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Flash Journal Flashback, 2-17: White Oak Diary
Past Forward to the Future

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Journal originally appeared on November 21, 2000. For the latest on Asimina Chremos, click here to visit her website.)

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000, 2006 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO -- Hello, Dance Insiders! I just completed a very intense week as part of the Chicago community cast of Past Forward, the current program being offered by Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project. I participated in six shows (I think!) with varying programs. What follows is a diary I attempted to keep on November 11. There was so much, it was such a rich experience; this is just a little random slice of it.

 

"So, should I put on my 'Satisfyin' Lover" clothes?" "We have to 'Huddle' in the lobby today." These are phrases I overhear as I warm up in a studio at the new Dance Center of Columbia College, upstairs from the intimate theater where I will soon be performing in the Saturday matinee.

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Just came back upstairs after the most sublime "Huddle" in the small dance studio off the lobby. There are several of Chicago's fiercest improvisers in the 8-member "Red Leather" Huddle/Scramble group (we got to choose nicknames for our groups). Kathleen Maltese, Selene Carter, Tiina Harris. Normally I am in the group nicknamed Rocks, but one of the Red Leatherettes decided being climbed on was not the thing so I volunteered to fill in. The group breathed together, felt solid and serene. Around us I heard the hubbub of the audience filtering in and the '60s music playing through the sound system. Kind of theme-park goofy, but it sure is fun to improvise to Jimi Hendrix's version of the National Anthem. The watchers in the room with us were drawn into our energy. Their talking subsided as they were sucked into the quiet earnest sensitivity and effort of our task of huddling together, arms around waists and shoulders, legs in deep supportive wide stance, backs facing out, and one or two people dislodging, climbing over, and rejoining the Huddle. Simone said the other day that in some languages there is no translation for "Huddle" so in those cases she calls it "Mountain." Huddle is nice because it is a verb and a noun both. Think of mountain as a verb....

Huddling with Red Leather is so different than with Rocks. In Rocks we have newer improvisers, and one more guy. The majority of the community cast is female. The usual John Bergeresque politics, I guess; women are more socialized to "appear." Anyway, in Rocks we experience more struggle, more work, more fear, more eagerness. I love doing Forti's pieces. Such lessons in group dynamics and interdependence. Well, I better go check about changing my clothes for what I have to do next. I can't keep track of what happens when. I have a joke about being a sheep and just waiting for the herd to move me to the next place. Baaa baaa.

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Okay! I'm out of the black and grey sweatpants Huddle outfit and into my street clothes for Steve Paxton's walking piece, "Satisfyin Lover." I'll wait for Nancy Duncan, who taught us all these works and handles the community cast, to round the 40-some of us up and get us in line to walk down the hall, through the door, down the steps, past the security guard and onto the stage. There's a whole walking piece prior to the walking piece. Hanging out in the community room listening to the chatter of many voices, and periodically getting in line, is reminding me of kindergarten. This association is helped by the fact that that there're kids and babies around.

Nancy's got a rough job, keeping track of all of us. Also, as she admitted to us, there is a great paradox to White Oak. All these "pedestrian" pieces that were once so rebellious, spontaneous, and process-oriented have become products for the semi-formal stagings of Past Forward. There are rather clear parameters for how to walk, stand, sit, climb on the Huddle, Scramble, etcetera. A certain amount of self-conscious decorum seems to be called for that doesn't seem authentic to the original spirit of the work. But it's fun anyway.

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I am #5 in line for "Satisfyin' Lover." Why is it called that? Simone says Steve is always creative and unpredictable. She told a story that once she had bought a cabin and was trying to scrape off these shellacked paper bags that covered the floor. She was getting really frustrated. Steve Paxton came in and said something like "Simone, this problem is as good as the next." We all laughed.

My score is:

Enter when #1 pauses
Walk to 1/5 across stage
Stand 20 seconds
Continue walk to exit.

My experience of doing this simple work so far, just walking on stage and standing and then walking, is that of being exposed. There's nothing to do but be yourself. A couple of previous performances, I've waited for my cue, entered, and then in the middle of counting start to think: did I walk too fast? Nancy asked us to be calm, relaxed.... am I calm? Oops, I'm thinking, not counting.... Breathe, sense the space, I remind myself. I've been working in my own work on being aware of space. Here's a chance to do it. I stand in the black space of the stage and try not to look directly into the light that's glaring in front of me. People pass by me; I feel as if I am receding. Then I'm done counting and I go. It's not the same walk I do upstairs to go down the hall, away from so many eyeballs.

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The Red Leather group just came upstairs, breathing a little hard and a little sweaty, from doing the Scramble on stage with the company. There have been issues about White Oak dancers being hit or tromped on by community members and the whole thing seems a little tense, the company doesn't want to do a warm-up Scramble with the community and they also don't want to Scramble with both groups. So Red Leather gets to do it every time. The politics are such that there's a slight vibe about the Community Slobs vs. the Precious Dancers. The Community people are afraid of damaging the Dancers. It's kinda weird. But everyone who just came upstairs from doing it looks exhilarated. Anyway, someone is saying "When they called 9 1/2 (the cue to end the Scramble), there was such a rush of desire, everyone wanted to burst in and shift the flow." "It flared before it quelched."

