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Letter from New York 1, 4-16: Reality Checks
Hovering with Barnett; lined in by Garfield

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- First, I appreciated Julian Barnett's choice to seat the audience on all four sides of St. Mark's Church for his Danspace Project commission "Sound Memory," seen March 20. We were right at the edges of the performance space. As soon became clear, those of us in the first rows were actually in active territory. As the lights dimmed, I noticed a spot focused on Justin Ternullo, seated just a couple of folding chairs to my right, and another focused on Hanna Kivioja, sitting amongst the audience flanking the side of the stage at my right. This simple shift, beautifully lit by long-time Barnett collaborator Amanda Ringger, hinted immediately at the play and poetry that was to unfold throughout the rest of this highly compelling departure for an artist whose work I've followed for years (and -- full disclosure -- collaborated with).

Kivioja and Ternullo slowly rose from their chairs, remaining anchored to small boom-boxes by their headphone chords. The music filtering out from their headphones reminded me of the way a radio might have sounded coming through apartment walls late at night. As they collapsed together, after a brief duet, the room filled with a chorus of audience coughs that apparently were not meant to accompany the sound of many cassette tapes sliding across the wooden floor. But, just as the presence of the well-lit audience -- and our ability to observe one another across the stage -- kept me conscious of my place in this work's evolution, so, albeit comedically, did the insistent coughing of my neighbors in the dark. The dancers pursued what seemed at times to be structured improvisational scores (or a dance so logistically considered and minutely developed to such detail so as to imply spontaneity) that resulted in dances to well matched but seemingly random songs played from cassettes the dancers had picked off of the floor. Barnett was especially explosive, taut and teetering in a constant rush of disaster-avoidance that swept throughout the space in an exhilarating display of prowess and craft.

Barnett eloquently articulates something true -- with volatility and grace when he is dancing. However, whether he was pumping a fist to Creedence Clearwater Revival or singing U2, he hovered right at the edge between sincerity and irony, offering an opportunity to ruminate about nostalgia: how do the flames of adolescent desire appear looking back after years of compromise and postmodern aesthetics? This questioning about sincerity dogged me throughout most of the moments when bodies weren't in full-force, space-chomping or retching, twisting dances. At times, each dancer seemed to be performing the present, or their "presentness." I think my response may actually reflect a wider current aesthetic issue, evoked recently in Movement Research's Performance Journal, which published a discussion between Ishmael Houston-Jones and a dancer who participated in a Philadelphia performance of Jerome Bel's "The Show Must Go On." She talks about being asked to embrace her natural state and about how, once that natural state is honed obsessively it can also become highly performative. I agree that naturalness in performance may be yet another (fashionable once again) technical skill for dancers to acquire. But I have to admit I tend to prefer the more naturally "there" there than some of the overt seriousness that Barnett and company exuded at times. It dangled right at the edge of posture, and didn't seem totally sincere.

Perhaps this tension was only apparent to me because of the structures that Barnett had established. I might not have noticed it if we had been in a more standard seating situation. As it was, I wanted to remove the veneer of performance and feel myself more included in this exploration or allowed to sit less formally than in my folding chair at the 'close enough to be hit by a swinging leg or flying cassette' location. With the abundance of task-based efforts in the early stages of the work and the proximal seating of the audience, it felt like we were meant to be included in the overall envisioning of the work. In his press release Barnett asks "in a world that can be recorded, rewound, fast-forwarded and replayed, how do we experience the present?" So, if there were moments inside the work for the dancers to arrive in the present moment -- and not simply perform being present -- then shouldn't they have acknowledged our presence in their present?

I realize I'm being a nitpicking, hippy freak about this but. If you're going to invoke experiencing the present, I'm going to go Ram Das on your ass. I laud Barnett for tackling something frustratingly impossible to achieve within the constraints of formal concert, but I experienced the work at its best when heady conceptual concerns about time and consciousness were dismantled by bodies achieving their nirvana through movement. Case in point: A final trio, danced among three suspended and swinging boom-boxes, was formal and dramatic, in a lush, transporting and deeply honest way.

