was still performing with The Royal Ballet in London during the year I worked there, and she was everything. She would slice and dice that saccharine ballet repertoire like a surgeon, with acrobatic limbs and knowing composure.

For a queer in his early 20s, encountering the work of Michael Clark is something of a rite of passage. Grounded firmly in the rigorous techniques of both classical ballet and Merce Cunningham, Clark’s choreography defies presumed strictures with delightfully awkward phrasing, a slew of costume changes and influences drawn from the queer club culture he was part of for so long. Clark exemplifies the productive tension of honouring tradition while also subverting it. Much has been written about Clark’s ‘singular vision’ but, when performing in his work, I’ve witnessed first-hand his way of cultivating collaborations and translating his sources to take his life outside the theatre and put it inside. No aspect of the staging (the steps, sound, scenography or publicity) is dispensable for Clark; it’s always necessary for him to make these elements act together. Dancing in his performances felt like a formal translation of the wider social and aesthetic world he inhabits.

It was through performing in one of Shahryar Nashat’s videos that we met and became partners. He had never worked with a dancer before and what struck me most about him was that, although he was curious about dance, he had not an ounce of the usual romantic feeling towards it. It’s very rare that people approach dance without any inkling of romanticization. Shahryar’s ability to be sensitive to the discipline, without indulging in romantic thinking, has been a significant influence on my work. I’ve learnt a lot from him about proportion, quality of sound and the rhythm of editing.

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Sarah Michelson, 4, 2014. Courtesy Sarah Michelson and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; photograph: Paula Court.

 

On 24 January last year, I entered the Whitney Museum to attend a performance, and was promptly ushered (in that firm, New York way) into an elevator. Arriving on the fourth floor, I stepped out directly onto the stage, facing a bank of seating filled with audience members. It was a startling way to enter a show. As I waited for the performance to start, I watched further groups of unassuming spectators disembark from the elevator, suddenly realizing that they were on full view, and scurry over to find their seat as quickly as possible. This staging of 4 (2014) was my first thrilling encounter with the directorial cunning of choreographer Sarah Michelson. For the full hour and a half of its duration, I was riveted by what I saw: the inner logic of the onstage clocks, Michelson’s own half coach/half interviewee role in the front row and the pared-back pomp of the dancers jumping up and down on the spot. Was this work a salute to the precision and athleticism of modernist dance? Or was it a neatly concealed perversion of modernist ideals? If it was the former then it was also the latter, and the brilliance of the work lay in acknowledging that.

Reflecting on the contexts of different dance forms and the factors that determine their place in the culture at large has been a significant part of my work to date. American dancer Storyboard P hails from Brooklyn and the world of flex, a street dance characterized by feats of contortion and pantomimic storytelling. Storyboard refers to his own strain of flex as ‘mutant’, drawing upon sources as diverse as Krump, animatronic-like movements and ballet. He has an exceptional craft. His (often improvised) choreography – with its footwork that seems to suspend gravity – recalls both computer animation and the heightened emotion of theatrical melodrama. I read Storyboard’s work as subverting some of the prevailing ideals of postmodern and contemporary dance, particularly by revealing the rejection of virtuosity that might be said to be the legacy passed down by the Judson Dance Theatre of the 1960s.

The Judson choreographers – such as Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer – revoked the expressive and individualistic tendencies of modernist dance, and tried to locate a pure, universal body in unembellished, pedestrian movement. Many of the defining features of Western contemporary dance, as we now understand it, can be traced back to this decisive shift: notions of authorship displaced through collaboration and the use of ‘ordinary’ gestures, an emphasis on individual agency enabled by improvisation, and repeated investigations into the division between performer and spectator. Technical specificity and virtuosity have, as a consequence, been seen as outmoded and of lesser intellectual value than the task of finding a collective truth of perceptual and sensory experience. These aims have produced a legacy of deliberately deskilled technique in pursuit of ‘authentic’ and ‘democratized’ performances. But this supposedly democratizing rejection of skill developed from a philosophical and theoretical context that is itself somewhat rarefied and exclusive. It is, perhaps, an unintended consequence of this thinking that the virtuosity of a dancer such as Storyboard would come to be seen as merely street dance, or entertainment, with the insinuation that the stylishness and exuberance of his work precludes sophistication and technical innovation. Storyboard’s work arises from the complex histories and political tensions of African-American culture, and provides both a means to speak of these realities and to escape from them. His dances reproduce images of fantasy and illusion, which refer to those historical struggles in exaggerated terms. Amplification and virtuosity might be a form of release for the performer in the height of his reverie, but also a poetic form of storytelling. What’s new about his work is the way it bucks conventional dance narratives to offer a palpable sense of a lived experience.

Watching the work of my contemporaries has been significant to me, particularly Isabel Lewis’s refusal of the mind-body connection, Yve Laris Cohen’s sharp reflections on how museum and theatre architecture condition performance, Andros Zins Browne’s deconstruction of dance semiotics and Ligia Lewis’s dedication to theatricality as a tool for unmooring identity. It’s enriching to feel part of a generation of choreographers and artists who are thinking through new approaches to live work and the politics of the performing body.

 

is based in Berlin, Germany. In 2015, his work has been performed at ICA, London, UK; Les Subsistances, Lyon, France; Museum Sztuki, Warsaw, Poland; and MoCA, Los Angeles, USA.

Issue 174

First published in Issue 174

October 2015

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