More people around me are talking about their experience of Landscaping in the lobby. "Landscapes" is another of Forti's scores. Albert, who teaches African Dance to kids and seniors (Ghanean, I think), is saying that it reminds him of the game of statues.

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It's our break between the matinee and the evening show. I take the somewhat longish walk through the cold wind and light snow to a cafe where I can be alone and write. I seem to have stumbled on Goth social hour. What's funny is with my blue hair and the clothes I chose this morning, I sort of fit in. No one here knows I am a refugee from the museum of postmodern dance. How many people here know who Mikhail Baryshnikov is? I wonder. Probably a lot, even Goth kids. He's pretty famous. People have asked me what is it like to see him; Is it intense for me because I was a little ballerina wannabe when Misha was in his balletic prime? and so on. Am I starstruck? He's just a person, I find myself replying. He participates in the work just like the rest of us. He is friendly and reserved. It's the nature of the work itself to remove the glamour from the situation. Yvonne Rainer's "No Manifesto" (No to spectacle, virtuosity, seduction of the audience by the performer...) resonates.

Waiting downstairs in my Nana's black dress to go onstage for Deborah Hay's "Exit," I took occasion to read a copy of a review that is posted on the wall, by Clive Barnes, in the New York Times and dated January 11, 1966. It's a scathing pan of new works by David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, et. al. Calling them immature and terrible, cringing at painter Robert Rauschenberg's un-dancerly appearance; I don't recall much of the descriptive and derogatory language, but there was one phrase that sticks in my mind: "blissfully boring." Maybe old Clive did "get it" despite his irritation and disappointment. By taking away costumes, makeup, virtuosity and spectacle and so on, the artists of the Judson movement left us with the boring bliss of existence. Standing on stage, walking around. Stripped of profound mythic hopes, heroic future-oriented striving, poetic memory- driven expressiveness, or godlike willful creativity and forceful manifestation. Human.

I love performing "Exit." I learn something new every time about time and memory and experience. It's a simple score about walking towards the future and stopping to look back at your past, progressing along a diagonal from downstage right to upstage left, all to the highly emotional Barber String Quartet. My mother was one of the first people to hear that piece at a concert at Antioch College. That must've been in the early '60s or late '50s. I need to ask her about what it was like to hear that for the first time. I love the silent moment in the music. It reinforces that idea that looking into your future is like falling into a void. Like my favorite cinematic image at the end of Kurusawa's "Ran," when the blind man is standing on the edge of the cliff.

There is a live video feed of the stage to a TV set in the community room. However, one of the juiciest parts of this whole White Oak deal for me is sneaking onto the catwalk to watch the show in the theater. I'm becoming fascinated by the group dance Whizz and developing a deep curiosity about Deborah Hay through what I've experienced with White Oak. Dancers Manu and Raquel told me about their initial hesitation in working with Hay: She was so wacky, giving them directions like "invite being seen" and "collapse the live space" to develop the movements that would take them from one spatial pattern to another. There's a gentleness, a flickering, twitching transparency to "Whizz." I especially enjoyed watching Manu perform in this today. By talking to her I got the impression that she's skeptical, still, about Hay's work and process. But Manu's sparkling awareness was very present and compelling; she at times wore a wry expression I read as acknowledgment of the lightness, the subtle humor of the situation; or maybe it was pure irreverence!

Okay, I found out I've crashed a gathering of Goth website organizers. It's such an e-world, Dance Insiders!

My mind flashes to the flashy metallic pants the dancers wear in a trio from Trisha Brown's "Foray Foret." What a gorgeous piece! It's delicious, I was telling the dancers. Like candy, Raquel said. But it's a healthy dance! said Simone in her enthusiastic way. I tried to get Raquel to show me a move from it, a deceptively difficult transition from a downward-dog type of thing with one leg in the air to a headstand. I'm still figuring it out. Raquel, Roz and Michael bring a weighted, heavy fluid quality to Brown's choreography that is really different from the slippery weightlessness I recall from seeing this piece done by Brown's company. It's funny how the word transparency keeps coming up for me in thinking about these choreographers.

I was lucky to hear Misha, Simone, and David Gordon converse about Trisha Brown the other night, sharing anecdotes about what a wild and fearless improviser she used to be back in the day. Gordon told a story about how he once bought three frilly dresses at a thrift store and brought them to rehearsal. Trisha, he said, put a long prom gown on over her t-shirt and sweatpants and ran across the floor and right up the wall, where she flourished the hem of her gown and said "Look, I'm a girl!" before coming down. This came out after Misha was saying that Brown is so specific in her choreography, so exacting now. Time passes, things change, sometimes a lot!

I'd better get back to the theater and start getting ready to "Landscape" and "Huddle in the Lobby" for the evening show. My landscape partner, Fish, says he feels like a mime. I struggle with inviting being seen.

 

(Editor's Note: To read our reviews of White Oak's Past Forward program, please see Flash Review 1, 8-4: Misha's Homily: Bored at the Church, and Flash Review, 8-7: Heroic Banality.)

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