Keely Garfield is in a state of such complete presence that she might be transporting herself out of this earthly realm on her own vision quest. I joke that I feel as though I've been watching Garfield lose her mind over the course of her last few works, but what a glorious disaster it has been to see an artist pull something out of the cosmos that is so confoundingly terrifying and beautifully true. Her latest collection of dances, a trilogy seen at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church March 27, continues her journey out of chaos and despair ("Disturbulance" and "Line & Sink Her") to brilliance and a glimmer of hope.

This time Garfield's fashioning her, and our, salvation in a decidedly epic, graphic novel kind of way. The evening played like a living comic book, not the comedic or childhood kind, but the Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore type. These are the tormented, sexy, violent, and fanciful hallucinations in the legendary lives of a few everyday humans. I'll admit that Garfield, with whom I serve on Dance Theater Workshop's artist committee, frightens me. I've left her last two (above-mentioned) works in despair. Weeping. Not teary, not crying -- weeping. She is both cautionary tale and compelling icon. She promised I would smile this time. And I did, but my cringing, hand-wringing inability to fully separate her autobiographical realities (or what I think are her autobiographical realities) and her creative output filled me again with fascination and concern for her, her family and all she loves. Garfield makes her personal mythology live so viscerally and exhaustingly that by evening's end I am spent and scared for us all.

In the Beginning, like Barnett she wants to bring us closer, inviting the audience to sit at the edges of an Astroturf runway while she lays on it in an Astroturf hoodie for "First Attempt." She begins by yelling for the God mic, a theatrical phrase for the intercom system that usually allows, say, a lighting designer or stage manager in a tech booth to communicate with dancers on stage. Here there is play on the notion of God's microphone and then there is a play of words when Garfield says "Thanks for the God mic. Thanks for the God, Mike." And we're off to the apocalypse or Genesis -- either way we're at some end of a spiritual spectrum and Garfield is our go-go guru, in insanely high heels, shiny pants, and a live-feed video camera wielded by Brandin Steffensen like a paparazzi acolyte.

"Eva Potranspiration/Cloud 9" follows after a scenery change. Here she reduces her warrior's path from global recovery to the nightly battles of friends, lovers, and family. We witness the gentle fabric of evolving relationships among a mother, her daughter and her lover as they weave a tapestry of mystical interplays amidst the mundane objects, petty grievances and physical desires of our material world. After Garfield, as the mother, deposits the sleeping daughter, Vivian Ra, onto a sheepskin rug, Steffensen enters in fantastical glory through the backlit and smoky sanctuary doors. Sporting a white plastic trash-can helmet, he arrives like a galactic hero, biceps aflame and legs planted in a wide stance. Steffensen is set against Garfield's conflicted mother as both delightful playmate and protector for Ra, wielding a long fluorescent light saber and dodging Garfield's slicing arms. In the end, he lifts Ra above his head in a crucifixion pose. Salvation may come, but at what price?

After intermission, dubbed "Liminal Space," we arrive at "Limerence," a state of obsessive, romantic love -- think major crush. The word 'limerence' reminds me of luminance, which seems appropriate as the dance incorporates a live lighting performance by Jonathan Belcher, who worked a variety of integrated, flexible and active lighting arrangements throughout the program, including stacked wooden crates housing lighting instruments and reflective panels on the floor. Here, he and Steffensen both rock large, metal soft-boxes, like those I imagine were once used on film shoots, sweeping light across Garfield and Omagbitse Omagbemi. Belcher's black tee-shirt brandishes the image of someone who has blown his or her head away into a splatter of red butterflies, a fitting accompaniment to the graphic novel allusions that I draw all evening. If they ever make a contemporary dance version of Gaiman's Sandman series, Garfield is prime to play Dream's little sister, 'Delirium, once known as Delight.'

"Limerence" includes a re-envisioning of "Decked," the crawling quartet from "Line & Sink Her" that left me soaked in tears the last time Garfield was at Danspace Project. This time it is a duet for Garfield and Omagbemi, but it is still to the Citizen Cope song "Sideways" that repeats the line "These feelings won't go away." That she is still crawling across the floor and knocking herself sideways into Omagbemi churns my stomach. Time hasn't taken them away and love may still be a losing game. But, after Steffensen and Garfield spar a bit more -- with gloves on or up against a wall -- I see the glimmer, as they mount a stationary bicycle. With her standing on the seat and reaching into the sky and him pedaling with great urgency, they could both be an incarnation of the goddess Nike, she winged victory and he divine charioteer. Either way they seem bound for the heavens.

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